By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 4, 2022
COLLEGE PARK—The Archdiocese of Atlanta’s Eucharistic Congress returned with a roar, the traditional waving of banners and upbeat noise of drums, impromptu singing and horn-blowing of the on-foot procession attracting thousands of women, men and children.
“I am happy to be here with you,” said Atlanta Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., to the crowd as it broke into spontaneous applause.
After the deaths and upheaval caused by COVID and the war in Ukraine, after the Buffalo racist massacre and Texas school shooting, a eucharistic revival is needed, the archbishop said.
“We need this right now. People are hurting. People need healing,” he said, again drawing applause that filled the cavernous hall. “We all need Jesus right now.”
The conference’s goal of learning, devotion and rekindling friendships is to “become a stronger body of Christ” to reach out and welcome back “the lost and the broken,” he said.
After the COVID-19 pandemic prompted cancellations in 2020 and 2021, the event returned June 17-18 to the Georgia International Convention Center drawing inspirational speakers. It was the 25th congress. With crowds clogging the hallways and high-energy praise music, the conference had the spirit of a festival, a communal meeting of believers in various languages. This year’s theme was “Come to Me,” which coincided with the feast of Corpus Christi.
During its two days, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the pope’s ambassador to the United States; Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago; and several bishops joined in the celebration. Six languages were spoken among the invited speakers, clergy and lay women and men. Families, teens and young adults enjoyed special programs.
Deacon Dennis Dorner, who leads Atlanta’s Eucharistic Congress Steering Committee, said this year’s attendance was an estimated 15,000 people. Pre-pandemic event attendance climbed as high as 30,000.
A track covering social justice topics and a program for Burmese Catholics were new offerings at this year’s event.
The weekend kicked off a national effort by the American bishops to promote a better understanding of the Eucharist in the life of the church. It culminates in a National Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2024 in Indianapolis.
Bishop Andrew Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, told the crowd during a morning talk, “It begins here today.”
He is the chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis and is leading the three-year national revival.
“The bishops have called overwhelmingly for the country to join together in this time, to join together to deepen our love for the gift that Christ delivers, to deepen our understanding, to deepen our devotion and then to share this greatest gift we have ever received,” said Bishop Cozzens.
The bishop said the gift of the Eucharist is a sign of how Jesus “wants to provide a spiritual answer to so many of the problems and pains of our day, the struggles of our time, the great division, great pain, struggle with the culture of death.”
The sacrament opens the faithful to be transformed to take up the challenge to be a “missionary of his love, a light for our world,” he said, urging the crowd to “bring the Lord to the dark places” in need of God’s love.
On the elevated front stage, Cardinal Cupich shared his vision by connecting the resurrection of Jesus with the Eucharist.
“We’re born in the story of God, we’re empowered by the risen Christ, who speaks to us,” he said, examining the structure of the Mass, with the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist and its power to change people.
The Eucharist is not only about the transformation of bread and wine into the blood and body of Jesus but “how people are being transformed, how each one of our lives are being changed as a result.”
“The real crisis of faith we have today is not so much about ‘What is the Eucharist?’ but what is happening in the Eucharist,” he said, as believers are “called forth, empowered and sent” to confront the world’s ills.
The congress gave attendees opportunities for unintended, happy meetings.
Kristi Johnson, 29, ran into a former youth minister who worked alongside her years ago. Since the last encounter, both pursued their vocations, her to marriage and him to the priesthood.
Johnson, 29, and husband David sat against a wall watching people stream by and ate lunch with their 1-year-old, Jude, who crawled on the carpeted floor. The family attends St. Catherine of Siena Church, Kennesaw.
“It’s back, we have to go back,” said Kristi, about attending the congress. The Johnsons were at the last gathering in 2019 when they were engaged. She said the experience links what happens at the parish with the Catholic community throughout the world.
“To come here and see people from every age group, so many different ethnicities and cultures, it’s a powerful testament,” she said.
Teenagers and young adults from Athens traveled by bus to spend Saturday at the Congress. Mary Clare Cullom, 16, a rising high school junior, attended with her brother and friends. The group of four exited the marketplace with bags of religious art and mementos.
Cullom, who attends St. Joseph Church and the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia, said the day reminded her of a “business convention, but it’s just Catholics.”
“I don’t know everyone but I can relate to everyone because of our religion and faith,” she said.
Two staff members of St. Ann Church, Marietta, took a walk in the concourse before they sat down to hear the presentation of one of their favorite church leaders, Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, the founder and director of Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries.
Stephanie Holden, 56, who leads adult faith formation at St. Ann Church, said the gathering is welcome after the pandemic isolation. People like to be with a community, she said. For her, the hour-long morning procession was eye opening.
“We know we are a universal church, but we get to see it today,” she said.