If the maxed-out parking lots and auditorium were any indication, the 2018 Florida Eucharistic Congress was a major success. Congress organizers on Saturday, March 17, conservatively estimated attendance of at least 5,000. Some of those in attendance agreed to share what motivated them to attend an event that’s getting national and international exposure every year.

It was a chance to see and hear Father Larry Richards that drew Orange Park resident Chris Daly, 56, to the Congress. Richards, a priest in the Diocese of Erie, Pa., is a popular speaker, best-selling author and the host of shows on EWTN radio and Relevant Radio.

“I have all his CDs, and I listen to him on EWTN,” said Daly, a parishioner at St. Luke Catholic Church in Middleburg. “To me, he’s just a straight shooter. He’s very honest.”

But the purpose of the event – to enkindle love and amazement for the Eucharist  – also was an attraction for Daly.

“It’s absolutely the most important thing in Catholicism,” he said.

The weekend event marked the fourth Eucharistic Congress for John Kauffman, 24, a resident of Jacksonville and member at Holy Family Catholic Church.

Kauffman said he has loved his experience each year.

“It really restores your faith and gets you excited again,” he said. “It’s also amazing” to see the diversity of people in attendance.

The sacred gathering has power for clergy, too, said Father Bernard Kiratu of Kenya, associate pastor of Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church in Port Orange.

Father Bernard said he has attended Eucharistic congresses in Africa. In Florida, as in Africa, the messages from speakers provide him with ways to better instruct parishioners – the faithful.

“The Eucharistic Congress is all about Jesus. Jesus is the Eucharist and the Church and the Word, and it’s how he invites us into that Eucharist with him,” he said.

Violet George, 20, said her Catholic faith received a huge shot from attending the Friday night Stations of the Cross and talk by Father Larry Richards.

The Venezuelan said she lives in Jacksonville but hasn’t found a home parish and doesn’t attend Mass regularly. She had only come because a friend invited her.

“She just told me it would be fun,” George said. And it was. But it was also much more than that. The speakers inspired her, and so she went to confession, which was offered to attendants both days of the Congress. She predicted she would start attending church more often.

“It has opened my eyes,” George said.

Helen Campbell didn’t need to be told what the Eucharistic Congress is about. She has been to all six.

Campbell, 76, of Jacksonville, said she is drawn partly by the lineup of well-known television and radio evangelistic speakers.

“And the (living) Stations of the Cross on Friday night, I wouldn’t miss that,” said Campbell, a parishioner at Assumption Catholic Church.

But the motivation goes much deeper.

“The whole idea of our entire Catholic family gathering for one mass celebration is something I come back for,” she said.