By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 17, 2011
Thousands of Catholics in June will celebrate the 16th annual Eucharistic Congress.
Vocations in the church are a focus this year, and not just serving as a priest, religious sister, deacon, but also the most common vocation: marriage.
That includes people like Stephanie and Jimmy McGinn, of Atlanta, who were married last fall at Sacred Heart Basilica.
“We feel like the commitment that we made to each other also included our families, the church, and God,” said Jimmy McGinn, who is 27.
And it includes Jeanie Brady, 42, and her husband, Chris Mitchell, 45.
“It means to us that God, who was in our lives before we met, now is in our lives in a stronger, more profound way as we made this commitment to God and each other as a married couple. I feel stronger as a couple because of us marrying in our church,” said Brady.
The 2011 Eucharistic Congress opens its doors on June 24 and 25 at the Georgia International Convention Center, College Park, next to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Admission is free for the event.
Activities for all ages and speakers for tracks in six languages—English, Spanish, French (Francophone), Portuguese, Vietnamese and American Sign Language—are planned.
Visitors to the congress will be able to find organizations that serve the different vocations in the church. Marriage groups and programs, such as Marriage Encounter and others, will join religious communities that work in the archdiocese to set up information booths for outreach.
‘God Has A Plan For All Of Us’
“The Harvest is Abundant” is the weekend’s theme chosen by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
It reminds “all of us of the importance of God’s plans for each one of us and how those plans sanctify the entire church,” Archbishop Gregory wrote in an e-mail.
“God has a plan for all of us—not simply for those who become clerics or who live the consecrated life of a religious,” he continued.
There is a need for more clergy for their special work, but men and women need to recognize the dignity and the importance of married life and family life within the Catholic Church, he said.
“In many respects, the married life—the most commonplace vocation within the Church—is even more in need of support, reflection, and understanding than even the clerical or religious life,” he said.
In that spirit, the sacrament of marriage has been spotlighted in recent years in the archdiocese. Scores of couples marking 50th and 60th marriage anniversaries are now honored yearly at a special Mass.
The Atlanta Archdiocese has seen booming membership in the nearly 100 parishes and missions in North Georgia. In 2000, there were some 320,330 Catholics, according to statistical data from The Official Catholic Directory. And a decade later, the numbers have soared to 850,000. And 1,912 people are expected to join the church in a few weeks’ time at Easter.
But in contrast to the growing number of Catholics, the number of marriages has declined, from 1,738 marriages in 2000 to 1,575 in 2010, according to The Official Catholic Directory. In 2000, the rate of the sacrament of marriage celebrated in the church was 5.4 per 1,000 Catholics and 10 years later, it was 1.9 per 1,000 Catholics.
Archbishop Gregory said, “We all should be alarmed and disturbed by the trends that many studies detail about the changes in attitudes toward marriage that seem to be impacting young people everywhere irrespective of their backgrounds and religious heritages.”
“A society that loses its respect for marriage and family life treads on a very shaky future as children, the aged, and men and women will lose the strength and security that family life has traditionally provided—even within wide cultural variations of how marriage and family life are lived,” he said.
Sacrament Of Marriage:
‘Never A Decision Otherwise’
The McGinns continued a family tradition at Sacred Heart. Three generations of Stephanie’s family, going back to her grandparents, said “I do” at Sacred Heart Church.
Jimmy said some of their friends were raised Catholic and did not get married in the church.
“We feel that personal decisions, coupled with family preferences of one or both in the wedding party, could be one of many reasons,” he said.
At the same time, getting married in the church wasn’t unusual, he said.
Both Stephanie and Jimmy attended Catholic schools, graduating from St. Pius X High School.
“In addition to being a personal preference, getting married in the Catholic Church was also a decision that took into account the belief our friends and family have,” he said.
Jeanie Brady grew up in Chicago just a block from her Catholic grammar school and attended a girls Catholic high school. For her, the decision was whether to be married at her childhood church or her church in Atlanta.
Marriage in the church was “never a decision otherwise,” she said. “My husband Chris and I always knew we’d be married in the Catholic Church.”
“I remember having a strong feeling of God being so present during that hour as we received the sacrament of marriage. It was emotional and spiritual and yet peaceful and just lovely. It was one of the best moments and hours of my life,” she said.
Years ago it was common for her Catholic friends to be married in the church, Brady said, but it has changed recently with more destination weddings with a focus on the location, not the sacrament.
For her November 2009 wedding, “I wanted God to be present when making this commitment to another Catholic as well. We both wanted our families (all Catholics) to be present, along with God, in our church; it was very important to us. I also knew the sacrament of marriage as special as it is—for me—was meant to be in my church.”
Couples agree the church has tools it can use to help couples grow into their vocation.
Brady said offering post-marriage counseling sessions—either with Sacred Heart pastor Father T.J. Meehan or perhaps a counselor in the parish may be helpful, or maybe a group marriage meeting.
She said the one-day seminar they attended before getting married, known as Pre-Cana, appeared outdated and not as engaging as it could be.
“I think they have such a great opportunity to make it better then it was,” she said.
Marriage could be reinforced as a vocation from the pulpit, Brady said.
“Perhaps even some of the sermons could be more marriage-related—with the divorce rate as high as it is, that may be something that would hit home” for more church-goers, she said.
McGinn said the pre-marriage meetings with a priest were extremely helpful. In addition, while many churches have singles groups, a group for couples could help to encourage people to consider the Catholic Church more to celebrate the sacrament of marriage, he said.
“Having an informal meeting with your priest every year could help to remind couples of what is really important and allow them to focus on what makes their marriage special,” he said.