‘Family Of Faith’ Gathers To Celebrate Eucharist
Published: June 21, 2007
ATLANTA—The theme of this year’s Eucharistic Congress, chosen from John’s Gospel, resonates especially in a culture struggling with wrong answers to human hungers.
“Jesus answered them and said, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory officially began the Congress the evening of June 8, encouraging those at the opening healing Mass to “pray not only for your own needs … pray for one another, pray for this local church, that we may grow strong in our faith and our commitment to Christ, strong in our love for one another.”
“Welcome, and may this Eucharistic Congress sanctify this local church,” he said.
Then Father Fernando Suarez, a member of the Canadian religious community of the Companions of the Cross, celebrated Mass for over 2,000, followed by a healing service at which more than 1,000 people waited prayerfully and patiently until they received an individual blessing and prayer from him as he walked from person to person, touching their foreheads and praying briefly.
Simultaneously, the young adult community gathered in a separate section of the Georgia International Convention Center for their program of speakers, musicians, and eucharistic adoration known as “Revive.”
On Saturday morning, June 9, Archbishop Gregory processed into the cavernous building bearing the Blessed Sacrament in a golden monstrance with sunburst rays.
At that moment, he said, the place had become “the cathedral of Atlanta, and it is filled with so many wonderful people from throughout North Georgia—the family of faith.”
Dozens of parish banners, handcrafted of multicolored fabric, with diverse languages and devotional images embellished on them, decorated the assembly area as he spoke, a crucifix behind him on a red backdrop and a framed image of Our Lady of Guadalupe near the ambo.
Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue is “the grandfather of this Eucharistic Congress,” Archbishop Gregory said, as the 12th annual congress commenced.
“Through his own good example and deep faith, he began this custom which we continue today.”
Preaching at the exposition service, Archbishop Donoghue said the human condition of hunger is as ancient as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, when mankind was destined to work for his physical bread and long for God to provide salvation.
“We are incomplete,” he said. “This hunger in us was born because of what Adam and Eve lost—the fullness of the Father’s love.”
The longing for spiritual food lasted for God’s people for many generations, he continued, and God himself provided the hope that sustained them until the coming of Christ and his fulfilling death provided the Eucharist.
“This is why we are here—to bring the hunger and thirst of our souls to the Lord, and to accept the remedy of His promise: ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.’”
Those attending the congress, a record crowd estimated at around 30,000, were also invited to deepen their response to the Lord and become more effective as servants.
“The planners of the Congress have taken special care that everyone might find something to suit his or her needs—that all the cultures, languages, ages, and spiritual styles present here, will not divide us, but instead, draw us, through the marvelous power of the Holy Spirit, into a stronger union, and a closer family,” Archbishop Donoghue said. “Each of us has a chance today, to gain much, and to take away from this event, a better knowledge of who we are, and of how Christ lives in us.”
As participants were invited to spend the day at the various tracks, thousands spilled into the broad hallways of the convention center, where tables manned by archdiocesan staff and volunteers displayed many of the ministries and offices of the local church.
At a press conference just after the exposition service, Father José Duván Gonzalez, head of the Hispanic ministry office, spoke through a translator of the hopes of the Hispanic people at the event.
“Today … we are united under Archbishop Gregory to reflect on our faith, which is the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist,” Father Duvan said. “It is an event that is long-awaited by our community. In a place like this we realize our church is multicultural … one church under one holy God. We all have the opportunity to reflect on the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist … though we speak English, Spanish, Vietnamese or other languages. Our Hispanic community is here and they are expecting a lot. We offer ourselves and our lives to Jesus.”
As the general track began, Tony Melendez, renowned for his music and his fervor for God, galvanized the usually quiet general track attendees into participating with enthusiastic singing and praise. Born without arms in Nicaragua after his mother took thalidomide during her pregnancy, he persevered and became an accomplished musician, playing the guitar with his feet for audiences worldwide. “How about putting those feet together?” he shouted, as people laughed and stood to clap and sing. Sharing his story, he assured those listening that “you really do have the strength to give as much as you can in the world.”
George Weigel, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and an author and expert on Catholicism, presented more of a scholarly talk on current Catholic issues. Noting that a Eucharistic Congress is usually “an occasion to step back from the contentious … to enjoy the healing, calming, grace-dispensing presence” of Jesus Christ, he chose instead to focus his talk on two of the most disputatious arguments in the church today: the recently adopted changes in the celebration of the Mass and the question of whether women should be ordained.
Reviewing the history of liturgy since Vatican II, he stated that the fundamental problem with the Mass is the “cultural corruption of its celebration.” Weigel said that when “Mass becomes entertainment, it’s not what it’s meant to be.”
Weigel was even more eloquent in his discussion of the role and nature of the priesthood. The priesthood is “not a career and not about power—it’s about service.” Men don’t “call themselves to the priesthood.” He briefly mentioned the notion of a shared Catholic sacramental imagination in his discussion of the roles of the sexes in the church. Men and women, he said, have “personal equality” because they are created in the image of God and have “spiritual equality” through baptism. But there are “necessary differences,” and the existence of “maleness and femaleness” is not an accident. “We are created differently on purpose.”
“Christ’s relationship to the church is spousal or nuptial,” he continued, contending that this relationship is represented in the Mass, where the priest “iconographically represents Christ.”
Following Weigel, author Immaculée Ilibagiza took the stage to share her compelling account of how her faith in God helped her to survive the Rwandan genocide in 1994. With her soft, gentle voice filled with emotion, Ilibagiza gave an account of hiding in a bathroom in her pastor’s house, in a small bathroom with seven other adults, for three months, while the massacre of thousands raged on outside the house. Her Catholic faith, she said, kept her safe and sane. Reading Scripture and saying the rosary “did so much good” for her, as she asked God to “help in forgiving.” When she finally did leave her hiding place, she found that her “two brothers, parents, grandparents, schoolmates, neighbors and friends” had all been murdered, to her immense sorrow.
Ilibagiza’s story, which she has documented in New York Times bestseller “Left to Tell,” includes her life in the aftermath of that terrible time, revealing many signs of God’s loving care for her. And she shared some simple advice, telling the rapt audience to “try to pray every second you are here,” to experience the “realness and nearness” of God, and “for those who love God, try to love him more.”
Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, SDB, the first cardinal from Honduras and the newly elected head of Caritas Internationalis, spoke during both the Hispanic and general tracks.
Expressing his delight that the archdiocese has a living church community reflecting on matters of faith, Cardinal Rodríguez gave his listeners “homework”—to read the recent apostolic exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI on the Eucharist titled “The Sacrament of Love.”
“We cannot be church without the Eucharist, we cannot grow without the Eucharist, we cannot be mature Christians without the Eucharist,” the cardinal said.
Christians don’t build up Christ within themselves, he said, but they cooperate with the Holy Spirit who is the one accomplishing this transformation.
“We are not destined to be mediocre Christians. We are destined to be a work of art,” he said. “Do you know what is the name of a work of art—a saint!”
Archbishop Gregory gave an impassioned talk on the meaning of the Eucharist to conclude the general track. “As a Eucharistic people who follow the example of Christ Himself, we place ourselves in complete dependence upon God’s bounty,” he said. “When we gather about the Lord’s Table, we all stand in absolute and humble indebtedness to the Father who is the source of every gift. The Eucharistic Table recognizes no superior or inferior participants—no one ever takes his or her place around the altar who is truly worthy of God’s generosity. We are all the beneficiaries of God’s goodness.”
He continued, “We are called through our Baptism and Confirmation to be a thankful people—always grateful for the gifts that we receive and simultaneously generous in sharing ourselves with our sisters and brothers in Christ.”
Speaking on sacrifice, he exhorted Catholics to “strive to live selflessly.”
“How can we share in a Gift that is so perfectly selfless and refuse to become like the Gift itself. How can we dine because of the self-sacrificing love of the Son and continue to be selfless, hateful, or hostile to one another?”
The Spirit-filled day concluded with a closing vigil Mass, which included an opening procession of first communicants and their families, the Knights of Columbus and Knights of Peter Claver, seminarians, deacons, sisters, and more than 30 priests. Archbishop Donoghue and Archbishop Gregory concelebrated the Mass with Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, who attended the congress in his first formal visit to Atlanta.
In his opening remarks to those gathered for Mass, Archbishop Sambi noted, “How beautiful and joyful when many brothers are together,” and brought “greetings, encouragement and the blessing” of Pope Benedict XVI.
Archbishop Sambi, in his homily, spoke of Pope Benedict’s encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” and his apostolic exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis,” both of which speak of love. “God, who is love, reveals himself so fully in the Incarnate Word—Jesus the Christ,” he said.
“This revelation of Love, which forever changed humanity and the world, continues to express itself in an ongoing, dynamic movement in the Sacrament of Love—the Eucharist.”
He continued, “Giving Himself to us in the Blessed Sacrament, the Lord Jesus invites us to share a profound and intimate union with Him. In this great sacrament, Our Lord is no less present among us than when he walked the earth—healing the sick, forgiving the sinner and preaching the Good News.”
He told the more than 6,000 assembled, “Your presence here today is a testimony to your love for Jesus Christ and his Church—as individuals and collectively as the great Church in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. … Because of the Eucharist, you are able to recognize him in the poor and because of the Eucharist, you are able to serve Him in those who are most broken and needy.”
At the end of the Mass, Archbishop Sambi said, “I will go away enriched by your faith” in this “united and happy community.”
Msgr. Joseph Corbett, one of the Atlanta Archdiocese’s two full-time vicars general, ably led the committee who organized and implemented the event.
The best part of the Congress, Msgr. Corbett said, was the many “Catholics coming together to share their faith in the presence of the Eucharist.”
He appreciates the effort made by thousands to take the time to attend this spiritual event. “Thank you for making time in your busy life to grow your faith by participating in the Congress and by sharing your faith in an outward way with others, especially family members and fellow parishioners,” he said, adding a prayer that more will “consider attending next year!”
Father Theodore Book of the archdiocesan Office of Divine Worship said, “It is beautiful to have so many Catholics together. It shows the Catholic faith is very alive in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. … It shows people want to believe and want to practice their faith.”
Archbishop Gregory said, “I am profoundly thankful for the commitment to a deepening relationship with Christ in Catholics from all corners of the archdiocese and beyond who came together for the 2007 Eucharistic Congress.”
“It is the tremendous sharing of the gifts of time and talent by all the volunteers, clergy and Religious who participate that makes the Congress possible and for which I am grateful. I also appreciate the efforts in promoting the event by pastors, administrators, parochial vicars, deacons, principals, parish staff, and parish coordinators at parishes and schools.”
“I truly hope that this spiritual event is a challenge to soften the hearts of all who consume the Perfect Gift of the Son so that those hearts might become more like His and the Father will be more honored and loved by all.”
Joy Stumpo and her husband Fred have attended all but three of the congresses in Atlanta. “Each year I come away with something special, and this year was no exception. I am always moved by the early morning procession of banners, the speakers, the vigil Mass, beautiful music and the devotion of God’s people. This year’s gift was a new awareness, maybe more of a reawakening, to the universality of our Catholic faith. Seeing all the nationalities and hearing all the languages was certainly part of it but also being somehow reminded of just how much I am in my own comfort zone at Mary Our Queen parish. …The Congress was a gentle nudge that brought home to me what I am a part of. I came away feeling not just a renewed love for my parish family, but knowing I am a member of the Catholic family around the world, a very diverse, beautiful family. I am truly blessed.”