By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 12, 2015
COLLEGE PARK—Tens of thousands of people filled the Georgia International Convention Center, making it the center of the Catholic community in the Atlanta Archdiocese on June 5 and 6.
The day-and-a-half event was the 20th annual Eucharistic Congress, as people speaking a variety of languages explored the Catholic faith, worshipped together, and greeted nationally known speakers.
Organizers annually estimate between 20,000 and 25,000 people attend, making it one of the largest celebrations of the Catholic faith in the Southeast.
“This is what heaven is going to look like,” said Rachel Barolette, a first-time attendee and member of St. Oliver Plunkett Church, Snellville, whose son marched with other first communicants.
The speakers explored the church’s teaching on the Eucharist at the free event.
“Be who you are. Become who you receive,” said St. Petersburg, Florida, Bishop Robert N. Lynch, the keynote speaker during the Saturday morning session.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory welcomed the crowd in the cavernous conference hall to the 20th celebration, and his 11th as Atlanta’s shepherd.
“Our hearts no doubt will be touched by the grace of Jesus,” he said, adding he sees great joy shown in the people of different cultures and languages coming together for the feast of the Body of Christ, Corpus Christi.
Eucharist spurring people to action
The 2015 theme, “I will be with you always,” comes from the Gospel of St. Matthew.
Focusing his morning homily on the Eucharist spurring people to social justice, Bishop Lynch said, “Our common act of remembrance of Jesus’ Passion reminds us that God is to be found in the one who suffers, God is to be found in the sick, God is to be found in the marginalized, God is to be found in the rejected, God is to be found in the outcasts. They teach us.”
“The theme for this year’s congress, then, conveys two profound aspects of our Eucharistic faith: the reassurance of Jesus’ perpetual presence to us through his real presence in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist’s commissioning of us to an apostolate of justice and peace in the world in which we live,” Bishop Lynch said.
The theme comes from “Jesus’ words to his closest friends, to whom he has entrusted the continuation of his ministry. These words are addressed to us as well.”
Jesus’ words are both reassuring to people who follow him and also a mandate to continue his work here on earth, he said. The Bible is clear how God supports the oppressed, starting with the dignity of women and men as God favors the enslaved Israelites in the Book of Exodus, to advocating for “the wisdom of justice and the folly of injustice” in the Book of Wisdom, he said. The New Testament includes Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes and his action in washing the feet of others, he said.
Bishop Lynch said worshipping Jesus present in the Eucharist is enriched when people move from adoration to action. He cast a wide net of issues that represent the church’s concerns, from respect for human dignity and just wages to concern for the environment and healthy marriages and family life.
He said, “These are all a part of our belief and our embrace of the Eucharist and the mission that God left us when he left himself present to us.”
Said Bishop Lynch, “If we go forth to share our faith, we will discover that he remains present to us in and through those whom we serve. For they are the prolongation of the Incarnation for each of us.”
Opening night draws young adults, those seeking healing
The 2015 Eucharistic Congress began Friday evening, June 5, as people came for the opening Mass with Auxiliary Bishop David P. Talley. Afterward, many joined in prayer for a healing service led by Australian Alan Ames. Some 300 young adults moved on to “Revive,” in a ballroom at the nearby Atlanta Airport Marriott Gateway hotel, to hear SiriusXM radio personality, Lino Rulli, share his story of faith.
The opening Eucharistic procession on Saturday, June 6, included more than 100 banner-waving parish, school, ministry and spiritual groups, displaying different languages, dress, instruments, songs and dances. In a slow march, they filed into the convention center for about an hour, passing before the Eucharist displayed in a large monstrance on the altar.
Speakers during the day included Rulli; Deacon Dennis Dorner, chancellor of the Atlanta Archdiocese; Kerri Caviezel, an advocate for youth and pro-life counselor; Teresa Tomeo, an author and syndicated Catholic talk show host; and Steven Ray, apologetics speaker and Catholic convert. Father Michael Depcik, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and one of the few deaf priests in the country, taught in the American Sign Language track.
Deacon Dorner again led the steering committee planning the congress.
“The morning procession is always the biggest highlight for me. When it begins each year, I feel like all of the work of the steering committee has just been rewarded when you see the joy and experience the enthusiasm of that huge crowd coming into the halls. The sounds, the music, the banners, the dancing: It’s all just amazing,” he said in an email June 9.
“I have said this many times in the past: If just one person has a deeper relationship with Jesus because of the congress, then we have been blessed. We are all our brothers’ keeper. It’s our shared responsibility to help others get to heaven. We do that both one-on-one and in community,” he said.
Programs were offered in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, French and American Sign Language, along with one for young children. The main halls had enough chairs to sit 10,000 people.
Congress opens eyes to worldwide church
Teenager Dinachi Okonkwo, who worships at St. John Vianney Church, Lithia Springs, attends the congress often.
“You see a whole bunch of people from different backgrounds and cultures, and they are all coming together for one common cause. It’s because we are Catholic,” said Okonkwo, who had collected rosaries and prayer cards from various vocation tables set up in the main concourse.
Chris Zeigler, of St. Ann Church, Marietta, watched the young people in “Adore,” the track for the youngest Catholics as he played bass in the band.
He said he watched with interest as the kids knelt when the Eucharist carried in the monstrance by Archbishop Gregory came into the room.
“They don’t fully understand it, but they react to it,” he said.
Zeigler said the congress opens people’s eyes to the worldwide church.
“If you go to one church, if you go to one Mass, you don’t see a lot (of different people). This is everything in Atlanta,” he said.
Nearly 70 exhibitors set up in a lively marketplace, representing everything from Catholic schools to booksellers and from fair trade coffee to colorful T-shirts.
Business was brisk at Catholicmatch.com where visitors photographed themselves among life-size cutouts of Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. “Non-stop picture-taking all day, which is fun. That’s why we bring them,” said Brian Stashak, a booth volunteer.
He also said four or five married couples, “some young, some old,” and one newly engaged couple had stopped by to say they’d met on Catholicmatch.com. The 13-year-old exclusively Catholic site recently reached its 1 millionth customer, Stashak said.
Ignatius Press said the fastest selling books at their booth at the congress included “The Noonday Devil,” a book by Benedictine Abbot Jean-Charles Nault on acedia, the vice of sloth, gloominess and lack of purpose the title calls “the unnamed evil of our times.” Also selling out were “Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life” by Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, Vinny Flynn’s “7 Secrets of Confession,” and “Tweeting With God,” questions from teens answered in tweets by Father Michael Remery, a priest of the Netherlands, now in expanded book context.
Sister Kathleen Thomas from the Daughters of St. Paul was helping in the Pauline booth, where she said the bestseller is “still” the Bible, along with the Catechism of the Catholic Church in English and Spanish and children’s books.
“The Rosary With Pope Francis” was also popular, she said.
Nick Shaw, vice president of Carmel Communications, said spiritual books have remained strong even in the digital age. He speculated it might be because a book can be used in prayer and doesn’t bring with it the tempting distractions of online spiritual resources.
“A lot of the written word you can take into an adoration chapel for reflection,” Shaw said.
‘The people coming were hungry’
Outside the large conference halls, visitors crowded the concourse. At one end, tables showcased the ministries of a variety of religious vocations, from the archdiocesan permanent diaconate to international religious communities. At the other end, a crowd stood shoulder to shoulder, several people deep, to watch radio personalities broadcast their shows live.
Mother Christina Murray was one of three nuns who drove the seven hours from their Kentucky convent. There are 11 members of their community, the Sisters of St. Joseph the Worker, which was founded in the early 1970s. They serve in a nursing home and a grade school. The community played a role in a reality TV show, “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns.”
Sisters first attended the Eucharistic Congress two years ago and were “blown away,” she said. Mother Christina said the goal is not to recruit people but to give people an opportunity to meet a member of the religious community, ask questions, learn about the community, and to take away apprehension people may feel. She said it isn’t uncommon for Catholics never to have met a religious sister before.
“The people coming were hungry. We brought hundreds of holy cards and rosaries. And they are all gone,” she said.
At the central hub of Catholic radio, announcers huddled with microphones from Catholic Cast; Radio Inmaculada; Radio Kerigma; the Catholic Channel on SiriusXM; and from St. Joseph Church, Dalton.
Juan Diaz prepared his equipment to broadcast for Radio Kerigma live. “Preaching the Good News” is its tag line.
Diaz said the inspiration for the station is St. John Paul II and his call for a new evangelization. “Evangelization has to be refreshed and new. We spread the Gospel and let the people know Jesus loves you,” he said.
“We are here because we love the same Jesus, the same God. We are one church, no matter where you come from, what language you speak,” he said.
At the closing vigil Mass for Corpus Christi, following an afternoon filled with talks and music, Archbishop Gregory returned to the theme, “I will be with you always.”
“Jesus repeatedly promised that he would be with his disciples always, even to the end of the world. … Jesus, because he has overcome death itself, can make such a promise and then fulfill it in many different ways,” he said.
“The Eucharist, however, is a very special expression of that reality.”
“It is the Eucharist that stands out as a unique, visible expression of his desire to remain with the people he loves … as a life-giving reality that not only nourishes us but sanctifies those who share in this banquet of life.”
In the interweaving of cultures characteristic of the Corpus Christi event, readings were given in Spanish and English and the prayers of the faithful in eight languages, including Hindi, Chinese, Yoruba and Croatian.
Closing the congress, Archbishop Gregory also unveiled the theme of the 2016 Eucharistic Congress, to be held June 3-4, 2016. In keeping with the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis, the theme from the Gospel of Luke 6:36 is “Be Merciful Just as Your Father Is Merciful.”
Gretchen Keiser contributed to this story.