my experience at the Atlanta Eucharistic Congress 2008

This past weekend, I had the privilege of taking part in the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s Eucharistic Congress. This was my first time in Atlanta, and my only knowledge of the archdiocese of Atlanta and the Congress was through Greg and Jennifer Willits of the Rosary Army. Since I already planned on being in Atlanta for the Catholic New Media Celebration, I thought, why not come early and take part in the Congress?

I’m so glad I did.

I arrived Friday night after a long day’s travel from Los Angeles, via Phoenix, and checked in at the Airport Marriott around 6 pm. A good friend of mine from college, Nicole, was coming with her son and another friend from Savannah, so I called them to see if they had arrived by car. They had, and, by some stroke of Providence, they were just leaving the hotel for the Convention Center by shuttle bus as I stepped out of the lobby and called Nicole on my cell. The bus was literally rolling out of the lot when I called her, and the bus driver overheard her conversation and stopped the bus so that I could run through a little wooded area to the bus! This allowed me to connect with my friends and also meant I was able to be at the Congress in time for the Friday night Mass at 6:30 pm. If I had walked to the Convention Center, I would have been at least 20 minutes late.

Fr. Tim Hepburn was the main celebrant for the Mass, and the auxiliary bishop of Ayacucho, Peru (Most Rev. Gabino Miranda-Melgarejo) concelebrated. I’m guessing there were nearly 10,000 participants on Friday night. A very energetic and devout assembly, and the atmosphere of the liturgy was beautifully reverent.

Fr. Tim Hepburn gave a very inspiring homily about healing. Fr. Tim has officially been added to my ever-growing list of outstanding pastors and homilists. What a gem of a priest! I’m excited to discover that he has a website. Of course, I’m especially pleased to know that he’s a Mac guy, as evidenced by the design of his site!

Mass was followed by Eucharistic Adoration and opportunities for healing prayer. I knew that the Sacrament of Reconciliation was also available, so I left the main hall and went to the hall where about 15 priests were hearing confessions. There was only a short (10 minute) wait before I was able to go to confession. It was a real moment of grace for me; my confessor — a young priest of the archdiocese, I assume — provided some simple but profound counsel that I know will remain with me for quite some time to come.

At this point, I was pretty tired, as I had only slept about 4 hours the night before. So I took a shuttle back to the Airport Marriott. On my way into the hotel lobby, I saw a group of people huddled around a laptop, and I immediately recognized that there was an informal SQPN gathering happening with a streaming video stream (using uStream, I think… Joe McClane of the Catholic Hack podcast has made the audio available). I thought about going over and joining in, but as an introvert, I get really shy when I’m tired, and so I bashfully returned to my room to get some sleep. Also, I knew I needed to get up in the wee hours for adoration: The Congress had arranged for all-night adoration to be held in a conference room on the first floor of the Marriott, so I was able to sign up for an hour of adoration. Amazing! The huge monstrance that had been available at the Congress was placed in this room overnight, and there were always at least two people in adoration during the night. I wish more hotels had this available! I wonder if the Marriott gave Jesus a discount…

The next morning, I took a shuttle back to the Convention Center around 9:30 am and arrived shortly after the morning homily by Archbishop Wilton Gregory. (By the way, a growing collection of audio and video podcasts from the Congress will be made available in the coming days… keep checking this link for updates: http://www.archatl.com/podcasts/)

I’m a bit agnostic about what happened during the center portion of the day. I had left my MacBook Pro power cord back in Los Angeles, and was determined not to be left laptopless over the weekend, so, in a moment of adventure, or idiocy, or both, I ventured back to the airport and bought a train ticket to the Lenox Square mall in north Atlanta, to purchase myself a spare cord. I have to say I’m impressed with the public transportation in Atlanta. I’m becoming a connoisseur of public transit systems, as I just retired my car in Los Angeles and am traveling solely by bus, rail and bike now. (My 16-year-old Nissan Sentra had served me well for four years, but wouldn’t pass smog check this year and also needed $700 of transmission/clutch repair, so it was time to retire it. The state paid me $1,000 for retiring it, which was a bonus, since I couldn’t have sold the vehicle for that much. I bought it in 2004 for $3500. More about my sentimental Nissan leave-taking in another post someday).

But I digress. Long story short, I returned to the Congress a bit too late to catch Helen Alvare’s presentation, but I did get a chance to hear a humorous and inspiring talk by Matthew Kelly before the rosary and closing Mass. (Aside: I loved the fact that the Archbishop used the word ineffable — intentionally or unintentionally — in his closing homily!)

A few general observations about the event. Enormous crowd, estimated at 30,000. A very diverse crowd, but very devout. You could have heard a pin drop during the consecration at Mass, and no one spared themselves from kneeling despite the concrete surface. I was very moved by the procession of banners at the beginning of Mass, at which literally dozens of parishes and diocesan organizations / outreaches were present. I really had the sense that the group represented a cross-section of the entire diocese. What a grace for the archdiocese! The whole event seemed apolitical and passionately focused on Jesus and the Eucharist, which was so refreshing for me, having grown up in the ultra-polarized archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, and now as a resident of the parched spiritual landscape that is Los Angeles. An example of the Eucharistic devotion at the Congress: During the day, two Knights of Columbus were stationed at all times outside of the Adoration chapel. That gesture of reverence and concern for the Blessed Sacrament speaks volumes, I think.

The Archdiocese of Atlanta impressed me as very vibrant, very devout, very diverse, and very healthy. I was almost incredulous at the magnitude and beauty of the whole event. I also loved that the Congress was free, so that anyone could attend. I admire this kind of commitment to making the event accessible to the entire diocese (and beyond), and I know it comes at a great financial cost: This is an expensive undertaking, which is running at something like a $200,000 deficit, so I will definitely plan on contributing to this worthy event.

In another post, I’ll describe what happened on Sunday (the Catholic New Media Celebration)… hopefully I’ll get around to that post before I have to pack up everything tomorrow morning for a two-week trip to Minnesota…

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