by Nichole Golden
COLLEGE PARK, Ga. (CNS) — In celebration of the Year of Mercy and the gift of the Eucharist, tens of thousands of people attended the 2016 Eucharistic Congress of the Archdiocese of Atlanta June 3-4 at the Georgia International Convention Center.
“Be merciful just as your Father is merciful,” from the Gospel of St. Luke, was the theme for the 21st annual congress.
Organizers estimate that nearly 30,000 people attended this year’s event, making it the largest gathering of Catholics in the Southeast. Nationally recognized speakers presented programs on the faith in English, French, Spanish, Vietnamese and American Sign Language, priests offered the sacrament of reconciliation in a dozen languages, and children enjoyed activities tailored to the year’s theme.
For the first time, a hunger project dubbed Starve Wars took place the morning of June 3, as 500 volunteers assembled 100,000 meals to send to Burkina Faso in West Africa through Catholic Relief Services’ Helping Hands program.
The message of mercy was foremost in the thoughts of many congress participants.
Sara Espana, from Holy Cross Church in Atlanta, came as a Spanish-language prayer team member for the opening-night healing service. She said she had come back to her faith eight years ago.
“I feel like this is a special year because we all have the opportunity to return to the Father. He is open,” Espana told The Georgia Bulletin, Atlanta’s archdiocesan newspaper. “It is a huge opportunity. It doesn’t matter how many times we fall away, how big our sins are.”
The congress is a metaphor for this special year, she said.
“It is like having all these doors open to anybody,” Espana said, pointing to the people walking into the convention center. “It is mercy.”
She said the impact of the congress was hard for her to put into words, but she felt it deeply.
“When we are all together, it is the entire body of Christ together. It is a feeling,” Espana said, her eyes filling up as she spoke.
She added that hearing teachings from clergy and lay theologians and the testimonies of faith also motivate her to come each year.
“It is important to keep learning about our faith,” she said.
For many, participating in or watching the eucharistic procession that always opens the full day of the congress is a highlight. One hundred groups, carrying colorful banners, took part in the June 4 procession. Parishes, ministries, school groups and religious orders were represented. Groups in brilliantly colored costumes performed traditional dances in honor of the Virgin Mary, including the San Felipe de Jesus dance troupe of Forest Park.
First-time attendee Nancy Gessling came with a group of parishioners by bus from Good Samaritan Church in Ellijay.
Sporting a bright yellow T-shirt designating volunteer status, Gessling was delighted to attend her first congress. She decided to become a Catholic four years ago after watching Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron’s series, “Catholicism” on PBS.
“It was the most beautiful thing,” she said. “It was faith and reason.”
Gessling’s eyes filled with tears as she described her first visit to the parish.
“I walked into Good Samaritan and there was so much love. Jesus is here,” she remembered thinking.
Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, was homilist for the morning liturgy June 4.
He said he thinks often of St. Thomas Aquinas’ eucharistic prayer “Adoro Te Devote,” and the critical link it makes between the sacrament and the sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross.
Jesus’ parables, particularly those of the 15 chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke — including the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin or the prodigal son — demonstrate mercy.
“Scripture scholars tell us if we had nothing in the New Testament but this one chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we would have grasped the core of the Gospel message — the mercy of God expressed in his only Son, Jesus Christ,” said Archbishop Wester.
The archbishop said it is clear that we must act mercifully toward others in gratitude for mercy shown to us.
“In receiving the gift, we also receive a mandate,” said the archbishop.
“Pope Francis reminds us of this very strongly,” he added. “He says to us, Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, but becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are.”
The story of the good Samaritan was Jesus’ response to the lawyer who asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The law was a stumbling block for this man who questioned Jesus.
Archbishop Wester noted that the good Samaritan treated everyone with mercy, even the innkeeper with whom he entrusted money for the care of the injured man.
“This mercy must become who we are . . . a lens through which we see every situation, our foundation, our basis for living,” said the archbishop.
Being grateful is the key to having an attitude of mercy.
“Gratitude is something that in some ways I think is evaporating in our society,” noted the archbishop. “People have a hard time saying thank you, and they have an equally hard time saying you’re welcome. We’re losing that interchange of gratitude and a reception of a favor given.”
He also emphasized the importance of forgiveness, saying that, “only forgiveness, only mercy, can free us from the past . . . and open us to new horizons.”
“We must set out on the deep ocean of mercy,” Archbishop Wester said.
Following the homily, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory welcomed all to the congress and presented a refresher on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, listing each — from feeding the hungry to comforting the sorrowful.
“These are the ways of life that Christ taught us when he became man and walked upon this earth just as we do,” said Archbishop Gregory.
It’s the Eucharist that provides faith and courage in an unpredictable world, said the archbishop.