By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published June 10, 2010
“I formally declare our 2010 Eucharistic Congress officially open,” said Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to a rousing round of applause at the June 4 evening Mass in the Georgia International Convention Center. In his words of welcome, he reminded Catholics that the worldwide church is still celebrating the Year for Priests.
“During this Congress time, if you happen to see a priest that you know, one who may have served in a parish where you live or formerly lived … stop him, thank him, give him a warm greeting and tell him how much you appreciate his ministry and how much you love him,” Archbishop Gregory said.
“We have been so blessed in this local church with so many good and loving priests,” he said. “And as we bring this Congress to its opening ceremony, please remember our priests in your prayers.”
The Friday night Mass and healing service have come to hold a special place in the two-day Congress. While on Saturday people from different ethnic communities and of different ages meet in tracks geared to their languages and interests, Friday night brings everyone into one gathering space, providing a glimpse of the faithful who come to the annual event.
Dodging rain, an estimated 5,000 people filed into the main exhibit hall, where the general track would be held the following day, and enjoyed praise and worship music before Mass began. Many sang while some quieted themselves for the celebration of the Eucharist.
More than 30 priests, deacons and seminarians led the procession into the hall, with Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama, the principal celebrant, smiling as he walked down the center aisle, present as a bishop for the first time at the Eucharistic Congress.
During his homily, Bishop Zarama encouraged people in their faith, asking them to be open to what God wants for their lives.
“We bring, and have, expectations,” said Bishop Zarama, adding that they are usually not the same as God’s. “We need to let him mold our hearts. … That is when miracles happen, when we open ourselves to him.”
“My expectation is Jesus’ expectation for me,” he said. “What I want is what Jesus wants for me.”
The bishop also said Catholics need to embrace the mystery of God and the Eucharist with their hearts and stop trying to satisfy their minds.
“We don’t need to understand, we need to feel,” he told the assembly. “Faith is how we accept Jesus.”
He encouraged them to approach the Congress and their encounter with Jesus there through the heart and with simple faith.
“We have one day of celebration, praising God in our lives. What will happen in this day? It is up to us,” he said.
He suggested that like Pharisees of old, too often people come to Jesus full of questions and unwilling to accept his love.
“Don’t make too many questions. Only be open. Let Jesus, the same Jesus present in the Eucharist, touch you.”
“God is love. That is what Jesus came to tell us. And we don’t get it. We are still asking questions,” the bishop said. “Always our hearts are searching for love. This is what we need. It is so simple.”
“Don’t bring your agendas,” he said. “Bring your heart and yourself to him and let him work in and through you.”
The multilingual Mass continued with intercessions presented in many languages, including English, Spanish and Portuguese.
Alma Casiuue, a parishioner at St. Patrick Church, Norcross, was attending the Eucharistic Congress for the first time and brought her two children, Emily, 10, and Carlos, 9.
Casiuue said she was excited to be with her fellow Catholics and was eager to learn more about the Congress.
“I wanted to know what it was all about,” she said, smiling.
“I’m happy to be here with other people of the faith,” said Beatrice Patiño, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Atlanta. Patiño, who hails from Colombia, was excited to attend Mass with Bishop Zarama, also from Colombia, and hoped the Congress would be an encouragement for her.
“I hope it will help me grow in faith,” she said, echoing the bishop’s words from the homily.
The healing service, which was led by Father Jack Durkin, pastor of St. Monica Church in Duluth, began with music as Father Durkin placed the Blessed Sacrament in a large, golden monstrance that was then wafted with incense.
The priest asked the crowd to be open to God’s healing, which may not come in the precise way they expect.
“(Jesus) wants to heal us in ways we may not even be aware of,” Father Durkin said. He encouraged them to be open to the Holy Spirit and allow God to work in the way God desires.
“We have to be open,” he continued. “He wishes to come in power. … He is radiating his power.”
After a short time of adoration, Father Durkin brought the monstrance down the steps to the congregation, inviting anyone who desired healing to come forward and pray.
Immediately, hundreds of people rushed to the front of the hall, dropping to their knees and waiting for a chance to reach out and touch the vestment with which the priest held the monstrance. Father Durkin slowly walked back and forth as a way to give everyone a chance to come close to the Blessed Sacrament.
After awhile as the crowds began to swell, Father Durkin, assisted by Father Theodore Book, processed up and down the aisles with the monstrance. People of all ages and races lined the aisles, reaching out toward the monstrance. Others stayed seated, raising their arms as the music played or closing their eyes in prayer.
At the close of the service, following a recitation of the Divine Praises, Father Durkin announced that prayer teams were set up throughout the hall and were available for anyone who would like prayer for healing. Prayer teams were available in several languages.
Linda Smith, a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, served on one of the prayer teams.
“It is an incredible privilege to be able to pray with people in the presence of the Eucharist,” Smith said. “Especially knowing that when we ask God for healing, he always answers. It’s not always in the way we expect, but in the perfect way that they need his healing touch.”
Colleen Fortin, who also served on a prayer team, was attending the Eucharistic Congress for the first time and was pleasantly surprised to see all the different ethnicities represented.
“What I love most is that we gather so many different people together,” she said. “You look around and realize, this is what the body of Christ looks like. … It’s amazing to see all the different ethnicities come together in worship.”
After the Blessed Sacrament was moved from the hall to an adoration chapel in reverent procession, the prayer teams remained for another hour or so to continue praying with those who remained.
“There is nothing like the joy of being part of God’s healing,” said Smith with a smile. “I love the way he allows us to help him.”