Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

College Park

Faith-Filled Congress-goers Embrace ‘The Living Bread’

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 3, 2008

The crowd knelt as the ringing bells signaled the approach of the golden monstrance carried by the archbishop. A parade of colorful banners from Catholic parishes and organizations across the Atlanta Archdiocese, youngsters in white dresses and suits worn at their first Communion, followed by sword-carrying members of the Knights of Peter Claver and of Columbus and scores of priests preceded Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory into the cavernous Georgia International Convention Center. Organizers estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 Catholics attended the 13th annual Eucharistic Congress June 20-21.

“I believe everyone who comes with an open heart leaves differently,” said Carlos Garcia, 46, a computer administrator at Christ the King School. Garcia, who lives in Lithia Springs, finished his first year of studies to become a Catholic deacon.

“It’s better than going to any sports arena. You feel the love and the presence of the Lord,” he said.

The theme of the event was “I Am the Living Bread.” And Archbishop Gregory reminded people in his morning homily that bread is a food staple across the world.

“This common substance that exists in many and varied forms throughout the human community was chosen to serve as a symbol of God’s bounty and his compassion for his people,” he said.

The convention center mirrored the diversity of the 750,000 people that pray in the 100 churches and missions in the 69-county Atlanta Archdiocese. The center’s hallways were jammed with people speaking English, Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and other languages, who had come to hear speakers and join in worship services.

Gregory Bahk, 39, from the Korean Martyrs Catholic Center, Doraville, attended his third congress. He was one of about 60 church members that came by bus to College Park.

“This is a great chance for me to refresh about my knowledge of the Eucharist and also my belief and faith,” said Bahk, who works in the computer industry.

Bahk said the gathering is an opportunity for the Korean community to see the wider church. Too often language barriers keep the Korean immigrants isolated from other Catholics around Atlanta, he said. This event lets adults participate as part of the whole church here, he said.

Asked why he had come to the Eucharistic Congress, Jamaya Morris, who is on a journey toward the Catholic Church, said, “I wanted to learn more about my faith and grow closer to the Lord.”

He liked speaker Steve Ray’s presentation in the general track because of the instruction the Catholic apologist gave that was based on Scripture.

“I’ve learned the symbolism from the Old Testament goes all the way up to (Jesus) dying on the cross. That was definitely a light that shined,” Morris said. “I didn’t realize that.”

Morris, 29, and his wife, Sherelle, have been drawn to the Catholic faith by watching EWTN, the Catholic television network based in Alabama established by Mother Angelica.

After hearing about the faith for a while, they decided to go to a Mass, choosing St. Patrick Church in Norcross because it was close to where they live.

“We just started to go every now and then,” said Morris, who drives 18-wheelers, delivering food to grocery stores and restaurants.

“We were dealing with some issues in our life. I think those things were set up by the Lord,” he said, adding that as they spent time in Mass, “we came to the revelation that this was where God wants us to be.”

After approaching the pastor, Father Tom Hennessy, they have started studying the faith and will begin the RCIA program in August. They recently went to a class on the Eucharist.

“We’re baby Christians, we’re baby Catholics,” Morris said, grinning, “but we are trying to eat all we can to grow up.”

Father Hennessy and parishioners in the Eucharist class encouraged them to come to the Congress. While he is not yet able to receive the Eucharist, the young man said, “My whole life is based upon meditating upon it, adoration, and trying to build my faith on it.”

“Sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament, something is happening,” Morris said. “It is going to transform you. It is awesome.”

When he is able to receive the Eucharist he believes he will receive “the fullness” of God.

The climax of the day was the vigil Mass, where altar servers of the archdiocese were invited to join the procession. For a second time that day, the parade of banners made its way through the conference hall. Half a dozen large TV screens allowed people far from the altar to watch the liturgy.

In wrapping up the nearly eight-hour event on Saturday, Archbishop Gregory linked God’s love for people to the Eucharist.

“We are made valuable because we are loved by God. Our intrinsic worth is exclusively determined by the fact that God has chosen to love us,” he said. “Our value lies not so much in our essence as it does in our being loved by the one who fashioned us and created us for himself. Love reveals the inner worth of another.”

“The Eucharist is the food that comes to us not because we are perfect, but in reality because we all need improvement. The gift of the Eucharist is an unmerited treasure,” he said.

Volunteers Prepare Smallest Details

So, what does it take to pull something so large together? About 500 volunteers worked during its two days. Organizers planned to distribute 10,000 communion hosts. They needed 128 collection baskets, 250 banner stands, 12 wax candles for the altar, and among many other things, a case of water bottles for purifying the chalices after Mass.

Msgr. Joe Corbett, a vicar general for the archdiocese and a key organizer, said his favorite part of the event is seeing the tremendous crowds show up year after year.

“The verse from Romans ‘so we, though many, are one body in Christ’ kept singing in my ears on Friday evening and all day Saturday, as I met parishioners and clergy from some of the many of the parishes and school communities I visit as vicar general. It was a beautiful thing,” he said in an e-mail.

Msgr. Corbett credited the large crowd to the invitation from the archbishop in a taped phone call to parishioners, as well as the Holy Spirit encouraging people to attend.

The event costs some $650,000 a year to run. Income last year left a gap of $270,000. The organizing committee this year set a goal to cut expenses by 20 percent. Msgr. Corbett said the financial accounting isn’t completed. However, he said the collections during the two days raised $65,146.

Deacon Dennis Dorner, chancellor of the archdiocese and a member of the organizing committee, said volunteers helped it run smoothly.

An event like this is important in the South because it raises the church’s identity, he said.

“I think, however, events like (the pope’s) visit and our Congress are so important because they put the Catholic identity of the church in the public eye and that is good for all who live in this area, not just our faithful Catholics,” he said in an e-mail.

‘Transform The World’

The day was packed with speakers, including five bishops.

Some of the marquee names were Father Jeremy St. Martin, a leader of the deaf community in the Boston Archdiocese who served as a presenter in the deaf track, and best-selling author Matthew Kelly, who spoke to teens, young adults and in the general track. Folks in the Hispanic track heard from two bishops: Bishop Gabino Miranda-Melgarejo, auxiliary bishop of Ayacucho, Peru, and Bishop Daniel Flores, auxiliary bishop of Detroit. The Vietnamese community heard from Bishop Stephanus Tri Buu Thien, a spiritual leader in Vietnam.

The other speakers for the general track were law professor Helen Alvaré; Bishop William G. Curlin, retired bishop of Charlotte, N.C.; Steve Ray, a producer of a 10-video series tracing biblical history; and Father Tim Hepburn, the chaplain at Georgia Tech. Youngsters attending the children’s track were entertained by The Donut Man.

Alvaré, an associate law professor of family law at George Mason University in Virginia, said two of the “essential sacraments” of the church are the Eucharist and marriage. And the relationship between the two is tied together with self-sacrifice, mutual giving and faithfulness, she said.

“These are not theoretical sacraments, these are not theories about how to live life, or how to encounter God,” she said.

Alvaré, who has represented American bishops on pro-life issues, said marriage and family life are key issues facing the culture and the church.

On the debate surrounding same sex marriage, Alvaré said the Catholic Church approaches the question from an understanding of marriage, not the morality of homosexuality.

Many of the court decisions state that marriage has no relationship to human nature, human bodies, or the bearing of children, she said. The courts are ruling “marriage is an individual’s getting from the state the pat on the head that says we love you no matter what.” She said that isn’t the proper approach to marriage.

Tom Peterson, president of the nonprofit Catholics Come Home, who made a special presentation during the general track, said people don’t know the story of the Catholic Church, how it was founded by Jesus and that the early church is responsible for first compiling the Bible.

His organization shares the faith with the wider community, he said. About 25 percent of visits to the Web site are people who are not Catholic, he added.

“There is hope and there is life out there for them,” he said.

Father Ricardo Bailey, the chaplain at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, said the Eucharist “changes us, it empowers us, but most of all, it causes us to go out and transform the world.”

“That’s why in essence we are here, to celebrate who we are, whose we are, and what it is God calls us to become,” said Father Bailey.

The greatest challenge facing the church is the same one faced by the early Christians, evangelization, he said. The work is to let people know the “liberation” they can receive through Jesus Christ, Father Bailey said.

‘This Is Our Faith Day’

Along with the speeches and the bands, people shopped for religious items, among them “Joseph and Chico,” the children’s book of Pope Benedict XVI told through the eyes of a cat, dolls of nuns in habits and priests in birettas, CDs and also T-shirts with “Chastity Is Hot” slogans.

The vendors attracted people like Amy Tursich, 40, director of financial aid at Southern Catholic College in Dawsonville. She was buying a two-foot tall crucifix to display in her office.

“I like to see our faith in action and the wonderful variety of people who practice the Catholic faith,” said Tursich, who was at the conference with husband, Mark, and daughter, Kelsie, along with a brother-in-law visiting from Minnesota.

Gina Horecky, owner of the Fiat! Religious Imports, said her experience was better than expected. It was her first time at the Atlanta event. Horecky, who lives in Asheville, N.C., thought economic concerns might have people keeping their wallets in their pockets.

Instead, her hand-painted statues were seeing a brisk business and she plans on making the trip here next year. The $50 statues of a pregnant Mary called “Our Lady of Hope” were all gone.

“If I had more, I probably would have sold more. It’s so rare. Nobody has seen it,” she said. Buyers also took some of the $450 larger versions of the statue.

Sister Anna Maria Hayes, a member of the Community of Little Ones of Jesus Crucified, was a relentless saleswoman in her habit. The Conyers-based group is an association of the faithful in the archdiocese. It provides discernment services for women and men considering a vocation to religious life and the priesthood.

She arrived with 20 rosary gift boxes for children, with colorful prayer beads, a CD to accompany the prayer and an easy to use how-to book. She went home with only four.

“There’s so much to pray for. People are praying the rosary again. Many, many people buy rosaries,” she said.

Back in the main convention area, Margaret Mbab and Christine Wilkinson, of Christ Our Hope Church in Lithonia, had a cooler filled with Caribbean specialties such as jerk chicken, along with comfort food like macaroni and cheese. Their two families plan a picnic at the event.

“I get so much out of it. I think it’s a really great thing to bring all Catholics together,” said Wilkinson, a stay-at-home mom. And after missing it for a few years, she now checks the Eucharistic Congress schedule ahead of time to plan her family vacations around this celebration.

For Mbab, “The Eucharist is the center of why we are here.” She wore a T-shirt with a picture of Pope Benedict XVI. Her friend picked it up when she prayed in Yankee Stadium with the pope. “This is our faith day. We have to display our faith,” Mbab said.