By MARIA WIERING, OSV News | Published January 25, 2024
(OSV News)—Despite threats of blizzard-like conditions, only clouds moved through southwestern Indiana Jan. 13 as the Diocese of Evansville held its first-ever eucharistic congress. An estimated 1,700 Catholics braved the cold to attend the Saturday event.
Father Tyler Tenbarge, the diocese’s vocations director, emceed. After celebrating Mass the following day at a parish nearly an hour outside Evansville, several Massgoers approached him to share how much they enjoyed the congress.
“One of them was one lady with tears in her eyes, talking about how she was so moved, and she was so glad that she took the drive down to go to the congress, and so happy to go back and bring what she learned back to her family,” he said.
With the National Eucharistic Revival underway, many U.S. dioceses—Evansville among them—have launched or revived local eucharistic congresses, with single or multi-day events organized around eucharistic devotion and catechesis. They typically include Mass, eucharistic processions, speakers, music and adoration.
These diocesan eucharistic congresses give a foretaste—albeit on a smaller scale—of what U.S. Catholics can expect in July, when Indianapolis hosts the National Eucharistic Congress, the first national congress in 83 years.
The July 17-21 event is the pinnacle of the National Eucharistic Revival, a three-year initiative the U.S. bishops launched in June 2022 to strengthen Catholics’ love for Jesus in the Eucharist. National congress organizers are expecting tens of thousands of attendees to “encounter the living Jesus Christ, experience renewal, and be sent out ‘for the life of the world,'” according to the congress’ website, eucharisticcongress.org.
Atlanta’s congress as a model
The Archdiocese of Atlanta has held regular eucharistic congresses since 1996. Until the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the two-day events were annual, but now are likely to continue on a biennial schedule beginning in 2025. Recent events, including a 2022 congress, have drawn crowds estimated as high as 30,000, maxing out the capacity of the Georgia International Convention Center.
The archdiocese’s chancellor and director of its permanent diaconate, Deacon Dennis Dorner, attended the events with his wife long before he was tapped 15 years ago to head the congress’ steering committee.
“I kind of look forward to the day that I can go as a participant again,” he said with a laugh. “We always found it just very joyful, just a really fun day, kind of like a Catholic family reunion.”
The event showcases the archdiocese’s ethnic and liturgical diversity with unity in the Eucharist and features high-caliber speakers and large-format worship, he said. The difference, however, between a eucharistic congress and a retreat, he said, is that speakers are not the center of the event—Jesus is.
“The speakers are maybe the ‘side dishes,’ but the main meal is the Eucharist, and everybody’s talking about it, and you’re seeing … Jesus processing through the halls of the conference center, as the liturgy team takes Jesus in for adoration,” Deacon Dorner said. “There’s a hush, where there’s thousands of people one minute joking it up and buying their Chick-fil-A sandwich, the next minute they’re (kneeling) on the floor because the Blessed Sacrament is coming through. Where else can you see that?”
While significant, it’s hard to measure the effects the congress has on the Atlanta Archdiocese, “other than the fact that they keep coming back,” Deacon Dorner said. It draws people well beyond the Atlanta Archdiocese, he said, noting one family “that would literally pile their kids in the car and drive from Cleveland, Ohio, for a weekend.”
“I know people who started coming as young people who are now bringing their families to the congress—ours included,” he said. “They take that energy back to their parishes; they take it to their homes.”
Atlanta’s congress has served as the model for other dioceses’ events, including the first-ever eucharistic congress in the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, held in June 2023.
The event was the brainchild of Bishop Robert E. Barron, who took the diocese’s helm in 2022 after introducing the idea of the National Eucharistic Revival to the U.S. bishops in 2020, while chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, assumed that role in 2020, and it is now held by Archbishop Charles C. Thompson of Indianapolis.
Susan Windley-Daoust, the Diocese of Winona-Rochester’s director of missionary discipleship, said the event was organized to coincide with the National Eucharistic Revival’s Year of Parish Revival. It drew about 5,000 people, including representatives from all of its roughly 100 parishes.
“Most of us have said that we’re not going to know the success of this Eucharistic congress until a year after it,” said Windley-Daoust, a key organizer of the daylong event. “Everybody had a beautiful day, and we’ve heard nothing but positives in that regard. But the real question is, is this going to make a difference in the lives of everyday Catholics in our parishes?”
To help answer that question, the diocese has appointed “Eucharistic galvanizers” in each parish to follow-up with parishioners who attended, and to explore how it can deepen their parish’s eucharistic devotion.
“Anytime a large number of people gather together to worship the Lord through the Eucharist, we should expect miracles,” she said. “We should have high expectations. Eucharistic congresses are a way that really deepens and fans to flame our faith so we can carry it out to others.”
Kris Frank, the National Eucharistic Congress’ vice president of growth and marketing, said his team has observed a recent increase in both diocesan Eucharistic congresses and other eucharist-focused events due to the revival.
“The fruit of these diocesan congresses is both deep and wide” leading “to moments of connection and celebration for the local church, building up community amongst the faithful,” he told OSV News.
He has similar hopes for the National Eucharistic Congress.
“We hope the entire church comes together in Indianapolis this summer for a united, powerful and life-changing encounter with God that is being experienced in varying ways at the diocesan congresses,” he said.
At the Evansville congress, the Eucharist was exposed in a monstrance throughout the day. In the afternoon, Father Tenbarge said he felt inspired to invite participants to kneel in quiet prayer “to just listen to the Lord’s voice for a moment.”
“There was not a rustle of a jacket or anything for three minutes straight,” he said.
He observed how God can speak intimately to individuals, even amid a large crowd.
“When I stood back up to kind of get us going again,” he said, “I felt like I was disrupting something important.”
Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News. More information on the national congress may be found at https://www.eucharisticcongress.org.