By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Staff Writer | Published July 3, 2008
Presenters at this year’s Eucharistic Congress by turns challenged, instructed and inspired the scores of people gathered in the main hall at the Georgia International Convention Center to listen and learn during the general track.
The roster of speakers drew people of all ages and backgrounds, some stopping in to listen to one or two speakers, then moving on to another track, while others remained for the entire program, up until the rosary and closing Mass that graced the end of the day.
Janis Randolph attended the general track with her daughter and granddaughter, Claire and Hilary Suhowolak. All three women are parishioners at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Newnan.
According to Randolph, they “like to do things together” and decided to attend the Congress as a “girls day out.” At 18 and a recent high school graduate, Hilary felt “too old” for the teen track, so she stayed to hear the speakers in the general track.
“They broadened my horizons,” she said, “on being a woman and what impact you have.”
Coming from an assortment of interesting backgrounds and experiences, the speakers seized their moments in the spotlight to speak with intensity about the importance of the Eucharist. The presentations each added an essential layer of meaning to the explication of Catholic spirituality as the afternoon unfolded.
The first to take the stage was Father Tim Hepburn, who was recently appointed chaplain at Georgia Tech, returning to ministry in Atlanta after studying for several years at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.
In the Eucharist, he said, Catholics have the opportunity to know, encounter and receive Jesus.
“There’s a difference,” he said, “between just receiving and receiving him in faith.”
In a humorous example, Father Hepburn illustrated the importance of coming to the Eucharist to truly encounter Christ. He said, “If a mouse bit off a piece of host, would he receive the Body of Christ?”
The answer: yes.
But not, he continued, “as a sacrament.” For that, “you have to encounter the living Christ.”
For 24 years, he said, “I lived the Catholic faith of a mouse.”
Father Hepburn shared stories of his youth, picking up his guitar and singing the first of several songs, “Humbly We Adore Thee,” as an illustration of the faith of his childhood.
In the 70s, he said, singing the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker,” came “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” He couldn’t see the spiritual reality. “I had not received Jesus in faith.”
Later he came to see that he was “given a gift to call others to faith.” In the song “Flow,” which he led the audience in singing, he emphasized the power of the gift of the Eucharist: “Flow if you are a mighty stream; burn if you are a mighty fire; live if you are the Body and Blood of Christ.”
“Our mission is out there,” said Father Hepburn.
Apologist Steve Ray, who was a Baptist Bible teacher for 15 years, began his journey to Catholicism on Jan. 1, 1994.
“God turned me upside down,” he said.
Before he became Catholic, he said, “I would have come (to this Congress) to save you. … I saw educated Catholics worshipping a piece of food.”
In a talk laced with Scripture references, Ray used his experiences as a former non-Catholic and evangelical Christian to assert the power of the Eucharist.
“If it is only a piece of bread,” he said, “then Catholics are guilty of idolatry and stupidity. However, if it is what we say it is, … then we are the most blessed of people that he comes down and feeds himself to us.”
“Jesus is the one sacrament,” he continued, “the one grace that comes down from heaven.”
Ray, who developed a 10-part DVD series called “The Footprints Of God: The Story Of Salvation From Abraham to Augustine,” studied the history of Christianity and became convinced that he needed to become Catholic.
Ray and his wife went to a Mass for the first time with some trepidation. They planned to “leave the kids at home, go late, sit in the back and leave early.”
As the audience laughed, he said, “We were real American Catholics from the first.”
Using his knowledge of the Old and New Testaments, Ray employed a thought-provoking series of verses and stories from Scripture to show the connections in the books of the Bible in the symbolism of manna, sacrifice, the Passover lamb and the “bread of life.”
“The Old Testament prepares us for the Eucharist.”
In John 6:6, he said, the verse is, “Eat my flesh.” Like many followers of other Christian traditions, Ray “used to say it was symbolic.”
And yet, the words are the same in all the Gospels, said Ray. Jesus was not speaking symbolically.
At that first Mass he and his wife attended, Ray said they “sat in front and both of us cried.”
They saw the “eternal event” of Christ’s sacrifice … “ever before the eyes of the Father.”
“The sacrifice of Christ comes to us anew at each Mass.”
Telling the crowd they are citizens in the very “buckle of the Bible Belt,” Ray challenged Catholics to “take the Gospel and Eucharist out to the world.”
As the next speaker, Dr. Helen Alvaré strode to the podium and said, “The girl is here.”
An author and law professor at George Mason University, Alvaré touched on the topics of feminism, marriage and the Eucharist, as well as sharing experiences from her 10 years of work in the pro-life movement with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. After spending time with women who had had abortions, she found “their internal brokenness in relationships, in their parenthood” to be heart-rending.
Abortion, said Alvaré, “is always the last sad decision … a relationship you are refusing with the child.”
Alvaré stated that only in the United States are you “allowed to kill a member of your family at the most vulnerable time … and consider it not a crime but a right.”
Alvaré is now studying and working in the area of marriage and the Eucharist, and the relationship between the two sacraments seems to her to be strongly “intertwined.”
“Fewer are regularly participating in marriage,” she said. “More people are likely to cohabit before, during, and in place of marriage.”
“It’s no coincidence that eucharistic participation is also suffering.”
In her theological reading, she’s found that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI—“I cannot tell you how much I love these guys”—have written on the “subjects of family and marriage with a particularly kind eye to women.”
A former “grad school feminist,” Alvaré grew to believe in the “inspiration of Catholic teachings.” She discussed at length the idea of finding freedom in commitment and service to others.
Pope Benedict, she said, described the Eucharist as a “sacrament of love, a final act in a lifetime of faithful love, faithful service.”
“This love and service involves both body and soul. … The Son gives it all up for us.”
In Catholic teaching, she said, “service is everyone’s vocation.”
Bishop-emeritus William G. Curlin used stories and reminiscences from his long association with Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta to illustrate his belief that service is an outgrowth of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.
Bishop Curlin, who retired as leader of the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C., in 2002, began a ministry of working with the poor more than 40 years ago, when he was first assigned to a tough neighborhood parish in Washington, D.C.
Later asked to meet “this little woman from India,” he “found his heart” in helping those who are most in need, whether from poverty, illness or neglect.
Through Mother Teresa’s influence and in working with AIDS patients and the poor, he learned what the “presence of Jesus is: You see with your heart.”
“When you wash someone, when you feed someone, your hands are the hands of Jesus.”
He saw that Mother Teresa spent hours in prayer with the Blessed Sacrament.
“It was the heart of her ministry,” he said, “Jesus in the Eucharist.”
He told the crowd at the Congress, “When you come to the Eucharist, you become a living tabernacle, filled with Christ.”
The last speaker in the general track was Matthew Kelly, an internationally known speaker and author who had also presented in the young adult and teen tracks at the Congress.
A native of Australia, Kelly had the crowd laughing as he described the seven pillars of Catholic spirituality, with an abundance of anecdotes, analogies and humor.
One of his topics was “the problem with the Mass.” He said, people focus on the external aspects of the Mass: readers, priests, cantors, parking, “the coffee after.”
“The problem with the Mass isn’t out there,” he said.
Kelly proposed a solution: a simple examination of self at every Mass.
“If you say God, show me one way in this Mass I can become a better version of myself this week,” he said. “And then you spend the Mass praying how you can do that one thing,” the Mass will be a richer experience.
In addition to the Mass, Kelly described the other seven pillars, enthusiastically reiterating the “genius of Catholicism” supported by the pillars of confession, contemplation, reading the Bible and other spiritual books, fasting and praying the rosary.
“Sink these seven roots deep into your life and you will live a life uncommon,” he said, urging those present to “rediscover Catholicism.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Catholicism,” he concluded, “that can’t be fixed with what’s right with Catholicism.”