By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published June 10, 2016
COLLEGE PARK—The opening Mass of the Eucharistic Congress took place this year on the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and that was “providential,” said Bishop David P. Talley.
“How better to fathom” the mercy of God—the theme of the congress—“than to look at the heart of Jesus, a heart filled with compassion.”
Reflecting on the Gospel for Friday, June 3, at an evening Mass attended by an estimated 2,000 people, Bishop Talley noted that the Scripture from Luke, chapter 15, begins by saying that the tax collectors and sinners “were all drawing near to listen to Jesus.”
“Why so?” he asked.
“He looked right in their eyes and talked to them about the love of God,” the bishop answered.
Walking down from the ambo on an elevated stage constructed for the congress, the bishop first came to the center of the stage and then walked down the steps and stood near the front row of people attending the Mass at the Georgia International Convention Center.
He continued to talk about how Jesus attracted sinners and about the parable of the lost sheep, relating how the Good Shepherd leaves the 99 to find the one lost sheep and returns with him, rejoicing.
The bishop proposed to look at the parable in two ways. The first is knowing we each fall from grace constantly, but have the sacrament of reconciliation as a healing remedy, meant to restore us again and again.
“It is the plan of the Father to lose no one,” Bishop Talley said.
“The second way is to look at our culture,” he said, “a culture which has lost its way.”
Exhorting the congregation, he said, “we are building walls” between races, between sexes, between people of different income levels and different ethnicities.
“Our culture values the people who are in the top 1 percent,” he continued. “Our Father values the whole.”
“Don’t continue to build those walls. Instead become a bridge, uniting,” Bishop Talley said.
With an apology for his limited voice, the bishop sang the old hymn “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” and then exhorted the people to sing it with him a few times: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
He encouraged everyone to continue to follow the Gospel. “Fear nothing. God is with us. He has given us his very heart of mercy,” the bishop said.
Thousands have entered into the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016 called by Pope Francis, he said, through prayer, and by joyfully taking up the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
“We are called by the giver of those gifts to share that gift of mercy with others, in the way we live and serve and seek to lift up those who are heavy of heart, those who have fallen away from the path of mercy and love,” Bishop Talley said.
The opening Mass was concelebrated by Bishop Luis R. Zarama and over 20 priests. The music was provided by Hearts on Fire, who regularly provide music for the Sunday evening Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Atlanta.
Newcomers are part of the family
Following the Mass, a healing service began immediately in the same hall, and the Francophone track and REVIVE program for young adults began in adjacent rooms at the Atlanta Airport Marriott Gateway hotel.
Opening the congress, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory told those coming to the Mass that “this event has become such an important moment of faith for our local church that people come from across the United States and say to us, ‘How do you do it?’”
“We do it because of you,” Archbishop Gregory told the congregation.
“People come to express their love and respect for our Eucharistic Lord and also love and respect for one another,” he said. “We come together with a spirit of joy and hope … to assure him of our love, first for him and then for one another.”
“Do we have any newcomers?” he asked. When some hands were raised, the crowd applauded and the archbishop assured them they were no longer newcomers, but part of the family.
The congress touches an important part of their faith life, people said.
“I came to be renewed and refreshed,” said Jo Ann Green, a member of St. Anthony of Padua Church, Atlanta.
Walking through the convention center, Green, 56, said she is revitalized because she sees such a diverse swath of humanity at the congress, yet all are members of her faith community.
“This is the only time you see the diversity of the archdiocese in one place,” she said. “It constantly reminds you of that diversity and how blessed we are.”
“Not all denominations are as blessed as the Roman Catholic Church in that perspective,” she said.
Green said, “I am a cradle Catholic” and added, “This is what I choose.”
A sacristan and the RCIA coordinator at her parish, in this Year of Mercy Green also got involved in a human trafficking program at St. Anthony’s.
“At first, I kind of hesitated. Then I came on board with it and I’m glad I did,” she said. “It has made me aware of how vulnerable people are, especially young people in this day and age.”
She greatly admires Pope Francis, “his simplicity, his humbleness.”
“He is the teacher and we can learn so, so much,” Green said.
Two families from Good Shepherd Church, in Cumming, came with their children, overcoming Friday evening traffic to attend the Mass. The Parra-Hernandez and Gonzalez-Cruz families have five and seven children respectively. They also planned to come back to the congress on Saturday, despite the distance.
Asked about how they could overcome the difficulties, they smiled and said, “We have a lot of faith.”