By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 21, 2012
Tens of thousands of Catholics filled the Georgia International Convention Center on June 8 and 9 for the 17th annual celebration of prayers and speakers at the Eucharistic Congress.
Drawing on the themes “We Though Many Are One Body in Christ” and missionary work, the two-day conference focused on unity and service.
Opening his remarks in Spanish to the diverse crowd, Bishop Gerald Kicanas said the Eucharist isn’t complete until Christians go out into the world in service.
“We are a church of the Eucharist and a church of mission. The Eucharist transforms our hearts and minds into one body, responsible to go out and bring God’s word to the world in which we live,” said the bishop of Tucson, Ariz., whose 20-minute talk was interrupted several times with applause.
As the congress began, he told the large crowd, “The Eucharist, broken and shared, forms us into the people of God. What a great gift. It makes strangers, sisters and brothers; that makes a crowd a church.”
On Saturday, June 9, the celebration began with a procession of the Blessed Sacrament including close to 100 parishes, schools, ministries and spiritual groups marching into the convention center, flags and banners flying. It took more than an hour for the complete line to enter into the cavernous hall.
Crowds applauded the memory of Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue, who was remembered with a video and photo display. He started the congress as a small gathering to honor the feast of Corpus Christi early in his years as archbishop of Atlanta, and it has since turned into one of the largest displays of the Catholic faithful in the Southeast. He died in November 2011.
Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory called him a “beloved bishop, pastor and friend.”
Atlanta will be “forever grateful” for his predecessor’s vision to start this annual gathering, he said.
The archbishop said the congress is an opportunity for chance encounters, reconnecting with an old friend, hearing from a moving speaker, spending time in the Eucharistic chapel. These are times for an “unforgettable experience and they are priceless,” he said.
Early on Saturday, Luise Padron, 32, of St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna, was nearly speechless by the people and the conference.
“I feel so excited. I feel like a child. I feel so happy,” said the construction worker. It was his first time at the conference because in years past, the day always conflicted with weekend work. But he took it as a sign that he should attend this year when his work schedule became free.
Looking around at what one visitor called “an ocean of humanity,” Padron said he only regrets he didn’t come in the past, but would tell friends about his uplifting experience.
Donald Jeanne, of St. Paul of the Cross Church, Atlanta, was attending his seventh Congress and often serves in whatever capacity is needed.
“Why do I come? The biggest thing I get out of this is the support and encouragement I see from some 20,000 people who all have come to believe and are convicted about the church and her teaching,” Jeanne said.
The congress is free and open to the public. Tracks are presented in English, Spanish, French, Vietnamese and American Sign Language and for youth, teens and young adults. Attendees are estimated to number more than 30,000. Organizers believe that crowds at the opening Mass and in the Hispanic track were the largest they have ever been.
“Charged With Mission”
The theme this year chosen by Archbishop Gregory was “We Though Many Are One Body in Christ,” linking the tie that binds all Catholics through the Eucharist and service to all. Tables of religious orders and missionary groups lined the hallways of the convention center, attracting attention from the crowds moving from track to track between speakers.
The Eucharist draws people together so they can be energized to serve those in need in an unfriendly world, said Bishop Kicanas.
“We come together, disciples of Jesus Christ, seeking inspiration, longing, desiring for a deeper relationship with the Eucharistic Lord. Together with him, we can overcome any struggle, overcome any fear, face any difficulty. Gathering in him, we garner strength,” he said.
He compared the struggle to a tug of war and said, “No one wins a tug of war on their own. They have to pull together, in one direction, to win.”
And it isn’t an accident that people join around the altar to be fed together. Gathering breaks down barriers and allows “strangers” to see each other in new relationships.
“We are not just people gathered together by chance like we are at an Atlanta Braves baseball game,” he said. “We are one whole family, gathering together, who eat at the same table, who drink from the same cup, who pray the same prayer, the Our Father, in which we are reminded that we are sisters and brothers to one another.”
Receiving the Eucharist propels people outside the church, into the streets, into the world to serve those in need.
He said that some people as they get older stop focusing on external accomplishments. “Faced with the inevitability of their own death, they stop seeking honors and begin helping to pick others up.”
He talked about Blessed Mother Teresa and Pope Benedict XVI who highlight how the efforts of one person make a difference in the world. Pope Benedict said, “We have to have hearts that see where love is needed and respond.”
Bishop Kicanas asked if Catholics are “angry enough” when they see the gap between the world “as it is and seeing the world as God intends it.”
“Do you feel anything when you see life aborted, life cheapened, mistreated, do you feel anything when you see people suffering the ravages of war, or the migrant struggling to get through the desert? Do you feel anything when you see human beings in pain and struggling?”
“You know, lots of people could care less, but it cannot be that way with you who stand before the Eucharistic Lord as disciples charged with mission.”
The transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ starts “our own transformation as we are led forth to respond to the world, until God is all in all,” said the bishop.
“A Gathering Of Community”
The event started Friday night, June 8, as people made their way to the opening Mass celebrated by Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama. As the Mass was followed by a healing service, some in the group headed toward their own celebrations that night. Young adults filled a ballroom in the adjacent Marriott Hotel and the French-language track started in another room at the convention center.
People filling the hallways talked about the twin themes of mission and unity.
Maria MacConnie, retired from Delta Airlines, has attended for several years and said she always goes home with new ideas to mull over. She said Bishop Zarama’s message struck her heart. It’s a constant challenge “to see yourself as God sees you,” she said, when you feel too short, too heavy, unsuccessful.
He challenged people “to empty our minds and open our hearts,” she said.
“It’s a wonderful gathering of community. I tell them they’re missing a beautiful sharing of Jesus Christ,” she said about friends who weren’t there.
Pat Horvath, of Corpus Christi Church, Stone Mountain, said she uses her prayer time spent in Eucharistic adoration as fuel for her volunteer service with the USO and at her parish.
“With prayer comes good work,” said the 70-year-old.
She chose to come to the congress to be part of the wider Catholic community.
“I’m exhilarated by the wonderful community that comes together, the variety of Catholics and their customs. It’s exciting to be here. I consider it a privilege to be here,” she said.
The lead organizer for the congress, Deacon Dennis Dorner, said the event seemed to attract even more people this year. After virtually a year of planning, the two days are a blur of activity, but he thought all went well.
“I could not have been more pleased with everything about the event this year. Our attendance was excellent, beginning with a record crowd for the opening Mass on Friday,” he said. “Our speakers were wonderful and all of the volunteers executed their responsibilities flawlessly. It went so fast, it was amazing. All day people seemed so happy. The liturgies were beautiful. It was an amazing day.”
He hoped the experience left people energized about the church in North Georgia and that they had some time to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.
On the financial side, Deacon Dorner said the congress is moving closer to its goal of being self-supporting. Expanded fundraising efforts for the 2012 Eucharistic Congress included a direct mail letter sent to parishioners and parishes and a reception at the archbishop’s residence for past donors, which combined to raise $163,000. In addition, sponsorship opportunities that were offered for the first time this year helped raise a significant amount of money toward the expense of the congress. The 17 sponsors contributed $49,500 in cash and in-kind contributions. New features for vendors also made the marketplace more enticing.
“This is one of the largest and most effective evangelization efforts that we do as an archdiocese. When people are strengthened in their faith and when they hear the message presented this year, that we are all called to be missionaries in the environments where we live and work and play, we will touch the hearts of many, many people,” Deacon Dorner said.
2013 Theme Focus On Mary
As he celebrated the closing Mass of the congress, a vigil for the solemnity of Corpus Christi, Archbishop Gregory said the day is actually “the celebration of God’s fidelity” because of his abiding presence in the Eucharist.
He said the promises made by the Israelites in the first Mass reading are “probably not unlike a few of the promises we have all made to our God: to be more faithful, to be more loving, to be more gentle toward others. The list of our promises is probably just as long as the list of our transgressions of those promises.”
However, he said, while we continually break with our promises, each time we come back, “God always takes us at our word, knowing about our fragility.”
“The Eucharist is the same throughout the world,” he said. “The church is a community of diverse races, customs and cultures. … We are made one because the Bread is one.”
“Our differences are rendered secondary to the spirit of oneness the Lord calls us to embrace in the Eucharist.”
At the end of the Mass, Archbishop Gregory unveiled the logo for the 2013 Eucharistic Congress, May 31-June 1. The theme is “Do Whatever He Tells You: Mary and the Year of Faith.”