By Kathy Radford
This past Friday and Saturday, March 13-14, Catholics from all over the Diocese of St. Augustine were asked to “Come to the House of the Lord” as part of the 2015 Eucharistic Congress held at the Prime F. Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville. More than 5,000 people answered that invitation and attended the opening night’s sessions and thousands also spent their Saturday immersed in their faith.
The convention center was transformed into a Catholic community as exhibition halls became halls for guest speakers, a house of prayer for Friday night Stations of the Cross, and a sanctuary for Mass on Saturday. A smaller conference room was labeled Adoration Chapel, and our Lord was exposed for quiet reflection and worship, while halfway down the hall, curtains and priests offered the faithful an opportunity for the sacrament of reconciliation.
Welcomed by Bishop Felipe Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine, pilgrims began their journey Friday at 6:30 p.m. with a keynote address by popular Catholic author and speaker Dr. Scott Hahn, and a prayerful journey with Jesus toward Golgotha. Music and the Young Adult track followed.
Saturday began early with a procession of banners representing parishes, ministries and lay Catholic organizations of the diocese. Groups of every sort processed throughout the center grounds and into the main exhibit hall. With representation of everything from “Mini Vinnies” St. Vincent de Paul Society youth, to parishes and schools, to pro-life ministries, the parade promoted the diversity and unity of the faith. For the remainder of the day, the flags lined along the walls and became a visual reminder of all the ministries within the Catholic Church and just how varied and effective people can be when focused on Our Lord.
Bishop Estévez welcomed everyone and introduced the keynote speaker, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Cardinal Dolan’s keynote speech, interspersed with humor and moving motivational anecdotes, began a day of focus on Christ.
Cardinal Dolan expressed his feeling that one way to reach out to those who have lapsed in their faith, left the Catholic Church for another, or have not been raised as people of faith is through the Eucharist. As an example, he told of a couple he is acquainted with. They were Catholic but left the Catholic Church behind when they joined a Protestant church. Although they continued to worship there for several years, eventually they came back home. When asked what made them decide to return to Catholic life, without hesitation they declared, “We missed the Eucharist.”
Mass was followed by the procession of the Blessed Sacrament; silence resounded among the thousands of worshipers as the Knights of Columbus, several deacons, priests and bishops solemnly exited the hall while Cardinal Dolan raised the Sacrament and all proceeded to the Adoration Chapel.
At 12:30 p.m. sharp, all the sessions began; coined “tracks,” there was something for everyone. Children and teens had their own breakout sessions with age appropriate activities centered on the Eucharist and God’s love for all of us.
Adults were able to choose from an English track or a Spanish track and hear reflections and presentations throughout the day. Track presenters included Jeff Cavins, the creator of the Great Adventure Bible Study and the original host of EWTN’s Life on the Rock, who reminded the faithful to strike a balance between studying the faith and living the faith.
Father Mike Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministries for the Diocese of Duluth, gave testimony to his love of God.
Mother Galindo of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Miami emphasized the Eucharist as gazed upon by the Blessed Mother and called upon all to remember Mary’s role in bringing Jesus to the world, first through her womb and later through the Blessed Sacrament.
Dr. Scott Hahn, bestselling author and lay theologian, challenged the audience to not only live the faith as an example to others but also speak about it. “Ask yourself, ‘Is my life so holy, so virtuous” that I never have to speak about God? Will people come to Christ solely by observation?
Dominican Father Robert Christian of St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary explained to participants the importance of priests to our faith; it is through priests that the faithful are able to receive the Eucharist. It is through the Blessed Sacrament that all mankind’s sins are offered up to God the Father, and our priests who allow that sacrifice to continue.
From all these talks and devotions, thousands were able to turn their attention completely to Christ. Now that it is over until next year, Bishop Estévez declared the need for a continuing emphasis on our Lord as He is present in the Blessed Sacrament. He has called on the faithful to spend more time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. “The fruits of the Eucharistic Congress will lead people to participate more fully in the regular reception of the Eucharist,” he said.