By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published June 10, 2010
Greg and Jennifer Willits, known to many as the hosts of “The Catholics Next Door” show on SIRIUS XM satellite radio, had an experience like none of the other attendees of the 2010 Eucharistic Congress.
While the couple has become more and more comfortable performing live broadcasts for their weekday shows, it is usually from the comfort of their own home. This year the couple set up just outside the General Track of the Congress, providing a three-hour live broadcast and giving those not in attendance a unique perspective of how the day began to unfold.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen next,” said Greg Willits after the broadcast. “But being Catholic is unpredictable.”
With headphones positioned over their ears, microphones plugged into a soundboard and two laptops up and running, the Willits team led an informative, entertaining and high-energy broadcast that included interviews with several of the day’s speakers and presenters as well as some spontaneous guests.
“The one thing we try to do is show a slice of real life,” said Jennifer Willits about the show she hosts with her husband of nearly 15 years. And the conversations that took place on-air that Saturday mirrored the experiences and discussions happening between the Catholic faithful present at the 15th annual Eucharistic Congress.
The discussions throughout the broadcast were casual but spiritually rich, much like the chatter one would find among friends and family who were experiencing the Congress for the first year, or the 15th year.
Just as “The Catholics Next Door” were about to begin their broadcast, a woman approached the table wide-eyed, almost not believing that the Willits couple was right in front of her. She told Greg and Jennifer that she worked across the street at the Atlanta airport and had been listening to their show as she was discerning a return to the Catholic Church. Their broadcasts had helped in the journey back to her faith and she was now attending the Congress for the first time. She shook their hands, thanked them and left the table with a huge smile across her face.
These sorts of expressions were common as the day went on. Many stopped by during the three hours to listen to the show, which often seamlessly blended humor and serious spiritual concepts.
Saturday’s broadcast began with a rundown of the day’s events, and with the couple welcoming those who were tuned in to the SIRIUS Catholic Channel. They encouraged anyone in the Atlanta area to come to the event, which was still getting underway at that time.
The husband and wife broadcast team also shared their own first experiences of the Eucharistic Congress to which they first came in 2002.
“This was a life-changing event for us,” said Greg Willits, adding that it had a positive impact on their marriage, their kids and on their decision to begin podcasting, which eventually led to their SIRIUS radio show.
For Greg, their first journey to the Eucharistic Congress had lasting effects as well. He remembers walking down the corridor when all of a sudden bells started ringing and people began saying, “Jesus is coming!” Suddenly everyone dropped to their knees as the monstrance holding the Eucharist processed through and the Willits family did the same.
“At that moment, I got it. It clicked,” said Greg Willits about the moment he recognized his God was truly present in the Eucharist.
Hearing those bells and watching the reactions of people when the monstrance processes through the halls of the convention center remains one of Greg’s favorite parts of the Eucharistic Congress.
Various guests stopped by the table to join in the discussion, most of which focused on the Eucharist, the Congress in general and new media. Among those guests were Johnnette Benkovic, founder and president of Living His Life Abundantly and speaker in the general track, Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller, who also spoke at the Congress, Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, founder and president of Ignatius Productions, Catholic musician Matt Maher and Allen Hunt, a former Protestant pastor who recently became a Catholic and now hosts his own radio show on WSB AM 750.
“(The Eucharistic Congress) is a sign and witness to the vibrancy of our faith,” said Benkovic during her interview with the Willits couple. Benkovic also discussed new media, stating that Catholics have to “claim every communication territory” to effectively spread the Gospel.
Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley, one of the surprise guests during the broadcast, also shared a few thoughts on new media. Dubbed by Greg Willits as “the first blogging cardinal,” Cardinal O’Malley explained that the new media are crucial to spreading the Good News. Just as the printing press revolutionized the Church hundreds of years ago, the Internet and new media can do the same today, the cardinal said.
The almost non-stop broadcast ended around 1 p.m., allowing the Willits family to enjoy some of the Congress themselves and also to man the table for Rosary Army, a worldwide nonprofit organization founded by the couple that focuses on producing handmade twine rosaries to be given away for free. The group handed out thousands of free rosaries at this year’s Congress.
“Overall, I’m very pleased with how it all went,” said Greg Willits, who worked on preparations for the broadcast all week long.
“It was amazing to see the parade of people and the sense of amazement on a lot of faces,” he said. “It was like a front row seat to see the experiences of others in their encounters with Christ.”