By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 11, 2019
COLLEGE PARK—Bishop Robert Reed encouraged Catholics at the annual Eucharistic Congress to draw close to “Jesus, our dearest friend” as they journey through life.
With anecdotes, drawing on the history of early Christians and mocking his own thick Boston accent, the auxiliary bishop of the Boston Archdiocese served as the keynote speaker.
“I feel so proud to be Catholic right now,” he said.
The 24th annual Eucharistic Congress took over the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park, June 21 and 22. Organizers estimate some 30,000 people attended the celebration of faith during the weekend.
Bishop Reed, president of the network CatholicTV, gave the morning homily during the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament Saturday, June 22.
“He, the bread of angels, is our viaticum, our food for this arduous, often confusing journey through life,” said Bishop Reed. There is nothing capable of satisfying the desires of people like Jesus, he said.
“Fix your eyes on heaven, fix your eyes intently on our dearest friend, even if your senses fail to fathom,” he said.
The weekend is one of the largest displays of the Catholic faith in the Southeast. In the opening procession, representatives from cultural groups, ministries, schools and parishes slowly processed for an hour to make their way from the parking lot into the convention hall.
Children and teens participated in separate track programming, with the teen track returning for the first time in several years. A new mental health class, sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, was also offered on Saturday.
Believers from the four corners of the globe who make their home in the Archdiocese of Atlanta paid tribute to their native cultures, from Aztec dancers in their finery to the costumed drummers of Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, Norcross.
In addition, there were speakers and music organized for the faithful who speak French, Vietnamese, American Sign Language and Spanish.
“There is so much diversity here. But it’s in the diversity that you can see the unity of the church,” said Brother Joshua Torres, a member of the Fraternal Society of Mercy congregation, who traveled with his fellow brothers from Puerto Rico to attend the congress.
“We have different songs and dances but we have one mission—the Gospel.”
Archdiocesan chancellor and leader of the Eucharistic Congress steering committee, Deacon Dennis Dorner, called it “a weekend of superlatives.”
He felt “a spirit of joy and peace that was pervasive throughout all of the venues.” Deacon Dorner, who has been involved with 15 congresses, recalled seeing a beautiful rainbow arched over the conference center after its closing. “I think God was pretty happy, and he let us know it,” said the deacon.
Bishop Reed was the first of several speakers for the English track.
He told stories of early Christians, some just children, who accepted death for the faith and for belief in the Eucharist. The bishop also shared more recent accounts of non-Catholics who tour churches and become amazed at the explanation of the tabernacle and the Eucharist.
Bishop Reed told the crowd how Jesus wants each of them to become saints and reach heaven.
“Age has never been a barrier to holiness,” he said.
The Eucharist is a gift and the “source and summit of our Christian life” as the Second Vatican Council called it, Bishop Reed said.
“Jesus is right here with us now. I am certain of it and I know you are as well,” he said. “We are actually looking at him and he is gazing at you, with deep affection with the same love that he had for you as he hung dying on the cross.”
The Boston bishop told the crowd how adoration and prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament should not be the stopping point. Adoration prepares people to be ready to receive holy Communion at Mass and then be dismissed into the world to serve as Jesus would, he said.
“Our charge is to be a living, breathing demonstration of our faith in Jesus; to let people know his promises are true, to reassure those who live in fear, to those who struggle and suffer, that they are not alone,” he added. “His promise is true: I am with you always until the end of the age.”
Jesus will never abandon the church, he said, and the Eucharist reminds us of this.
Bishop Reed called the Eucharist “a mystery to behold, a mystery to be shared, a mystery to be lived–Jesus, our dearest friend.”
A celebration of community
A nonstop crowd of customers filled the aisles of the exhibitor hall buying items from and visiting nearly 60 vendors from retreat centers to pro-life ministries and fraternal organizations to Holy Land tour agents.
Vivian McDaniel, who worships at Holy Cross Church, Atlanta, was cradling two statues of Jesus.
“I have two grandchildren. I want to have one for each,” she said.
McDaniel said the annual event is a chance to see, celebrate and experience the diversity of the church community.
“That is what the Catholic Church needs, more community time,” she said.
Rosaries of semi-precious stones, statues of the Holy Family, and the sword-wielding St. Michael the Archangel filled table tops in the booth run by Renzo Crovetto and his wife, Maria. The couple traveled from South Carolina to participate.
For Crovetto, the weekend is a chance to evangelize and reach people.
Crovetto said his favorite part of having a booth is sharing the histories of the religious statues or images to make people aware of their faith. He said he always encourages people to seek out a priest immediately after buying an item for a blessing before displaying it or before wearing a religious medal.
“Here people are very, very dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe,” he said. Items with her image will almost always be a popular item to purchase, he said.
Kristin Replogle watched as people viewed her creative art. Replogle, who lives in Woodstock, gets her inspiration from dreams.
“Whatever God gives me, I get down into my sketchbook and create it,” she said. She began creating a few years ago after overcoming a potentially life-threatening illness.
Many of the images have a Marian theme. Replogle said she isn’t Catholic, but is learning about the faith.
“I look at them as messages of love,” she said about her pieces.
She creates art on wooden blocks, a little larger than a deck of cards. With her background in fine arts, Replogle uses acrylic paint, mixed with paper, while other blocks are decorated with gold leaf. On the back of each block is a prayer, written in her own hand. She is inspired to write to match the art.
Replogle said she believes her pieces are destined to find a person in need of the prayer or to be uplifted with its image. She loves to see browsers stop in their tracks and connect in their heart with the art, sometimes with tears in their eyes.
Throughout the day, attendees formed a steady line for the sacrament of reconciliation. Cynthia Simien, from Christ Our Hope Church in Lithonia, has volunteered for the Eucharistic Congress for four years. As people of all ages approached the reconciliation line, Simien greeted them and handed out helpful tips for confession.
“I like being here, because it’s so good to see so many people coming to confession. It’s nice to see people taking their religion seriously,” Simien said. “And there are so many priests. There was one last year who stayed way past his time because he wanted to make sure everyone in line had the chance to go.”
Brother Torres flew in from Puerto Rico to attend the Eucharistic Congress. The Archdiocese of Atlanta has approved the order to establish a house here.
“We are here promoting our mission. We are excited to come to Atlanta and are just waiting and praying now,” he said.
Vivian Heard, the communications and public relations manager of Pinecrest Academy in Cumming, said she had not attended a congress in a few years, so was happy to return.
“I just wanted to be around the joy of so many Catholics in one place. There’s a lot of energy here,” she said. “I’ve run into several people I know. I’ve spent some time in the adoration chapel. It’s just so wonderful to see so many who are putting their faith into action.”
Diversity of Catholic life
Different church ministries lined the concourse outside the convention hall. Folks could watch live Catholic radio broadcasts, ask about religious life and learn about the process of beatification for five 16th century Georgia martyrs.
Five Franciscan friars working on the coast of Georgia in 1597 were killed for the faith.
The men are part of the history of Spanish colonialism and missionary work with indigenous people some 130 years before the colony of Georgia was founded.
An effort is underway to promote the history of Franciscan Father Pedro de Corpa and companions throughout the state, as well as their cause for sainthood.
Sister Precilla Takuh, a member of the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, collected a few names of women she planned to speak with after the Eucharistic Congress. Wearing a simple blue dress and black habit, she was attending in her role as vocations director for her community, one of three traditionally black orders of nuns in the United States. The order was founded in Savannah in 1916; its ministries are now based around New York City.
Sister Precilla, a native of Cameroon, said it is a challenge to attract young woman to consider religious life, especially in the United States. She makes it a point to attend large gatherings of Catholics to chat with people. Her goal is to make sure young people consider if God is calling them to the ministry. Since the community was founded in the United States, she hopes to attract American woman to serve, focusing on social justice, pastoral care and prayer.
Atlanta’s congress is well organized and inclusive, she said. A lesson she’s learned from attending similar events is to prepare programs and vocation information in Spanish to engage with more of the faithful.
Mark Peffer interviewed three speakers at his makeshift studio at the congress. He runs the low-powered Catholic radio station, WMKP, based in Gainesville with a reach of five to seven miles.
He was one of six Catholic broadcasters and family-friendly stations situated at tables on the concourse.
The 53-year-old Peffer called himself a “lousy evangelist” but said the radio station reaches people who need to hear it. He hopes it introduces non-Catholics to the faith “what it actually is, not what they hear,” and for Catholics, that it rekindles love of the faith.
Peffer spent the day recording interviews to broadcast later. He wants to expose listeners to the speakers and “bring the congress to people who don’t come.” For himself, it is a shot in the arm to be at the event.
“I am re-energized. You see all the church in one place. It allows me to see all the world’s Catholics in one place,” said Peffer.
Diocesan Administrator Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, celebrated the final Mass of the weekend.
During the Mass, he said no one who comes to events such as the Eucharistic Congress goes away empty.
“We have come to see Jesus. We’re truly grateful for the gifts that have been shared today. Christ understands when it comes to his love, we’re always in need of a refill,” he said.
The 2020 Eucharistic Congress will be June 12 and 13. The theme is “Come Back To Me.”
Erika Anderson Redding and Samantha Smith contributed to the article.