By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 18, 2009
“Here comes everybody” is how the writer James Joyce was said to describe the Catholic Church.
Joyce’s quip sketches the picture of the 2009 Eucharistic Congress, the biggest Catholic festival in Georgia and the Southeast. It is part family reunion, part musical celebration, part faith education and all Catholic.
Here is how some of it unfolded on Saturday, June 13, the eve of the feast of Corpus Christi:
Twenty or so dancers in feathered headdresses, rattles tied to their ankles, twirl, sway, and dip as loud applause comes from the thousands filling the cavernous exhibit hall.
Hispanic dancers from the parishes of St. Thomas Aquinas, Good Shepherd and St. Andrew are last in the procession to start the 2009 Eucharistic Congress with its theme: “As Grain Once Scattered.”
It takes nearly an hour from the start of the procession for the dancers to finally enter the Georgia International Convention Center for the 14th annual event, a stunning display of the growing Catholic Church in the Southeast. Banners carried in the procession display icons of the Virgin Mary, words of praise in Vietnamese, names of youth groups, fabric images of parish patron saints. Organizers estimate 30,000 people participated in the congress events on June 12 and 13.
The Mexican dancers honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas. Four men shoulder a large replica of the 16th-century icon.
The men, women and children in the group pause to say their own prayers before they dance.
“I come to say thank you to God for all the things he’s given me. And also while I dance, I pray for the needs of the people,” says one dancer.
“It’s very important to pray for all the needs of the world,” says Guadalupe Magia, of St. Andrew Church, Roswell.
After readings from Scripture, Bishop Leonard Blair of the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, talks for nearly 40 minutes to the enormous crowd.
Bishop Blair says the Eucharist is “the sign of Christ’s promise to remain with us always until the end of the world.”
Jesus was saying “come to me, learn from me, follow me and all the secrets of wisdom and knowledge will be open to you. You will know God. You will know eternal life,” says the bishop.
Each person’s desire should be to trust in God who provides all one needs, he says.
“The work we have from God is to have faith in the Christ whom he has sent,” Bishop Blair says.
The Eucharist, like all sacraments, comes in the form of an invitation.
“Our RSVP can’t be put off forever,” he says.
The congress is a time to think how ready a person is to receive the “gift,” Bishop Blair says. He encourages people to review the 2006 U.S. bishops’ document, “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper.”
“The Eucharistic mystery of Christ, the Bread of Life, invites us to faith and trust, a stumbling block for many, but the heavenly banquet of divine wisdom for those who believe and for those who adore,” he says.
“Christ gives us his very self precisely to heal and strengthen us,” he says.
In his remarks, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory welcomes the crowds. He says that as disciples of Christ, Catholics are called to love their neighbors.
The archbishop also asks people to contribute financially to the congress so it can continue into the future. He says its cost has been reduced by about $200,000 already to try and ensure its financial viability.
Shannon Lowery, of Milledgeville, plays with her daughter. It is the third congress for the 44-year-old pharmacist. It would be a long day. The Lowery family left their home at 6:30 a.m. and planned to attend the 5 p.m. vigil Mass that wraps up the Eucharistic Congress.
“I’m always looking to be inspired,” she says. “It’s wonderful to come here with lots of Catholics all in one place.”
The line for English speakers for the sacrament of reconciliation stretches to more than 50 people. The line for Spanish speakers is about the same. This far corner of the conference center is reserved for confessions.
During the six hours the area is open, some 56 priests volunteer for one-hour shifts. If you speak Vietnamese, Polish, French, Italian, English, there is a priest to talk with.
Father Frank McNamee, the pastor of Christ the King Cathedral, has a water bottle in hand. He is about to take a seat.
“You can be going for a few solid hours,” he says.
“It is a healthy sign to see people are availing themselves of the sacrament.”
The congress and the talks give people a deeper awareness of confession and the need for it, he says.
“It is a wonderful thing. It is a tremendous witness.”
Inside the Italian Suites conference room-turned chapel, a sun-like monstrance with the Eucharist rests on an altar surrounded by six small candles. Banners of Mary and Joseph hang nearby.
There is a colorful array of Catholics in prayer, from girls dressed in shorts and men in African-style shirts to women covering their heads with white, lacy veils and parents pushing strollers. There is quiet here while the noise from outside sounds like buzzing.
Mark Hofmann and Mike Herlihy are the chapel’s guardians for this 15-minute window. They are fourth degree Knights of Columbus, with plumed hats and ceremonial swords. They both attend St. Mary Church, Jackson.
“I noticed the difference in ages,” says Hofmann, 49, a business owner.
“For all the hustle and bustle going on today, that’s a good place to give quiet prayer,” he says.
Herlihy, 36, who works for Publix supermarkets, says the opportunity to serve at the chapel showed him the diversity of Catholics.
“It is outstanding to see,” he says.
At the end of the 15 minutes, the two hand over their positions to members of the Knights of Peter Claver.
Veronica Diaz, the assistant communications director for the Atlanta Archdiocese, is updating the Twitter page about the Eucharistic Congress. She uses the hashtag or pound symbol–#EC09—to let 200 followers track the event as it unfolds. A TV in the room is tuned to the main conference hall so speakers can be quickly quoted in this new medium.
“I am very excited about the Twitter updates we were able to deliver all weekend from the Eucharistic Congress. The ‘tweets’ reached Catholics unable to attend, gave participants the ability to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ from their seats, and provided a forum for Catholics from around the world to ‘tweet’ their prayers for the success of the Eucharistic Congress,” Diaz wrote by e-mail.
Later, thanks to the work of Reko Tyler and Austin Jones, both going into ninth grade at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fairburn, podcasts of the event will be online at the archdiocese’s Web site.
Nancy and Ed Clark stretch their legs after hearing the talk by Lino Rulli, the host of “The Catholic Guy” on Sirius XM Satellite Radio.
The Clarks, who drove from Auburn, Ala., say Rulli’s message was a good one and told in an entertaining way.
“We need to go to confession and be vigilant about going back and working toward correcting your problems,” says Ed Clark, 51, who works in law enforcement.
Nancy, 51, a nurse, says she identified with some aspects of Rulli’s faith life.
“He thought of himself as a ‘slow Catholic.’ I can relate to that.”
Peggy Pokorny, of St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, lines up with scores of other parents waiting to pick up her child from the Kid Track, while her other children entertained themselves at the Teen Track.
“They have fun. They are excited when they get out,” says Pokorny, 39, a stay-at-home mom, about the special area reserved for youngsters.
Then, Pokorny says she and her husband, Chuck, spent time listening to speakers, going to confession and doing a little shopping.
She says the kids program joins fun with worship.
“They don’t sit around watching a movie.”
The final procession weaves its way into the room down the hallway. Young people in their white first Communion suits and dresses lead the group. Thousands gather to celebrate the Mass together as one body.