By SUZANNE HAUGH, Staff Writer | Published June 22, 2006
The lone, chilling sound of the shofar—an instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn with power enough, according to the Bible, to have destroyed the walls of Jericho—signaled the entrance of Jesus, humbly present in the Eucharist, into the main gathering area of the Georgia International Convention Center June 17 for the 11th annual Eucharistic Congress.
On bended knee, more than 20,000 people sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” as Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory carried the Blessed Sacrament through the aisles to the altar, officially beginning the daylong event to venerate Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist, and ultimately to allow those gathered for the closing Mass to receive Him into their own bodies as spiritual food for their journey as missionaries for Christ.
Entitled “Until He Comes,” this year’s Eucharistic Congress, commemorating the feast of Corpus Christi (literally “the Body of Christ”), took on the air of a family reunion, many having returned after attending previous congresses and others eager to experience the archdiocesan event for the first time. Throughout the day, hugs and smiles abounded among people representing the diverse church, from women dressed in traditional Vietnamese attire to those from parts of Africa, from the white-robed novices of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers to pigtailed little girls and Hispanic teens sporting T-shirts with Christian messages. Distinct yet blended, their presence signaled the collective hope of maturing in faith through a slate of speakers, known nationally and internationally, who discussed different aspects of the Eucharist. All were invited to attend Friday evening a healing Mass followed by a healing service with Alan Ames, a noted healing minister from Australia, as well as “Revive!” for young adults.
With music led by Mary Welch Rogers and an ensemble of musicians, Saturday morning’s opening procession included a presentation of banners carried by representatives from over 80 archdiocesan parishes, schools and ministries, along with a woman in gold holding a banner and balloons to commemorate the 50th jubilee of North Georgia being named the Diocese of Atlanta in 1956.
Following the procession, Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue, who initiated eucharistic adoration in North Georgia parishes and the archdiocesan-wide Eucharistic Congresses, delivered the morning’s homily.
Archbishop Donoghue described the difference between those who “surrender … to the mystery of what the Kingdom of God is,” and others who “sit outside the banquet hall” and who need the community’s prayers.
It may be easier to think of Christ as simply “a spiritual presence” that believers summon through their imagination, he continued, but Catholics are not limited to that, however, and can experience Christ physically through the Eucharist.
“… this is the mystery of the kingdom that God grants us,” he explained, “finding in our weakness, in our need, the place to shed His grace, and to grow our salvation—not in words, not in parables, but in our weakness, the weakness of our desire to know the Other, to know the Hidden One, who will part the veil of our unseeing, and move in, and stay, and make us complete.”
God understands that if human beings are to be moved to conversion and repentance it must be through “one who is like us,” he told the audience.
“ … from the very beginning, Jesus Christ understood our needs and designed the future of the Church around this basic human need—the need to have and to know, or as He commanded, to ‘take and eat’ His body.”
Addressing doubts that may surface in a believer’s attempt to embrace the Eucharist, Archbishop Donoghue ended with words of encouragement.
“Let us approach Jesus Christ confidently, putting our sins behind us, resolved to lead holy lives—and happy to believe—to believe—what the Gospel tells of those who sat in the field, who were fed by the hand of the Lord, and given the mystery. For when the meal was placed before them, indeed, ‘they all ate and were satisfied.’”
The morning session ended with adoration and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, as well as a warm welcome by Archbishop Gregory, who acknowledged Archbishop Donoghue’s “special legacy.” Father Jose Duvan Gonzalez, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry, addressed the Spanish-speaking members of the crowd, estimated at over 8,000, and Father Ricardo Bailey, parochial vicar at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, delivered a spirited appeal, challenging participants to help financially support the Eucharistic Congress.
“We got to pay some bills, church,” he boomed to the crowd’s enjoyment.
Father Bailey also briefly recalled the contributions over the years of local “heroes”—clergy, religious orders and the laity—in recognition of the 50th jubilee of the diocese.
“We stand on their shoulders and are thankful to them. … They stepped out in faith.”
The crowd dispersed to attend the various tracks available. Parents dropped off younger children for a medieval learning adventure with APeX, who entertained the children with their juggling, hilarious antics, engaging stories, and personal testimonies of faith. The highlight of their afternoon was a visit by Archbishop Gregory carrying the Blessed Sacrament.
One could slip away from the constant buzz of the crowd into the tranquil and engaging track for the hearing-impaired presented by Msgr. Glenn Nelson, of the Diocese of Rockford, Ill. He engaged his audience with a highly animated presentation on the beauty and power of the Mass. Smiles erupted on the faces of those attending as Msgr. Nelson walked everyone through the meaning and significance of the Old Testament’s Ark of the Covenant and then the “New Ark of the Covenant,” Mary, as he signed: “This is so cool.” Those present nodded in agreement.
Nahn Tran, 20, sat outside the room for the Vietnamese track knotting rosary beads. This was his third Eucharistic Congress.
“It’s exciting, especially the teen track, the Christian rock. It’s fun.”
His appreciation for the Eucharist has grown over the years. “There’s a feeling I can’t explain that’s deep inside. It’s Jesus, like having someone inside listening to me and I can share my daily life stuff with Him.”
Inside the Vietnamese track Tom Vu listened to Msgr. Joseph Dinh Duc Dao, of the Pontifical Urban University in Rome, and then explained the “important fundamental foundation” faith plays in Vietnamese families as well as the importance of the Eucharist.
“(Jesus) said that when two or more are gathered in His name He will be there among us.”
Leonardo Jaramillo, director of Hispanic youth and young adult ministry, said it was powerfully uplifting and moving for Hispanics, who deeply value symbols, ritual and the priesthood in their faith, to see so many priests and seminarians and other people of God gathering to celebrate the Eucharist. They were especially grateful many priests were available to hear confessions in Spanish.
Mike Eikenberg, a parishioner at St. Brigid’s Church in Alpharetta, directed those wishing to receive the sacrament of reconciliation from over 20 priests seated nearby. He described attendance as “very robust.”
“When you experience the community at an event like this, there’s a strong sense of family around you. That’s an important part of your faith journey.”
Participants found just about everything Catholic in the hall of 105 exhibitors from across the country, such as the Rosary Army ministry with co-founder Greg Willits and his wife, Jennifer, podcasting conversations with speakers at the congress. The archdiocesan vocations office booth was another popular destination. Seminarians handed out Beanie Baby “prayer bears,” asking that recipients pray for the seminarian whose name was attached to each of them.
Vendors, individual tracks and food stands shut down as preparations began for the vigil Mass at 5:30 p.m.
With the Knights of Columbus lining their route, first communicants, hands folded and wearing their white finery and Sunday best, processed in while those carrying banners and the Ladies and Knights of Peter Claver followed. Seminarians, deacons, priests and bishops entered into the main gathering area as individuals waved and clapped. Selections sung by the Archdiocesan Festival Choir ranged from “Ride On, King Jesus” to one of the Communion hymns, “Pescador de Hombres.”
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory noted the miraculous appearance to Peter of Prague of blood that fell from the eucharistic host onto the corporal cloth that he used while celebrating Mass in 1264. The corporal has since been preserved in the Cathedral of Orvieto, Italy. The archbishop shared that as tradition has it, Peter of Prague harbored doubts about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, as did others during his time. Peter’s story contributed to the inception of the feast of Corpus Christi, he explained, and addresses the church’s challenge to confirm and promote its belief in and thanks for Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.
“It does seem so astonishing that Christ would chose to confine Himself under the appearance of bread and wine. Why should such a wondrous Gift be given to men and women like us who are often so fickle in our Faith?” the archbishop asked.
While he praised the “pastoral wisdom” of Archbishop Donoghue for inaugurating the annual Eucharistic Congresses as opportunities to further delve into mystery of the Eucharist, he confirmed the continuing challenge of trying to convince the world of this “Gift,” adding that society remains unconvinced of many truths.
“Our world is not convinced that a child within the womb is a real human being. We are not convinced that the poor have a dignity that is never compromised or lost even though they might be undocumented immigrants or violent prisoners or gravely sick or simply old.”
Yet, he added, our mission is to “help the world come to Faith and to an acceptance not only of Christ’s Presence but the dignity of all human life and peoples.”
To do this, Archbishop Gregory said, Catholics must perform great acts of service and outreach to those in need so others will wonder and ask about their reason for concern, their source of strength.
“Then our response shall be ‘Christ Himself bids us to do so.’”
The witness to Christ’s presence in the church and His physical presence in the Eucharist “will serve as an incontrovertible sign that He is truly present, very much alive, and fully working in this local church in the deeds of those who dine upon Him and spend time with Him in prayer.”
This special task, the archbishop concluded, is our responsibility “until He comes.”
The day’s pilgrimage came to its climax in the consecration of bread and wine and then its distribution to the sea of humanity present that “took and ate.”
Following a time of meditation during which time the choir sang “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (“Where there is charity and love, there is God.”), Archbishop Gregory thanked the speakers, financial backers and the many archdiocesan employees and volunteers for making the event “a wonderful success.” All then departed while singing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.”
Helene Gaede, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, has attended many of the past congresses.
“I really enjoy getting together and hearing the speakers talk about their faith,” she said. “You see people on fire for their faith. Once you start learning you can’t stop because it’s so interesting.”
This was the first Eucharistic Congress for her husband, Kinch, who attributes a new zeal for the faith to the Christ Renews His Parish program. “I enjoyed (the congress) and would go back again,” he said. While the contribution by the laity is important, the presence of so many priests, bishops and Religious as presenters impressed him. “It’s touching to see and part of their role,” he explained.
Earlier in the morning, their 12-year-old son Connor explained the significance of the Eucharist. “Jesus said that if we eat His body and drink His blood we will go to heaven.” He attended part of the teen track and particularly enjoyed Raymond Arroyo’s presentation on Mother Angelica in the general track, during which time he crafted his own knotted rosary.
Wearing a beautiful veil and dress with white roses across the front, Natalie Pratt, a first communicant, had processed in with her parents, Mary Jo and Tom Pratt, and her eight siblings. She recalled her first Communion Mass this past spring and “receiving Jesus” for the first time. “He created us,” she added.
Her father, Tom, a member of the original steering committee for the Eucharistic Congress, commented on how all present “become like family. … It’s rare and remarkable. Our archdiocese is very blessed.”
Reflecting and celebrating the diversity of the church has been important to those on the planning committee, he recalled. Other bishops attend the congress to see and to possibly start something similar in their dioceses. “I hope they can because it’s a great model and unlike anything else. It takes the excitement of the laity—a critical mass—and enough leaders to make it happen.”
Brian Lynch, a parishioner at St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn, is a fan of Archbishop Donoghue. “I would travel many miles to hear Archbishop Donoghue speak.”
Yolanda Tapia, a parishioner at the Cathedral of Christ the King who helped organize the event, confessed that it wasn’t until after a year of serving as a coordinator for the Cathedral’s perpetual adoration chapel and having time alone with the Blessed Sacrament that she began to truly internalize the meaning of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
“I took an hour on Sunday during a Mass time. The chapel was always empty so I had a lot of one-on-one time,” she said. “He revealed the things I needed to see in my life. Then I caught on.”
For Mary Elkins, who oversaw the hospitality portion of this and previous congresses, the most exciting moment took place outside the conference center, at the Atlanta airport. Keynote speaker, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, flew in from Dublin at 3 p.m. and arrived with only minutes to spare to address the audience at 4 p.m. But, Elkins is quick to add, when God uses you as an instrument to do His will, it’s a privilege.
“Who would have thought you could go from a conference of 300 people at the Cathedral to 30,000 Catholics last year and over 20,000 this year—all professing their belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. What a blessing.”
Few can appreciate the explosion in attendance at the Eucharistic Congresses more than Keri Allen, director of adult enrichment and evangelization at the Cathedral.
“The whole thing is Holy Spirit-driven,” she confided.
Archbishop Donoghue chose Allen to put into place the first perpetual adoration chapel in the archdiocese and to lead the Eucharistic Renewal started in the 1990s, the Eucharistic Congresses being a part of that effort.
“We basically had the room rebuilt,” she recalled when the Cathedral’s small baptistery was turned into a chapel only large enough to hold 10 or so.
“People are hungry for the Lord, and they’ll go where they’re being fed, but it has to be the right way and the right food.”