By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published June 18, 2009
Harkening to the 2009 Eucharistic Congress theme “As Grain Once Scattered,” North Georgia Catholics became one body in Christ on Friday evening, June 12, as they gathered at the Georgia International Convention Center for an opening Mass and healing service.
The presence of the diverse and vibrant archdiocesan church buoyed people like Jim O’Brien of St. Brigid Church in Johns Creek. He came with his wife, Gina, and their three children.
“There’s something magical here in Georgia,” he said. “Maybe we could be a light to other communities.”
As their daughter napped in a stroller and their two young sons found room to play, the O’Briens said that as “St. Pius grads” they were glad to have an opportunity to attend Mass celebrated by Msgr. Richard Lopez, a teacher at the Catholic high school for 28 years.
“We’re also trying to get more involved,” O’Brien added.
At the Mass, the crowd, estimated at more than 4,000, listened to the Gospel reading from Matthew. Msgr. Lopez preached on the marvelous gift of a loving Father who sent his Son for our salvation.
“We’re here today because our Lord and Savior is alive and present in an amazing way,” he said. “As Pope Benedict reminded us, ‘The King came down to save us and decided to stay.’ How nice is that?”
Calvary is not memorialized during the Mass, the priest added, so much as “actualized.”
“What happened in history is made present in mystery.”
The Eucharist is a gift that provides food for souls, allowing those who believe in Christ to “live forever.”
The religion teacher recalled his roll call ritual on the last day of school, when he tells his students, “The next time I take roll it will be in heaven. If you don’t get heaven, I get hell. If you’re not in heaven, I don’t want to be in heaven.”
He explained, “Our love for Jesus Christ and our love for each other go hand in hand. The altar is the place where the bond of charity is made perfect and strong.”
Msgr. Lopez recalled visiting an elderly woman in a nursing home with a profound love for the Eucharist.
“I will always remember her. This woman had no family, no money, no property, no future, no health. But every time I gave her the Eucharist she would say the same thing, ‘Father, Father, what more do I need?’”
The priest spoke of the sacrifice made by past and present-day martyrs who chose death rather than refuse their love for Jesus Christ.
But if the Eucharist is such a beautiful “bond of charity,” Msgr. Lopez asked, what accounts for the decline in the practice of the faith among today’s Catholics.
“Why is Mass attendance plummeting in the United States? … Why in Europe, do we have empty cathedrals? Why is it that when one person enters the church four people leave the church?”
One reason, he proposed, is that “we don’t like to talk about death.”
“We live for the First World existence,” denying that death and eternal judgment will come one day.
“It’s by grace that we’re saved. That’s why we need the Eucharist.”
He continued, “The surest way to evaluate our love for Jesus Christ is by the love we have for the Eucharist. So many are not going to Mass. (We) ache that they don’t have Christ.”
To bring people back to Mass and increase love for the Eucharist, he reminded those gathered about the grain of wheat that must die to produce fruit.
“Try to get yourself killed regularly. Great things happen when you die to self,” he said.
Along with linking one’s personal sacrifices to Christ, making a weekly holy hour helps people to move from “autonomy to adoration.”
“It’s a channel of grace, so kill an hour” in adoration, he said.
What’s more, he asked that people “stop complaining” about their pastor, the quality of preaching at church or a part of the liturgy they dislike.
“We’ve become candy Catholics with a spiritual sweet tooth. … People of God! We have bread, wine, a priest and you—that’s all they needed in the catacombs and at Dachau. What more could you want or need? Stop complaining.”
He added, “Kill your hunger for noise.” Recall the command to “be still, be still and know that I am God.”
Honor God by delving into the mystery of faith and allowing for silence in the worship of God for the salvation of the world, he urged.
Msgr. Lopez ended with a personal story from his high school years when he witnessed his father battling colon cancer. His father was 10 months into a new job and needed to work for one year so that his family would be able to receive death benefits.
“As a student I watched him get out of bed every morning; he’d get in his car bent over in pain. For two months he went to work like that. At the end of the two months he came home, went to bed and died. … The more I watched my father, the more I understood the mystery of the Father’s love and his Son’s act—God’s sacrificial love, his infinite love” shown in the Crucifixion.
Sacrificial love reveals Christ, Msgr. Lopez said.
“Those among us, the living, come to recognize (Jesus Christ) through our sacrifices.”
Following the Mass, Father Tim Hepburn, chaplain at Georgia Tech, led a healing service in which he encouraged the congregation to “hold nothing back.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, moved with pity as he looked upon those before him as sheep without a shepherd, proceeded to cure diseases and illness.
Father Hepburn pointed to the monstrance, explaining how Jesus desires to “try to show himself to you.”
“See the rays on the monstrance? They go out this way and that. Grace and healing are coming to you right now.”
He mentioned how people were often healed just being in Jesus’ presence.
“It cost Jesus more than you think to come to you, but he came to heal you. He did it then and will do it now.”
He emphasized to those gathered that “the greatest healing of all is to repent of your sins and accept by faith the person of Jesus Christ.”
“You can be like Lazarus and rise from the dead, but if you’re never at a point to repent from your sins and give your life, by faith, to Jesus Christ, what good is there in getting a healing for your body but not for your soul?”
Many present carry anxieties in their hearts—perhaps it’s one’s lifestyle, a child who left the faith, a loved one who is sick or perhaps you’re sick, he said, adding, “That’s what Jesus saw when he looked at his sheep. He saw people with addictions, people in terrible circumstances, and he healed them.”
“I feel like tonight we need to invite God in. There are some people here who have never really given over their lives to Jesus. … The Holy Spirit is grace, and it’s moving in here right now, drawing you. … Whenever you’re feeling broken and lost, that’s when grace is drawing you.”
He continued, “Feel Jesus calling you right where you are. Whether you’re sitting, standing, sick, in need of healing. What do you want him to do for you?”
Father Hepburn allowed for quiet and asked those present to make an act of faith, and then called on the Holy Spirit to be present. He also called upon the Blessed Mother to intercede with healing prayers.
“Teach us to receive the Holy Spirit with true faith, with wholehearted faith. Come inspire us … and bring Jesus to life in this place.”
Then he called forward a group of individuals from the Atlanta Archdiocese who had attended a special retreat during the year in preparation for praying with those needing intercession. Teams of two stood at stations around the hall as those desiring prayer came forward.
A young man hunched over as two other men intently listened to him. Two Missionaries of Charity walked with a woman. An older gentleman in a wheelchair received prayer. A mother wiped away tears as her two school-aged children sat beside her. Later back in their seats, the son wrapped his arms around his mother in a long, consoling hug.
Phyllis Jean McNeil of Holy Cross Church in Atlanta looks forward to “the most spiritual event” of the archdiocese. While she has asked for physical healings, “I think there’s always a need for healing of the heart. Try as I will, I’m not perfect.”
As a breast cancer survivor, she is “no stranger to God’s healing.”
“Three years ago I had breast cancer. My oncologist said there’s no trace of it now.”
While she underwent surgeries and chemotherapy she said, “The main thing is prayer.”
Standing with McNeil was Evelyn Soler of Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain. She spoke of the Life in the Eucharist program through which the two met.
She gives one hour a week to Eucharistic adoration, which she finds “so fulfilling.”
“You really fall in love; Jesus is really in the Eucharist waiting for us.”
Maria from St. Lawrence Church was touched by Msgr. Lopez’s story about his students and his desire to “reach them.”
“Way back,” she said, “I was lukewarm about the Eucharist, but now I’m trying to get closer.”
A former St. Pius student, Amy Scherer felt like she stepped back in time listening to her former teacher. “He had the same passion … in his incredibly powerful sermon. It was the type that sticks with you.”
The recent law school graduate was also touched by the story of sacrifice of Msgr. Lopez’s father.
“Of all the stories, that hit the hardest. That story puts everything in perspective,” said Scherer, adding that it reminded her of “so many things” she has “to be thankful for.”
Corralling three children, ages 2, 5 and 9, Vivian Lyon of St. Catherine of Siena Church, Kennesaw, came to pray and receive “blessings and healing,” asking also for financial restoration and good health.
“I just think I’ve come to understand to put God first in everything. I can’t do the other things well if I do them without God,” Lyon said.
The Moon family was also on hand. Two months ago they joined the Korean parish and have become active.
“It’s the best thing to do for your children—to give them the seed of religion,” said Jae Moon.
Roz and Jim Murphy were among the group who prayed with others. Calling themselves “the askers,” they recalled the gratitude people showed for their concern and prayers.
“It’s so remarkable that God chose us to do this. … We try not to get in front of the Holy Spirit.”
Andrea Perez, 9, enjoyed the evening’s Mass, which made her “very happy.”
She was joined by 7-year-old Ashley, who recently received her first Communion and “felt something inside—it was the blessing of Jesus.”
Standing with the children was Maria Perez of St. Michael Church in Gainesville, who was glad to share this event with the children and “to be an example of following Jesus in their life.”
Her husband, Gilberto, a deacon at St. Michael’s, sees the event as a “great place to see other Catholics and to celebrate the Mass.”
Pablo Perez sees the Congress as “like a retreat.”
“I stay overnight and on Saturday go to talks and Mass. It can also be a time to relax and see friends. … It’s like having a family in Jesus. It also makes me so proud to be Catholic.”