By Jeff Brumley

Bishop Felipe J. Estévez opened the 2015 Eucharistic Congress Friday evening by comparing Catholics and their parishes to the father described in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

That man, Bishop Estévez said, was always waiting for his lost son. Both his doors and his heart were open and waiting.

So must Catholics be ever ready to welcome “the many prodigal sons and daughters” who seek union – or re-union – with God and his Church, said Estévez, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine.

It’s why the theme of the fourth annual Eucharist Congress was “Come to the House of the Lord.” He reminded the standing-room-only audience at the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center in Jacksonville that Pope Francis has echoed this theme in his teachings.

The Holy Father has instructed Catholics that “we must keep the doors of our churches and the doors of our hearts open,” Bishop Estévez said.

Because God invites his children home to him through the Eucharist, the Congress is “a tool for winning souls for Christ,” he said.

The events that followed Friday evening underscored Bishop Estévez comments and prayers.

Scott Hahn giving his keynote address at the 4th Annual Eucharistic Congress in the Diocese of St. Augustine.
Scott Hahn giving his keynote address at the 4th Annual Eucharistic Congress in the Diocese of St. Augustine.

Among them was keynote speaker Scott Hahn, professor of theology and scripture at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and the author of more than 40 books for teens and adults.

Hahn, a former Presbyterian minister who converted to Catholicism in 1986, explained to the thousands from North Florida, South Florida and Georgia how the Eucharist had spurred his own journey toward the Church.

During his college and seminary years, and in sermon preparation as a Presbyterian pastor, Hahn said he was often struck by comparisons to Christ and food or meals.

It was often how Christ disclosed his true nature. In the gospel of Luke, the disciples on the road to Emmaus initially do not realize they are traveling with Jesus.

But when “he broke bread with them, their eyes were opened,” Hahn said.

Hahn said his own eyes were further opened by the early Church fathers, who connected concepts like the Passover meal, the sacrificial lamb and the Crucifixion.

Chapter six of the Gospel of John and nearly the entire book of Revelation made clear that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross made no sense without the Eucharist, Hahn added.

“The Eucharist and Calvary were inseparably connected,” he said. “Everything I read kept coming up Catholic.”

Finally it was during the attendance of his first Mass that helped tie it all together for him.

“I heard ‘Lamb of God’ four times in less than two minutes, Hahn said. “I sat there stunned.”

He was welcomed into the church the following Easter, and has been speaking and writing about the centrality of the Eucharist in faith and conversion ever since. But Hahn urged life-long Catholics to remember they can enjoy similar experiences.

“You don’t need to be a convert to experience the grace of conversion,” Hahn said.

They must simply become literate about the Bible and the Liturgy. It will help open their eyes during the Eucharist and inspire parish and personal evangelism, Hahn said.

That passion was also evident during the Young Adult Track that followed Hahn’s presentation and the Stations of the Cross.

“There is a spirit here that’s so alive it gets me jazzed,” said Mike Sylvester, director of youth and young adult ministries for the Diocese of St. Augustine.

Father Mike Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, and Servant Sister of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Kristi Marie Bergman, were the presenters of the track.

Sister Bergman told the assembled youth and young adults to take seriously the theme of the Congress. And they should embrace the Eucharist as an inspiration to share their faith.

“Don’t waste this,” she said. “You have it, so what are you going to do with it? That’s the question I want to pose to you.”

The 2015 Eucharistic Congress is the fourth consecutive Congress in the Diocese of St. Augustine since 2012. This year nearly 5,000 people were in attendance – breaking all records.

Parish groups process in with their unique banners representing parishes from all over the diocese | Photo by Scott Smith
Seminarians of the Diocese of St. Augustine help lead the way during the Eucharistic procession to kick-off the Congress | Photo by Scott Smith
A group of young adults look on intently during Father Mike Schmitz’s address | Photo by Scott Smith
Sister Kristi Marie Bergman giving her address at the 4th Annual Eucharistic Congress in Jacksonville, FL | Photo by Scott Smith
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York during his keynote address during the early sessions of the Eucharistic Congress. | Photo by Scott Smith
Religious from the Diocese of St. Augustine kneel during the consecration during the opening Mass with Cardinal Dolan. | Photo by Scott Smith
Teens “fully alive” during the youth track at the Eucharistic Congress. | Photo by Scott Smith