Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Archdiocese Hopes To Continue Annual Eucharistic Congress Despite Funding Gap

By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published June 5, 2008

The upcoming 2008 Eucharistic Congress marks the return of a vibrant spiritual tradition that has pulled together Catholics in North Georgia and beyond annually for over 10 years. But an emerging understanding of the event’s cost has prompted Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to ask various segments within the Atlanta Archdiocese to discuss possible ways to remedy what has become an annual shortfall of funds needed to put on the event.

At a recent meeting for employees of the Chancery Offices of the Archdiocese, the archbishop said that the Congress has cost approximately $650,000 a year and that revenue to support it left a gap of $270,000 last year. However, he expressed strong support for the Congress and praised its value to the archdiocese and to the wider Catholic Church.

Msgr. Joseph Corbett, vicar general, said the largest increase in the cost of the event, which began in 1996, came in 2001 when it moved from being held at area parishes to a major arena to accommodate the growing attendance, now averaging 30,000 people annually. The archdiocese has reserved the Georgia International Convention Center for the Congress through 2009 and a decision for 2010 is pending.

“The event is free to participants—but as with any conference, or big event, the Congress requires a significant investment of money every year,” Msgr. Corbett said. He added that annual costs have gone up minimally since 2001.

“The cost associated with making this wonderful opportunity available to parishioners is rightly a matter that is, and should be, constantly reviewed,” he said. “This year we are reducing the cost by about one-fifth.”

Calling the Congress “the work of the Lord,” the vicar general said that many people, locally and elsewhere, regard it “as the best and biggest Eucharistic Congress in the country.” He acknowledged the inspiring nature of the event.

“Last year 30,000 Catholics from north and central Georgia sacrificed a day to renew their spiritual life by spending a day listening to inspirational Catholic presentations, and most of all, to form one body of Catholic people to celebrate the Holy Eucharist together, as one. All those people—Catholic or not, active or fallen away—in one room at the same time, adoring Christ, are there because of something very special,” he said.

Overall Cost Determined

Archbishop Gregory addressed the shortfall of funds for the Congress at an employee meeting held March 27. He first explained the steps that brought to light the financial health of the Congress.

When the archbishop was installed in 2005, the Congress was “funded in various ways” and different archdiocesan departments “had in their budgets different accommodations for the Eucharistic Congress,” the archbishop said. He asked Msgr. Corbett to pull these costs into one budget item so the overall cost of putting on the Congress each year could be determined. Results showed that the average cost comes in at approximately $650,000 each year.

Revenue to pay for the Congress has come from a variety of sources, the archbishop said, including “contributions from very faithful and generous Catholics” who help support it, funding from some parishes who have helped with the cost, revenue generated by a collection held during the Congress itself (which amounted to $65,000 at the 2007 Eucharistic Congress), and sales of Congress-related items. He said the archdiocese has provided the funds to cover the difference.

The archbishop strongly reiterated his support for the Congress, calling it “a unique moment of faith for this archdiocese” as it brings together the diverse local church in one place in a part of the country where Catholics are not the majority.

“We do have to look at ways to bring expenses down and revenues up,” the archbishop said, but he added that he thinks the Congress is irreplaceable in the Atlanta Archdiocese.

“I think it would be a great loss to the archdiocese” not to have the Eucharistic Congress, he said.

The archbishop said he has consulted with archdiocesan councils to assess the benefits of the annual gathering as well as to hear and address existing concerns. Groups consulted in the discussion have included the Council of Priests, the Archdiocesan Finance Council and the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council.

Lay Representatives Offer Input

Alan Talley, of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Carrollton, serves on the 23-member Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, which acts as a sounding board for Archbishop Gregory, and is one of two members on its executive committee. All members were asked to attend the 2007 Congress in order to discuss it at a future meeting.

Talley, his wife, Emily, and their two young children have attended two Congresses. It provides an opportunity for them “to feel connected to the archdiocese” since they live a distance from Atlanta, Talley said. His parish has sent two buses in past years and others travel by car.

“Parishioners go once and often go again,” he said.

He said his children enjoy the kids program while he and his wife “get to do the adult thing,” which includes listening to speakers and shopping in the vendor area. “It’s great.”

One of Talley’s favorite parts is “the power of the liturgy.”

“It’s wonderful to come together and to be in an atmosphere where everybody seems to be excited to be there. … During the liturgy the responses are full and there’s a certain power to it,” he said.

During the discussion about the Congress, pastoral council members spoke on many aspects, from how the Congress is promoted to transportation and the spiritual and social benefits of the event.

“It was wide open,” Talley recalled, adding that the diversity of the speakers came up for discussion, and while some put forth trying to pull gifted speakers from within the archdiocese the argument was made that “the big names are the draw.”

“There’s a flip side to each argument—plus, minus, plus, minus … and then we would come back to zero again,” he said with a chuckle.

Speaking for himself, Talley, a former director of religious education, said “there’s something very good happening” at the Congress.

While some brainstorming is needed on how to cover costs, Talley said, “I hope we can think of a way to sustain it.”

Council Of Priests Consulted

Father John Adamski, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta, said when the Priests’ Council reviewed the impact of the Eucharistic Congress on the archdiocese, its financial sustainability was a concern, among other issues.

“The issue was raised to look for ways to make sure the Congress was not … a financial drain on parishes because of all the other financial responsibilities parishes have, particularly those with schools,” Father Adamski said.

Asking parishes to make up the deficit was among other “hot button topics” regarding the Congress, he said. The hope was that the public be made aware of the financial burden of the event.

“It needs to be impressed upon the average Catholic who has no idea it wasn’t paying for itself,” he said.

Msgr. Corbett said that pastors have been asked to “consider offering a gift from (their) parish” to help make up the deficit of funds but are not “specifically assessed” for the Congress.

When asked about other ways to evangelize on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, Father Adamski responded, “through Sunday liturgy.”

“I do understand the importance of bringing the basic truth of our faith to people, to remind people of this basic understanding,” he said.

Internalizing the significance of the Eucharist is important, as is the hope that those receiving it become more Christ-like in their everyday lives.

“That’s the big challenge,” Father Adamski said. “It happens for some folks more easily than others. They take and experience (the Eucharist) and then live that reality during the week. For some the Eucharistic Congress boosts that. For others it doesn’t fit in the picture.”

Conventual Franciscan Father Gregory Hartmayer, pastor of St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro and former chairman of the Priests’ Council, said expense is one of the main concerns among priests.

“We’re assessed to help the archdiocese help minister. There’s only so much out there,” he said.

Also discussed was whether the Congress should remain an annual event or perhaps be offered every other year, for example.

“We have had talks about the frequency of the Congress because it is so much work. You can fill a conference room with the staff, personnel and volunteers it takes to bring about the Congress,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to promote and to work the thing for it to run as smoothly as it has in the past.”

He recognized that curtailing the frequency, however, might affect the ability to attract effective speakers known nationally and internationally.

“The archbishop has made it clear to the Priests’ Council that the decision on the frequency and the size of the Congress will be made by more than the Priests’ Council and will include the pastoral council of laity. The archbishop generally wants more consensus on how we can attend to the needs of the Eucharistic Congress, the size and expense of it.”

Archbishop Gregory Voices Support

Speaking to Chancery employees, Archbishop Gregory said the annual frequency of the event creates an energy and vitality that he believes is critical.

“One suggestion has been let’s not do it every year,” he said.

“The difficulty with that,” he continued, “is that you lose part of the anticipation, the build-up” that is now a very real part of having the Congress.

The volunteers, the various committees and support groups, the dynamic of planning, scheduling, and looking ahead to the next Congress have a synergy that makes it possible to do the event smoothly and well each year, he said. He thinks changing the frequency would disrupt that.

“It’d be like New Orleans putting on Mardi Gras every two or three years,” he said.

Selling tickets has also been suggested, Archbishop Gregory said, but he believes “that would kill it for sure.”

“People see it as a spiritual encounter,” the archbishop said, not as an event with a fee.

Beyond how to fund and how often to hold the event, the day of the Congress “is hard on some priests,” noted Father Hartmayer, who tries to clear his schedule.

“Many (priests) have four or five o’clock Masses or weddings they’ve agreed to have. It takes priests away from that. They can’t stay but for only awhile. And when they’re here they have to be available for the sacrament of reconciliation,” he said. “This year we’re going to ask the faithful to make use of the sacrament of reconciliation at their own parishes so people are not missing the talks because they’re standing in line waiting for confession. If more did that it wouldn’t be a long wait.”

And priests may have an opportunity to hear some of the speakers at the Congress as “most (priests) do not get to hear the talks.”

‘A Catechetical Purpose’

Father Hartmayer recognized the significant impact the event has had on the area.

“People have responded; it’s something they support. They come with their families. Attendance is not waning; there’s not been a decline,” he said.

He called the Congress “a great witness” to those in North Georgia and elsewhere and “an opportunity to renew ourselves on the catechism of the Holy Eucharist, an opportunity to hear people reflect upon their devotion to the Eucharist, spiritually, sacramentally.”

“The Congress is unlike (any) other gathering we have,” he said. “It does draw attention when you have 25,000 people drawn together for a particular event. It’s a show of faith and shows a real hunger that people want to know more.”

With fewer children in Catholic schools and for adults who may have not had much religious instruction since their school days, the Congress serves “a catechetical purpose,” Father Hartmayer said.

At the parish level adults and school-aged children receive instruction to a certain extent but “the teaching (on the real presence) can be misunderstood or not fully understood.”

“We need to be able to expose them to the proper understanding of what the Eucharist is, that it is the risen Lord, and why we need to be respectful and that it is the real presence of Jesus and not just a symbol.”

He called attention to reaching middle-schoolers, in particular. They need to appreciate that “through Communion they are part of the body of Christ.”

The event also “heightens appreciation for the gift.”

“And because of what we eat, we are obliged to live out the Eucharist we just received,” he said, adding later, “By the graces and power received in the Eucharist we have the ability to change. But we need to work at it. Because of our personalities, our human condition, we need to work with God so that with him, we can (go into) our parish community and world community and allow the Eucharist’s efficacious change to come about. … First it happens within the individual and then beyond.”

Efforts To Contain Costs, Seek More Support

Mary Elkins, an event planner by trade, is one of the organizing committee members of the Congress this year and in previous years. She has witnessed the event’s growth.

“For me I don’t think any event or program, if we did a program throughout the archdiocese, would get 30,000 Catholics participating. I think the Holy Spirit has guided this,” Elkins said.

“I feel thankful and blessed to do this,” she added.

The Congress was the first major event to take place at the new Georgia International Convention Center, and now “we’re maxed out at the facility,” she said.

The vendor area will be smaller this year to increase space for the Vietnamese-language track because last year’s attendance at that track was standing room only.

“Archbishop (John F.) Donoghue walked around the facility even before it was open and blessed every room. And we’ve grown by leaps and bounds.”

She also understands that “with size comes expenses” and efforts are made to cut costs such as by keeping equipment and staging consistent for dual use areas. For instance, “Revive!” for young adults uses the same staging and room Friday night as the teen track the next day.

A “small, diverse” subcommittee of the organizing committee for the Congress looks for speakers every year, in particular for those who might be able to address more than one track. A list of names and their biographies goes to Archbishop Gregory for approval. Elkins then begins calling to check on each potential speaker’s availability. Speakers have regularly taken much less than their full stipend in order to speak in Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory said. The subcommittee is presently working on securing speakers for the Congress in 2009.

Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue is the spiritual father of the archdiocese’s Congress, having begun the Eucharistic Renewal in North Georgia in 1996. He summed up the two-fold purpose of the Congress—that of “glorifying God” and of providing a grand “prayer reality” for individuals and families.

He recognizes the benefits of such an event as well as the financial costs not only of the Congress but also of other ministries and services provided annually by the archdiocese.

“We cannot enhance one aspect of the good works of the Church by short-changing another. That is why, if the Congress is to continue, the support must be there,” he said in a statement. “The archbishop, and the pastors of the Church can do their utmost to make sure the support is there, but the faithful must also make the case to one another, and increase their own generosity as the demands—legitimate demands—continue to grow. The Congress is just one, albeit an important one, of these legitimate demands of a growing and vibrant Church.”

He expressed hope “that the Holy Spirit will inspire the faithful to make it happen.”

Msgr. Corbett reflected on “the need to surrender our intellect to faith” so that one can recognize and celebrate Jesus’ physical presence made possible through the Blessed Sacrament.

The Congress is “a very special reminder of the blessing of being Catholic” and prompts those attending to consider again or for the first time, “what does Holy Communion mean to me?” he said.

“The fact that the Congress is an annual gathering is considered by many, many people to be a central part of being Catholic in north and central Georgia. It can also be seen as an annual invitation and a challenge to all of us,” Msgr. Corbett said.