By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published June 7, 2018
COLLEGE PARK—United in love of Jesus, thousands of Catholics from all corners of the archdiocese and representing many ethnic backgrounds participated in the morning procession Saturday, June 2, at the 23rd annual Eucharistic Congress at the Georgia International Convention Center.
The procession is the traditional launch of Saturday events at the congress, which takes place on the feast of Corpus Christi. An estimated 10,000 people participate with their parish, school or ministry groups, carrying banners and wearing matching T-shirts or costumes reflecting their heritage. The two-day congress, considered the largest gathering of Catholics in the Southeast, attracts an estimated 30,000 people.
From outside the College Park convention center, the Eucharistic procession made its way along the sidewalk before journeying inside and down the main hallway into the large exhibit hall space.
Inside the hall, worshippers watched the procession on big screen monitors while singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus, East to West my sins are gone.” Attendees saved chairs for late-arriving friends and family.
At the conclusion of the procession, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory entered, holding aloft the monstrance with the Eucharistic host.
The liturgy included exposition, adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
Lectors presented Scripture readings in Vietnamese and Spanish with the Gospel proclaimed in English.
The morning homilist was Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap., archbishop of Boston.
Calling us to live in unity
Cardinal O’Malley spoke of Father Vincent Donovan’s missionary work in Africa and how it helped the priest rediscover the message of the Gospel.
When Father Donovan would arrive in a village, “he was never sure when the Eucharist was going to be celebrated,” explained the cardinal.
It was always the elders of the village who would decide whether it was appropriate for Mass to be celebrated, depending on whether there was any discord or lack of forgiveness among members of the community.
“They did not make it a sacrilege by calling themselves the body of Christ” if sin existed, he said.
The villagers “instinctively grasped” the meaning of the Eucharist and this approach made them “more responsible for one another,” said Cardinal O’Malley.
The cardinal said that above the altar in the pastoral center’s chapel at the Archdiocese of Boston are the words, “The Master is here and he is calling you.”
The words are from John’s account of the raising of Lazarus when Martha calls her sister, Mary.
“I find it a wonderful quote to associate with the Eucharist. In a word, he is inviting us to follow him,” said Cardinal O’Malley.
The cardinal indicated that St. Peter is a favorite, and in the Gospels his human flaws are apparent, he said.
On the heels of Jesus speaking of unity among disciples, Peter asks him a question about forgiveness.
“He wants to know how many times he has to forgive his brother,” said the cardinal.
This shows that it’s the people closest to us who can hurt us the most and can often be the most difficult to forgive.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” were Jesus’ words on unity. And then, “Peter is asking for permission to punch someone in the nose,” said Cardinal O’Malley.
Peter learns that he must stop counting and keep on forgiving.
The cardinal also shared the work of Capuchin friars in Papua New Guinea.
The mission was successful as they brought the joy of the Gospel to people whose lives were once ruled by belief in evil spirits and practices of cannibalism.
Missionaries shared with others back in the United States by ham radio how a group of new and zealous Catholics had set out and encountered Lutherans, and returned upset after learning that divisions existed among Christians.
The friars were embarrassed to explain to the converts that it was true, and that there was complacency about the divisions.
“They were better Christians than we, because they felt the pain” of disunity, explained the cardinal.
When the mother of British historian and scholar Christopher Dawson learned he was becoming Catholic, she expressed dismay because he would now “worship with the help,” he said.
“At the Eucharist, there are to be no rich and no poor. The Eucharist is not a private devotion,” said Cardinal O’Malley.
The Eucharist calls Christ’s followers to action, he said.
“When we are truly gathered together, then God hears our prayer,” said the cardinal. “He’s calling us to live the unity for which he prayed at the Last Supper.”
Jesus has given his followers their marching orders in the commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
The formula becomes different than to love your neighbor as yourself, said the cardinal.
“Now, Jesus’ love is the measuring stick. How does Jesus love us? He loves us first,” he said. “He loves us while we are still in sin.”
Being one in love and faith
Following the homily, Archbishop Gregory welcomed all who gathered to show love for Jesus Christ.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for making this a priority,” said Archbishop Gregory.
He thanked his brother bishops, deacons, priests, religious, volunteers and all who brought their gifts to share at the congress.
“We are especially grateful to the guest speakers,” he said.
The archbishop said one of the highlights of the event is visiting the children’s track for adoration.
“It is truly inspiring to see the joy” radiating from their faces and hearts as they adore Christ with their “entire baptized beings,” he said.
He expressed hope that the day would be dominated by the theme of being one in love and faith.
“We are not alone in this world. No matter what, we are all together,” said Archbishop Gregory. “We need the Eucharist because it is Christ living within us.”
For the archbishop it was the 14th congress, started by his predecessor the late Archbishop John F. Donoghue.
“We fondly remember him today for this gift,” he said.
The congress has become a model for other dioceses in organizing similar events.
“It’s just extraordinary,” said Deacon Dennis Dorner, chancellor of the archdiocese.
“There is nothing else like this in the United States. Where else do you go to hear amazing messages of faith and joy? It doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
Prior to the beginning of the English track programs, participants watched a moving video of prayer for priests.
The English track program featured Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College; Steven Ray, a convert to Catholicism; Deacon Steve Swope, global fellow ambassador educator for Catholic Relief Services; Father Peter Vasko, OFM, president of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land; Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart, founder of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth religious community; and Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
Simultaneously, tracks were also being held in Spanish, American Sign Language and Vietnamese and for children and those in middle school.
Nearly 60 exhibitors displayed information about ministries or featured religious items such as T-shirts, jewelry or handcrafted statues and prayer panels for purchase.
Janis Griffin, a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, created Ladybug Legend Rosaries to help fund the parish Haiti ministry. She has exhibited at the congress several times before.
The ministry helps Haitian children with educational costs and provides meals.
“It grew out of my trip to Haiti,” said Griffin of her rosary-making endeavor. She was aware of the legend of the ladybug, also called “Our Lady’s Beetles,” before making the trip. Providence placed a couple of ladybugs in her path on the 2012 trip, and she discerned moving in a new direction to raise funds with the rosaries she already made in her spare time.
“OK, Blessed Mother, I got your message,” said Griffin. “I’m making the rosaries anyway.”
The congress is her big stop every year. She also exhibits at the Eucharistic Congress in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September and various parish festivals.
Karen Thomas, community outreach coordinator for Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center, Atlanta, created a prayer center with a picture of St. Ignatius of Loyola at the Ignatius House exhibit. The prayer center also included a copy of the saint’s Spiritual Exercises and a daily examen prayer card.
She had many visitors dropping by to register for a chance to win a free retreat.
Thomas shared that “Be still and know that I am God,” is often the starting point of many retreats offered there.
Outside the exhibitors’ hall, Catholic Relief Services offered a virtual reality experience of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. The interactive video allowed viewers to share in the journey of refugee children served by CRS and partner Caritas.
The virtual reality experience took guests inside a simple classroom where Sisters of the Good Shepherd instruct children. Many of the young refugees have not attended school in years after fleeing violence in their homeland.
Inside the tracks
At the congress, some 500 children ages 5 to 10 attended their own special program, including music, crafts, time for adoration and programs to help them learn about love and unity.
Deacon Dorner said additional volunteers will enable organizers to host more children next year.
“One of the principal tenants of our Pastoral Plan is ‘Knowing our Faith’ and this begins in teaching our children,” said the deacon. “Having the Dominican Sisters working in the Children’s track was a huge blessing as was the outstanding presence of our seminarians.”
Next door at the Marriott Gateway hotel, Vietnamese Catholics gathered for their track with visiting Bishop John Do Van Ngan.
The bishop was ordained to the priesthood in 1992 for the Diocese of Xuân Lôc in Vietnam. In May 2017, Pope Francis appointed him auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Xuân Lôc. He was ordained the following month.
Danh Than Nguyen, chair of the parish council at Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, Norcross, helped organize the track. He said attendance was at full capacity.
Nguyen said the focal points of Bishop Ngan’s message were that “the Eucharist is nourishment for the people of God” and Communion “unites all the faithful together.”
The bishop fielded questions from the audience.
Middle school students learned more about the faith from presenters Dom Quaglia Jr., Jimmy Mitchell and Sarah Kroger during a program of music and messages.
The middle school track was also held at the Marriott Gateway with 200 young people attending.
“How many of you have been to adoration before?” Kroger asked the middle schoolers. She had a good show of hands in response.
Kroger, a singer-songwriter, talked about feeling lost in a crowd and wondering how God can see her.
“But he does,” she told the students. “He calls us by name. He knows everything about you.”
He even knows what situations they’re about to walk into, Kroger said.
Prior to adoration, she explained that the word “monstrance” means “to show.”
A few moments later, Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, auxiliary bishop of Atlanta, processed into the ballroom with the monstrance.
He spoke to them about St. Thomas Aquinas as a doctor of the church.
“The Holy Spirit gave him wisdom,” explained Bishop Konzen.
“He was one of the great teachers. He was able to take what all of the great fathers of the church, the early popes and others said and put it into a really nice system of what we believe,” said the bishop.
That’s important to have because believers can take that knowledge to others, he said.
“Another thing he did is he wrote these beautiful hymns about the Eucharist that we use in Mass,” said Bishop Konzen.
At morning Benediction, worshippers sang one of the saint’s hymns, the “Pange Lingua,” said the bishop.
He explained some of the hymn’s Latin lyrics to the young people.
“When the senses kind of give out … when they’ve done everything else they can possibly do, there is still more, and that more is our faith,” he shared. “Our senses say this is a magnificent sight, but it is beyond that. There’s something more here. … We say this is Jesus.”
Bishop Konzen acknowledged that it’s hard to put into words the beautiful reality of the Eucharist, but faith takes people beyond what they see and hear to a level where they can touch God.
“That’s why you’re here. I’m delighted that’s why you’re here,” he told them.
He asked the middle schoolers to remember their parents and others in need of prayer and tell God, “I want them to be yours forever.”
Bishop Konzen answered questions about the meaning of the fleur-de-lis symbol honoring his Marist roots and his pectoral cross that once belonged to Atlanta’s first auxiliary bishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Archbishop Gregory gave him the cross.
“There’s kind of a historical connection there,” he said.
One of the students asked him what inspired him to be a bishop.
“What inspired me was a phone call I got, quite unexpectedly I might add,” Bishop Konzen said with a smile. “That’s the way things happen in the life of faithful people.”
He had about three minutes to answer “yes” to the Holy Father’s request during the call from the apostolic nuncio. Bishop Konzen told the tweens and teens that maybe some of them will get calls one day, too.
“God works through real people in the church,” he reminded them.
A single heart
Hundreds took advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation being offered at the convention center between noon and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Linda Chisolm and Gema Fain were among those making confessions and also visiting the adoration chapel set up at the congress. They were thankful for the priests who served as confessors.
Parishioners of Good Shepherd Church, Cumming, they rode by car together.
“This is my eighth year,” said Fain.
The friends were in line to get a copy of Steven Ray’s book and Mother Olga’s DVD.
Both were big fans of the nun’s message, saying she received a standing ovation from the crowd.
“She hugged us,” they said.
During her talk, Mother Olga said she would give visitors who came to see her a hug.
“She was true to her word, bless her,” said Chisolm.
She knows why she keeps coming to the Eucharistic Congress each year.
“It’s the celebration of the Eucharist and the opportunity to come together with so many Catholics,” said Chisolm.
Fain encouraged friends who had not come before to do so, and a couple of them decided to make the trip on the parish’s bus.
“I like seeing all the religious. They’re all smiling,” added Fain about the congress experience.
Chisolm enjoys the procession and its diversity.
“It just touches you,” she said.
Jeprey and Janeth Gemao traveled from Athens, where they worship at St. Joseph Church. Their daughter and sons wore “We Stand for Jesus” T-shirts and happily joined the activities of the day. The children liked visiting the different ministry and exhibitor tables to see what’s available.
“I have three boys. I’m hoping one of them will go into the priesthood,” said Jeprey Gemao.
Following the praying of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, Archbishop Gregory celebrated the closing vigil Mass for the solemnity of Corpus Christi and gave the homily.
When Moses came to the people with the ordinances of the Lord, the people responded with one voice, saying they would do everything the Lord had told them to do, recalled the archbishop.
He said God must have been quite pleased to hear that.
“God’s design has always been focused toward unity among those that he has chosen to love and to be his own special people. God wants us all to speak with one voice, but even more God wants us to live as one, to love one another, to act in unity, and to have a single heart,” said Archbishop Gregory.
He said the need for unity has never been greater as the work of the evil one tries to divide and destroy any sense of peace that occurs in the community of faith.
“Unfortunately, there are still too many people who choose to highlight the dissimilarities that distinguish us even at the very reception of the Eucharist,” he noted.
Some quarrel over standing or kneeling to receive the Eucharist or jockey for a position to receive Communion from a priest instead of a layperson or fuss about choice of music at the liturgy, he said.
“The Eucharist is Christ’s gift of unity for his church,” emphasized the archbishop. “He longs for all of us to be one with him and with one another especially at the moment of our Communion with the Lord of all creation.”
Each year the church in the Atlanta Archdiocese celebrates oneness at the congress, said Archbishop Gregory.
“We come together in festive garb, speaking the languages of all our people. We bring our youngsters and our newest Catholics. We sing songs that we may have learned as children—many of them originating in other lands but brought here in the hearts of our people,” he said. “On this one weekend of the year, we tell the Lord that we will speak with one voice, love with a single heart and strive to live the unity of the Eucharist faithfully for another year.”
With a special video reveal, the archbishop also announced the theme for next year’s Eucharistic Congress: “This is my body, given up for you.”
The congress will be held June 21-22, 2019.