By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published July 7, 2011
When one of the most influential people in the U.S. Catholic Church was speaking to Jennifer and Greg Willits through mouthfuls of popcorn, it was obvious this was more than just an everyday experience.
Soon after his keynote remarks to the June 25 Eucharistic Congress congregation, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan sat down with the husband-and-wife team, members of St. Pius X Church in Conyers, and hosts of Sirius-XM’s “The Catholics Next Door.” Energetic and humorous, the archbishop was delighted when someone brought him a box of popcorn.
“You two look better than you sound,” Archbishop Dolan joked, as a crowd gathered around him.
He told the Willitses that he was amazed by the Eucharistic Congress and hoped his archdiocese would one day follow in Atlanta’s footsteps.
“New York should do something like this. I think we need to have Marian conferences, too. We also need to have conferences on apologetics,” he said. “We have a great need to equip people.”
Greg Willits then asked the archbishop for a special blessing for his wife, Jennifer’s, 41st birthday.
“What really impressed me was how powerful it was,” Jennifer said of the blessing. “Not just spiritually, but I could feel his strength. It was like he had a vise grip on my skull. He was so focused on blessing me, and I was so honored to receive such a powerful blessing.”
From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Greg and Jennifer’s table was the place to be, bringing together speakers from several of the tracks to speak to listeners. And with a laptop opened to Facebook and books ranging from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to the Bible, Greg and Jennifer were ready for anything. Fans of “The Catholics Next Door” took photos and asked for autographs throughout the broadcast.
“We have the greatest seat in the house,” Greg said. “We get to watch all these people walk by. I say this every year, but the Eucharistic Congress is like a family reunion, only with relatives you’ve never met.”
Father Tom Coyte, pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Denver, led the American Sign Language track. With 37 years of experience in ministering to the deaf, Father Coyte stopped by to speak to Greg and Jennifer, and told them that in the United States, one in 700 Catholics is deaf.
“It just makes you realize our brothers and sisters—no matter what their walk is, Christ is waiting for them in the Eucharist,” Greg said.
Also among those who spoke to the Willitses were Father Brian Higgins and Father Luke Ballman, who spoke of the importance of events such as the Eucharistic Congress in growing vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Father Higgins, former vocations director for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, and current pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church in Dawsonville, said that Eucharistic adoration in the archdiocese has had a profound effect on vocations.
“You get the priests you pray for,” he said. “There’s no more powerful prayer than sitting in front of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and pouring out your heart to him.”
Father Ballman, current vocations director for the archdiocese, also encouraged those discerning a vocation to seek answers in prayer.
“You need to sit in the quiet and ask, ‘OK, Lord, what do you want from me?’” he said. “The hard part is to shut up and listen to God’s voice.”
Irish recording artist Dana told Greg and Jennifer about the vocations crisis in Ireland, where vocations to the priesthood are at an all-time low. Next year, Dublin will host its first Eucharistic Congress since 1932.
“We have incredible hopes for this event,” she said. “I’m asking anyone listening who has even a drop of Irish blood to come to Ireland for our Eucharistic Congress. We need your support.”
Greg assured Dana of his prayers for her home country.
“When one of us is injured, we are all injured,” he said. “If a limb is broken, we all feel it as the body of Christ.”
A crowd also gathered around Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who donned headphones to speak to the radio hosts about why he chose the congress’ theme, “The Harvest Is Abundant.”
“The Lord is always a Lord of abundance. He doesn’t love or care for us with scarcity,” he said. “His love is generous and demands a generous response on our part.”
This was the seventh Atlanta Eucharistic Congress for Archbishop Gregory, who said he was surprised at first by the overwhelming response to the annual event.
“However, I’ve since gotten to know the heart of this church and its goodness. These are people who love their faith, they love their church, they love their priests. They even love their archbishop,” he said, also remarking on many cultural differences of those who attend the congress. “In the seven years I’ve been here, I’ve seen no sense of rivalry—only a sense of sharing and a sense of pride for their heritage and their Catholic faith.”
Father Bob Barron, founder of “Word on Fire,” who will release a 10-part documentary called “Catholicism” in the fall, said the Eucharistic Congress is a sign of “great things going on in the Catholic world.”
“I was here five years ago and was deeply moved by the morning procession, and I was even more so this morning. It’s an incredible display of Catholicism,” he said. “I’m a fan of in-your-face Catholicism. I love the pride of all these people coming out to show who they are and to publicly show our faith.”
In September, the Willitses will celebrate “The Catholics Next Door” three-year anniversary. Greg said the Eucharistic Congress is an annual highlight of their broadcasts.
“I love the perspective I get from this side of the table, just seeing people walk in. There’s something about seeing people over and over with this awe on their faces. People are streaming in constantly with these goofy grins,” he said. “It’s so contagious because you’re watching people experiencing Jesus Christ in a profound way.”