by Tonia Borsellino
‘One, holy, Catholic and apostolic church,’ reigned true at the fifth annual Eucharistic Congress March 11 and 12 in Jacksonville, Fla.
The two-day event, held at the Prime F. Osborne III Convention Center, brought together national speakers and more than 5,500 Catholics together to renew their faith, learn and grow in their relationships with Christ. That number doesn’t include the number people live streaming the Congress online for the first time, courtesy of Shalom World TV.
Kevin Sierra, a second-year FOCUS Missionary at Florida Atlantic University, traveled all the way from Boca Raton to attend the Congress.
“I came really to renew my heart,” Sierra said as he reflected on this year’s theme: ‘Renew Your Heart.’
“But I also came to see old faces, meet new faces and to really unite with the Body of Christ.”
Sierra learned about the Eucharistic Congress two years ago through Facebook and word of mouth. He said he had a great experience last year and it made him want to come back.
On Friday night of the Congress, Sierra attended a keynote address by Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta; Living Stations of the Cross presented by members of the Comunità Cenacolo, a community centered on renewing the lives of those with addictions; and a young adult session with music by the University of Florida Catholic Gators music ministry, talks from Chris Stefanick, Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, Madre María de Fátima Vieira Diniz and Eucharistic Adoration with Bishop Felipe Estévez.
“Mass and talks are bilingual, you have people of different backgrounds, different perspectives and different walks of life,” Sierra said. Adding these are all qualities that make the Eucharistic Congress special.
The Saturday of the Congress began with a procession of parishes and ministries through the Convention Center. The different ages, nationalities and vocations participating in the procession showed just how diverse the Diocese of St. Augustine and greater Catholic Church is.
Anne Borom, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Fleming Island, said she came specifically to bring her parish’s banner for the procession but has come for the past three years because of the family she encounters.
“It’s the comradery of knowing that everyone in the place has a spiritual connectedness, she said. And also “because we all believe in the same God and the Holy Spirit is there for all of us.”
Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who is also a close advisor to Pope Francis, gave a keynote address after the procession. Following his talk on the importance of the Eucharist, he celebrated Mass alongside more than 50 priests and deacons, Bishop Estévez, Archbishop Gregory and Bishop Emeritus John Snyder.
“It shows the universality of the church,” said Will Powell, a seminarian of the diocese studying at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla. “You have a cardinal from Tegucigalpa, Archbishop from Atlanta, and everyone all celebrating the same Mass, praising the same Lord.”
Prayers of the faithful were read in Polish, French, Tagalog, Vietnamese, English and Spanish. The Gospel and Homily were read in the latter two languages.
Powell said he has been attending the Eucharistic Congress since it began in 2011 and the best part for him is seeing the unity of everyone in attendance.
“Every time we have a Eucharistic Congress it is a big Catholic reunion,” Powell said. “It’s just one great weekend we can come together truly as a family. It’s an opportunity to spend time with each other and with our Lord.”
Powell and other seminarians also participated in a Eucharistic procession led by Bishop Estévez around the convention center as Christ was brought to the children, teen, Spanish and general sessions Saturday afternoon.
Bishop Estévez gave a special blessing to a room full of children in the children’s session who are preparing to receive their First Communion.
The children heard testimonies from some of the seminarians about their First Communions. The children sang Bishop Estévez a song about the Eucharist and learned why receiving the Eucharist is a big step in their spiritual journey with Christ.
Mary Schelonka, a parishioner at Resurrection Catholic Church in Jacksonville, said having the Eucharistic Congress plays an important factor in creating an atmosphere for growth and unity.
“It is uplifting to see people have a chance to renew friendships. To hear input from speakers has been absolutely tremendous,” she said.
Bishop Estévez announced that the theme for next year’s Eucharistic Congress is ‘Do Whatever He Tells You’ (John 2: 5). Those planning to attend can look forward to a “Marian flavor” incorporated into the Congress’ events.