By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published June 12, 2015
COLLEGE PARK—Ushers wearing gold T-shirts walked the main hallway of the Georgia International Convention Center ahead of the Eucharistic Congress morning procession, carrying signs reading, “Silence, please kneel.”
The volunteers prepared the way for the Eucharistic procession, led by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, guest Bishop Robert N. Lynch, of St. Petersburg, Florida, and priests and deacons of the archdiocese.
Parish groups from across the 69-county archdiocese began lining up in the center’s driveway early for the 8:30 a.m. procession Saturday, June 6. Ministries and apostolates such as the Pan African Catholic Organization, the Lay Cistercians and the Alliance of the Two Hearts joined the array of parish groups, from costumed dancers of St. Matthew Church in Winder to Vietnamese parishioners wearing traditional dress of áo dài, for a procession reflecting the church’s universal nature. More than 100 parishes, schools and groups participated.
The Hispanic parishioners of St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville sported “Super Jesus” T-shirts incorporating a Superman-like logo into the design. They entered the center singing joyfully while other groups danced and clapped.
Many of the Catholic schools joined in the procession with students spending one of their first Saturday mornings of summer under a bright sun waiting patiently to come indoors.
A small group of Our Lady of Mercy High School students gathered with chaperones under the Fayetteville school’s banner. The mostly rising sophomore and junior girls wore school uniforms. Some had attended a congress before, but for rising 10th-grade student Eden Rorabaugh, it was a new experience.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Rorabaugh.
First Communion children lead the way
Becca Balmes and her family made the more than 90-mile trip from Milledgeville for the congress. It was their first time, and they become aware of the event after receiving an invitation for daughter Esmé to participate with other children leading the procession because she received her first Communion this year.
Balmes said her family worships at Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville and has always belonged to smaller parishes. She thought the congress would be the opportunity to show her children the “largeness of the church.”
The family stood by the main door watching the hour-long procession.
“We thought it would be really neat,” said Balmes. “There’s different kinds of people.”
Before and after the procession, the hall of vendors and exhibitors was buzzing with activity.
More than 60 vendors brought their wares, including books, jewelry, crucifixes, wood-crafted rosaries and Nativity sets, and Catholic prints. For exhibitors including Catholic Relief Services, the Pregnancy Aid Clinic, and the Couple to Couple League, it was a chance to bring awareness about their ministries.
Vendors Anne and Kurt Redlinger were making a return trip to the congress. Residents of San Diego, California, the Redlingers are owners of “Got Mary?”
It’s more than a business for them. “It’s our ministry,” said Anne Redlinger.
They brought stacks and stacks of Marian T-shirts with various designs and colors and some that glow in the dark.
“This is our second year,” said Redlinger, who found herself thinking that her home diocese should have a similar event.
“Got Mary?” also sold T-shirts with the theme of mercy, as Pope Francis has declared the Year of Mercy to begin Dec. 8.
This year’s Eucharistic Congress theme of “I Will Be With You Always” brought tears to Redlinger’s eyes as she talked about the encouragement it provides in such a chaotic world.
“It gives us hope. The Lord is with us always,” she said.
The Redlingers are likely to return next year to Atlanta.
“It’s so beautiful to see the families,” she said. “Everyone is so friendly.”
A steady stream of people, including young parents teaching their children about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, visited the adoration chapel off the main corridor throughout the day. The chapel featured a newly designed entrance to draw attention to its location.
‘Search for truth’ leads to Catholic Church
Listening to speaker Steve Ray, a convert to Catholicism who writes and speaks on apologetics, Althea Fletcher was jumping out of her seat in the English track at the congress to applaud and affirm his clear explanations of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist and the Mass.
“I’m excited. It blows the mind,” said Fletcher, a member of St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro. “It explains it so wonderfully well. It encapsulates everything. I’m so glad I came.”
Part of the parish religious education department, Fletcher is also active in a group studying the faith that meets monthly in homes. They have heard Ray in video format but hearing him teach in person “just brings it to life.”
She said that daily life teaches her the truth “about the Eucharist being the real presence of Christ.”
“I have the privilege of going to morning Mass,” Fletcher said. “If I don’t get there, my day doesn’t go as well.”
She and her husband, Eric, were at the Eucharistic Congress for the first time.
Eric Fletcher said he is deeply impressed by the convictions of former Protestant and evangelical pastors who were led into the Catholic Church by their study of Scripture and church history.
“These people, just in the search for truth, just in deeper and deeper study with an open mind, ended up in the Catholic Church,” he said.
“I didn’t get to do all this deep study. These guys did, and they ended up in the Catholic Church.”
In his morning homily, Bishop Lynch emphasized the transformative power of the Eucharist.
An estimated 25,000 people or more attended the 20th annual Eucharistic Congress. It is the largest gathering of Catholics in the Southeast. For the first time, attendees offered their thoughts via the social media hashtag, #ATLEC2015.
Many of those attending snapped photos in front of a large banner of Jesus’ Ascension for posting on social media. CatholicMatch.com provided the opportunity for visitors to take pictures of themselves with three life-size cardboard popes, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
The archives staff of the archdiocese compiled an impressive display of historical materials for visitors to learn more about the church locally and globally.
Various language tracks, children’s track
After the opening Eucharistic procession, homily by Bishop Lynch and Benediction, separate programs were offered Saturday, June 6, in English, Spanish, American Sign Language and Vietnamese. The “Adore” kids track was held for children ages 5 to 11.
The congress began Friday evening, June 5, with an opening Mass, healing service, “Revive” young adults program and a French-language track. Priests offered the sacrament of reconciliation both Friday evening and Saturday.
“The healing service was amazing, just to see how everybody was feeling the spirit, was feeling God,” said Angel Livingston, of St. Brigid Church, Johns Creek.
Australian Alan Ames, who led the service, briefly prayed over each person who sought individual prayer.
“God can do a lot in a second,” Livingston said he told them. “It was really, really nice,” she said.
Lino Rulli, broadcaster and speaker, has been attending Atlanta’s Eucharistic Congress for the last six years.
Rulli, who travels the world as “The Catholic Guy” on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, spoke at “Revive” Friday evening and again Saturday as part of the English track.
“This is the biggest event without a pope. Jesus is a big draw,” said Rulli.
Personal media advisor to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Rulli knows other dioceses would have a hard time replicating Atlanta’s congress.
“I wouldn’t expect this anywhere,” he said.
During the congress, Rulli enjoyed watching families interacting and teaching their children about the faith.
“That’s what’s neat about this,” he said. “It’s real. … You get to see a real church.”