By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 27, 2014
COLLEGE PARK—The bustling, banner-filled march that begins the Eucharistic Congress had already stepped off this steamy Atlanta Saturday morning, but the 70 people from Cedartown weren’t moving yet.
The line of Catholics who praised God with dancing, singing and marching was long. It would take another 45 minutes before these women, men and teenagers at the back of the winding outdoor procession felt the convention center’s air conditioning.
“You see different races, different churches coming together to celebrate,” said Leobard Rodriguez, 17, who walked at the front of the Cedartown parish group, carrying the banner for St. Bernadette Church. Parishioners wore matching blue T-shirts. Printed on the front was a statement of their faith: “Jesucristo presente en la Eucharist.” They walked and sang Spanish lyrics in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the inspiration first of Mexico and now patroness of the Americas.
The 2014 Eucharistic Congress has been compared to the Super Bowl, the World Cup, the United Nations of the Catholic Church as it draws an estimated 25,000 people in the deep South during two days to the Georgia International Convention Center. It has been celebrated in the Archdiocese of Atlanta for 19 years.
The event attracts all ages and walks of life. A religious sister in her black habit and fashionable teens alike found inspiration among the crowds. A home-schooling family in suburban Atlanta and the founder of a Spanish radio station model their faith by their lives.
“No matter who you are, what language you speak, everyone comes together,” said Lissa Escutia, 33, a grade school teacher, with two daughters in tow.
‘You can make disciples’
Jennifer Baker and Marleny Escobar set their alarms to ring at 6 a.m. to make it to the congress. The 17-year-olds worship at Rome’s St. Mary Church.
“It was my first year here last year, and I enjoyed it. Meeting other Catholics and seeing a bunch of people here motivates me,” said Escobar. “The theme this year was catchy—go and make disciples. It made me want to learn more. For me, it’s not just anything. It’s alive and it’s real for me. It’s something I take seriously, and it’s getting me closer to God and my Catholic faith.”
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, you can make disciples,” Escobar said.
For Baker, the day may help encourage friends to return to the faith.
“I feel like it’s a good example to lead others to something like this, if you have Catholic friends and they aren’t that involved (in the church),” she said.
In her black habit, the member of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne looked very different than the teenagers, in their skinny jeans and van sneakers, but her enthusiasm in reviving faith at the congress mirrored the younger teens.
Sister Mary Damien, whose convent and ministry in cancer home nursing is next to Turner Field, said the unity of Catholics coming from the different parishes and ministries makes the experience unique.
“We’re so diversified and yet we are all one. That’s the beautiful thing about the church. I think it brings us all together, and we want to share our faith,” said Sister Damien, a sister for 35 years, with a silver band on her left hand.
“To see who we are and how we live—that brings people to us,” she said.
Discipleship is a task to love the faith, bring others into the faith, and “remind each other of (Jesus’) love,” she said.
John McDonald sat with other Knights of Columbus members. They rested from their 15-minute shifts as honor guards outside the Eucharistic chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed throughout the day in the convention center. Their plumed hats were on the round table and their swords stayed on their waist. The men of the fraternal organization, along with the Knights of Peter Claver, stand at the chapel’s doors, opening them and assisting worshippers.
“I’m inspired by the numbers of the people who come to give honor to the Blessed Sacrament,” said McDonald, 55. Four generations of his family have been members of the society, with its core principles of charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism.
“This place has been packed all morning. They are packed in there like sardines,” he said of the chapel, a respite of prayer and silence in the building.
Home is ‘domestic church’
Along the corridors of the convention center were information tables for church ministries and religious communities, vendors selling T-shirts and Chick-fil-A. Among them were two radio stations, Radio Inmaculada and Radio Kerigma, broadcasting live.
Radio Inmaculada is based in southwest Douglas County, but with a global reach as its audience can listen in on its website. Founder Genry Batista said the station’s new smartphone app has had 354,000 downloads so people can listen on their smartphones.
He and his wife, Leonor, and daughter, Jazmine, converted a small cluttered table with microphones into a studio where they interviewed congress speakers and bishops.
Evangelization isn’t just for nuns and priests, said Leonor Batista.
“We have to become involved. We want to help build the church. We are the bridge to get the news” to the community, she said.
For the Boster family, discipleship is often focused on their Cumming home.
With four children and a fifth on the way, Nathan and Sara Boster said their focus as disciples is on the “domestic church.”
The family knelt together, with the youngest on the floor cuddled in her blanket, as the monstrance with the Eucharist was carried through the hallway from the main convention hall into the adoration chapel. They worship at St. Brigid Church, in Johns Creek.
Nathan, 37, who works in the computer industry, said going out with the family often raises questions from others about its size.
“We hope it may be a witness to be open to life,” he said.
For Sara, 37, her goal is for her children to “be prepared to live the faith in the house and (for the home) to be a training ground to go out into the world.”
Another opportunity to share their faith is the interest in Pope Francis and how he’s shaped the style of the papacy to emphasize poverty as a high priority, along with abortion and other issues.
Coworkers have told him how the pope “seems down to earth, what a fascinating guy,” said Nathan. “That’s neat to turn into a discussion,” he said.
Karir Mejia, 41, volunteered for the Spanish track, along with his wife, Dina. They’ve attended the congress multiple times and always volunteered.
He wasn’t raised in the church, but came to his faith 20 years ago.
“I had my own encounter with Jesus, and I started believing. After that, step by step I’m growing in the Catholic faith,” he said.
For him, serving at the congress is like a ministry.
“I’m like a servant to God, and I can serve God by serving my brothers and sisters,” Mejia said.
Lindsay Gladu contributed to this story.