By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published June 27, 2014
COLLEGE PARK—The 19th Eucharistic Congress of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, with an estimated 25,000 people in attendance, centered upon the call of Jesus to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
Held June 20-21 at the Georgia International Convention Center, the family gathering of Catholics from the archdiocese and beyond offered inspirational programs from national speakers in several languages, a Eucharistic procession, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and closing Mass for the vigil of Corpus Christi.
Traditionally the largest annual gathering of Catholics in the Southeast, the congress opened Friday evening, June 20, with Mass celebrated by Bishop Luis R. Zarama, Atlanta auxiliary bishop.
In his homily, Bishop Zarama reminded all to come to receive the body of Christ with a joyful mind and to let Christ into their hearts, so they can communicate his love to others.
“Don’t be afraid to smile,” he said. “When you smile, you have been touched by love. After that, go and make disciples.”
Following the opening Mass, attended by 3,000 people, a healing service was held. In rooms at the adjacent Marriott Gateway hotel, several hundred young adults enjoyed a track called “Revive!” with praise and worship, adoration, and a talk by Father Dave Dwyer, a Paulist priest who directs online and radio ministries.
A program for those from around the world with French heritage was also held Friday evening with Father Dimitri Demesmin of the Diocese of Les Cayes, Haiti.
The following morning, as jets from neighboring Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport roared overhead, the young and old from across the archdiocese, representing most of the 100 parishes and missions, its schools and ministries, and a variety of ethnic cultures, gathered outside to form the Eucharistic procession on the driveway and lawn of the convention center.
A crowd gathered around colorfully costumed dancers of St. Matthew Church in Winder and Prince of Peace Church in Flowery Branch as they danced in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Other groups celebrated the occasion in song.
Parish groups, schools, ministries, and religious congregations gathered with their respective banners, enjoying one another’s company. The crowd grew quiet and knelt as Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory came out to lead the procession, holding the Blessed Sacrament in a large monstrance.
Ginia Taylor, a parishioner of St. Thomas More Church in Decatur, has been coming to the congress for 10 years, since she was 14 years old.
“What I love about it is the sheer number of people who are here,” sad Taylor. “It’s a microcosm of the universal church.”
Father Gilbert Exumé, pastor of the Winder parish, said the congress is how the bishops of the archdiocese bring to life part of the vision in the Book of Revelation of “a great multitude” from many nations worshiping God together.
“The archdiocese is blessed to be rich with such a variety of cultures who share and practice the same and common faith,” said Father Exumé. “Once a year all of them gather in one place to experience the love of God through the love of their shepherds.”
Choirs from Our Lady of Vietnam Church in Riverdale and Queen of Angels School in Roswell sang as those seated inside a hall set up with 10,000 chairs awaited the arrival of the procession.
Catechists are heroes to cardinal
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas, was the morning homilist.
He began by recalling the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, written for the feast of Corpus Christi.
“O, Sacred Banquet in which Christ is received. The memory of his Passion is recalled, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given. Alleluia,” repeated the cardinal.
Many in the crowd responded with “Alleluia.”
The cardinal expressed gratitude for the opportunity to reflect on the theme of discipleship—of moving from the center out to the peripheries.
“The center is always Christ,” he said. “Pope Francis reminds us, from the center we go out.”
Cardinal DiNardo said he would never forget Atlanta’s procession, the only silent procession accompanied by “every 60 seconds an airplane taking off.”
He added that the “bread of life” is really what the procession is all about.
“He is with us in Eucharistic adoration,” said the cardinal.
Atlanta, he said, is always poised to go and teach the nations, which is the aim of the congress.
“We have to make the Good News vivid and significant for all,” said Cardinal DiNardo. “We’re supposed to be a good virus. People want to catch us.”
The cardinal said that disciples must themselves be in “intimate” friendship with the Lord through Eucharistic adoration so that they may take Christ to others.
Following as disciples is not about being in a “clique,” he said. “We’ve got enough cliques in the church. We need more leaven.”
The whole reason for the Gospel of John, said the cardinal, is for the reader to learn how to abide with Jesus and through him with the Father.
“By the Last Supper, Jesus lives and abides with his Father and he wants us to be there with him,” said Cardinal DiNardo. “Abide with him first, and then go witness.”
He singled out catechists as heroic disciples and applauded their efforts.
“Nothing is more brilliant or more scary than to get up in front of a group of young people and try to teach the words of Jesus,” he said. “You are the infantry people, the front lines.”
He drew a parallel between today’s challenges and the disciples “whining” that they didn’t have enough to feed the multitudes when Jesus asked them. Jesus’ response to them and us, he said, was “give me what you have” and he will do the rest.
In closing, the cardinal encouraged all to know Jesus better. “Love him better, and then go.”
Speaking next, Archbishop Gregory recognized all of the children, dressed in their Communion finery, who celebrated first Communion this spring.
Revitalizing the spirit
Speakers included Father Dwyer; Mother Dolores Hart, a cloistered Benedictine nun and former actress; Greg Willits, director of evangelization for the Archdiocese of Denver; Jeff Cavins, catechetical leader of interactive Bible studies; Patty Schneier, lay Catholic author and evangelist; and, in the Spanish track, Sister Adela Galindo, foundress of a Miami diocesan order.
Tracks were offered in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, American Sign Language and for children.
Claudette Carrion of St. Thomas More Church in Decatur had the chance to hear Father Dwyer speak.
“It’s awesome to sit and revitalize the spirit with good humor,” she said about his presentation.
This was Carrion’s first time to attend the congress, and she said she wished she had taken the opportunity to come sooner. The congress also gave her the chance to see people she knows through Cursillo and other movements, she said.
Justina Onuoha and her children, Jennifer and Kingsley, attend Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Atlanta. Jennifer will start college as a freshman at the University of Georgia this fall, and her mother encouraged her to experience the congress first.
The high school valedictorian said, “I want to set off on the right path.”
Having attended a public school, she has and will continue to hear “a million questions” about her faith, most often “misconceptions and stereotypes,” Jennifer Onuoha said.
For Erin Kline, the congress is a spiritual revitalization, said the parishioner of Prince of Peace Church.
“I love the congress—everything about it—being able to see everybody and reconnecting with God. I have a hard time with that at times. Being with him and feeling such peace and connection is why I continue coming back,” Kline said.
Nearly 60 exhibitors participated in the congress, offering items for sale from prayer pillowcases to religious jewelry. Some exhibitors were on hand to promote ministries or programs such as the Pregnancy Aid Clinic and Catholic Relief Services.
Many families tailgated or enjoyed picnic lunches outdoors, while others bought food from vendors inside.
High school sophomore Diana Maldonado, a parishioner at St. Theresa Church in Douglasville, was enjoying lunch with friends in the main hallway of the center.
Maldonado attends the congress each year with her parents and said she loves seeing the variety of parishes represented.
“We’re all united,” she said. “We all believe.”
Maldonado said she did miss having the teen track programming and hopes that it will be on the schedule next year.
Erin Walker, 8, and Shawn Walker, 5, attended the congress with their mother, Micki. The family attends Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City.
The Walker children enjoyed the “Adore!” track for children and had the chance to meet Archbishop Gregory.
“I liked making the crafts,” said Erin, who showed her passport of Paul’s travels to Antioch and Corinth. Shawn proudly showed his fish made by the scratch art process. Both said they would like to come back to the congress next year.
Where do we find disciples?
Bishop Joseph N. Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago was a special guest at the Atlanta Office of Vocations table.
Bishop Perry was a first-time attendee and said while the Archdiocese of Chicago has an association for Eucharistic adoration, they don’t have an event on such a large scale as Atlanta’s.
“It’s really remarkable,” Bishop Perry said.
Those attending the congress could also visit the adoration chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, to spend time in quiet prayer and to leave prayer requests in writing.
At 4:30 p.m., many re-gathered in the main hall to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet, sung by Donna Cori Gibson, before the closing Mass.
The afternoon of music, fellowship, and the powerful testimonies of speakers concluded with vigil Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory.
“Where are we to find candidates for discipleship in today’s world and how does one go about making a disciple?” the archbishop asked in his homily.
“Follow the example of Christ himself,” he answered, who found candidates for discipleship sitting at a well, at a tax collector’s table, on the road to Damascus, “in the most ordinary places of his time.”
Today, they might be “under the city overpasses or standing in soup lines, in prisons where they may languish under perhaps well-deserved punishment, but with hope,” Archbishop Gregory said, “or in high-rise office buildings.”
“These are those who we must invite into discipleship,” Archbishop Gregory said.
To do so, he pointed to the example of Jesus, whose actions inspired followers, and to Pope Francis, who “mesmerizes … because of his gestures far more than anything he might say.”
“We do not so much instruct others as we need to witness to our faith,” the archbishop said. “The way we attend to the poor. The way we look out for the little ones. We entice people into faith as Jesus himself did for the crowds who saw him in action.”
“Our faith is a great and matchless treasure—one which needs to be spread far and wide—and renewed in the hearts of those whose faith may have grown weak,” Archbishop Gregory said.
Suzanne Haugh and Gretchen Keiser contributed to this story.