BEFORE A CROWD OF 4,000 CATHOLICS, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger delivers his homily during the historic Hearts Aflame Eucharistic Congress at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville. (Nate Whitchurch photo)
BEFORE A CROWD OF 4,000 CATHOLICS, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger delivers his homily during the historic Hearts Aflame Eucharistic Congress at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville. (Nate Whitchurch photo)
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“You are my inspiration,” Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger told the more than 3,000 Catholics last weekend at the Albany Diocese's Hearts Aflame Eucharistic Congress.

Held Sept. 22 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville, the Eucharistic Congress was the Diocese's first such event since 1938. When he invited Catholics from 126 parishes and beyond to attend, Bishop Scharfenberger called the event a “Catholic Super Bowl.”

Thousands answered the call to come together and celebrate the saving power of the Eucharist.

“Each and every one of us is called to be a holy place for Jesus,” said Bishop Scharfenberger in his opening remarks.

The Eucharistic Congress deepened participants' understanding of a core doctrine of the faith: the belief that the actual body and blood of Christ is present in the Eucharist.

Why we're here

Chloe Baldwin, a student at Shaker High School in Latham, came to Hearts Aflame as part of a confirmation retreat with her parish, Christ Our Light in Loudonville. Chloe felt she hadn’t learned much about the Eucharist and wanted to better understand the real presence of Christ in communion.

“I’m excited to see what other people have to say,” she told The Evangelist. “I love God; I love my religion — but I want to know more about it.”

Ellie O’Reilly of Our Lady of Victory parish in Troy said that the Church “has been so important in my life.” A eucharistic minister, she noted that receiving the Eucharist has helped her through many tough times, including a divorce.

Now, Ms. O’Reilly says she has her “holy husband,” Jesus Christ: “I love Jesus like crazy. He is the answer. I just go with Him.”

Day's schedule

Her day at Auriesville, like those of the other pilgrims, was a whirlwind of faith and fun. The Eucharistic Congress included morning prayer, Mass, a eucharistic procession and adoration, children’s games, talks from local Catholics, tours of the shrine grounds and more.

The event began with morning prayer, followed by a talk by Rev. Patrick Winslow, a native of the Albany Diocese who is now pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Charlotte, N.C., and a keynote address by Bishop Scharfenberger.

The coliseum at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs easily sheltered thousands of listeners. Built in the 1930s, the open-air space is reminiscent of a Roman amphitheater.

One attendee looked in awe at those gathered: “I haven’t seen this place this packed since the '50s!” Groups held up signs as a way to find one another or called out to friends and loved ones as everyone took their seats.

“At today’s Eucharistic Congress, we become the abiding presence of our dear Lord,” Father Winslow told the crowd to a swell of applause.

Bishop Scharfenberger spoke of how, in centuries past, members of the Mohawk and Native American tribes would consume blood, believing “they could absorb the spiritual power inside the person.

More than flesh

At the Eucharistic Congress, he said, “what’s going on...is part of the culture to draw out the strength and character and bravery of the person willing to share their life. What is here is a tremendous desire to be able to communicate with something much stronger than anything we know as human beings of mere flesh and blood.”

Catholics understand the power and strength that lies in the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the Bishop continued: “[Christians] got what Jesus said when, at the Last Supper, Jesus took this bread and wine and said, 'This is my body; this is my blood,' investing Himself completely in this action for all eternity.”

Joanne Towse of St. Mary’s parish in Clinton Heights said the Bishop's words were a “reinforcement of how we need to redirect our thinking more towards the Spirit of the Lord.”

Bishop Scharfenberger continued that reinforcement after his homily, calling upon all the clergy of the Diocese in attendance to renew their priestly vows and commitment to the Church. In light of the Church’s sexual abuse crisis, attendees responded well to the rededication.

“Having the priests recommit to their vocation and doing what they’re supposed to do, I think that took courage on the part of the Bishop,” said Gale O’Brien.

Much appreciated

During the eucharistic prayer, Mass-goers in the back of the coliseum knelt on the concrete floor in prayer. Priests circulated through the crowd, distributing the Eucharist to the elderly and persons with disabilities.

“It was very, very, beautiful feeling to see so many people receiving the Eucharist,” said Joan Klimek of Corpus Christi parish in Round Lake.

After Mass, a eucharistic procession led by Bishop Scharfenberger emerged from the coliseum. The crowd sang hymns as people walked across the grounds of the shrine, ending at the St. Kateri Chapel, where eucharistic adoration was held.

Not all pilgrims at the Eucharistic Congress came from the Albany Diocese. Helen Schreiber came all the way from Pittsburgh, Pa., to attend; her daughter, Maura Schreiner, is a parishioner at Our Lady of Grace in Ballston Lake who told her about the event.

“It was a real treat,” Mrs. Schreiber told The Evangelist. “What I thought was so great was that your Bishop thought of doing this, because our Church needs a lot of prayers right now.”

Paula Ciborowski of Sacred Heart parish in Sidney echoed the significance of Hearts Aflame: “It’s so important to get together with the larger Church and see people who see the same as you do.”

Serious and fun

At lunchtime, attendees relaxed or walked the grounds. Families laid out blankets and coolers on the lawn and toured the shrine.

Rocco Jerry of Our Lady of Grace parish in Ballston Lake, said the sheer volume of people had an impact on him: “When you pray, you can feel just how serious people are.”

Mr. Jerry was on his own at the event because his family had gone to visit his daughter for Parents' Weekend at her college, SUNY Plattsburgh. He himself had visited her last weekend, because he wanted to make sure he could come to the Eucharistic Congress.

“I was debating whether or not I should go, but I’m glad I did,” he remarked.

Karrie Marascia of Holy Trinity parish in Cohoes brought her three children to the Eucharistic Congress to introduce them to the faith early. “We’re enjoying the time together,” she told The Evangelist.

Part of the fun for families was at the children’s activity tent, where crafts and games focused around the Catholic faith and the Eucharist.

Two-year-old Alexa Muscedere played with some props in a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd activity. Her father, Remo, pointed to Bishop Scharfenberger as he passed by: “Look, Alexa, that’s the Bishop.”

Alexa smiled and gave a big wave. “Hi, Bishop!” she called out.

Farewell

To wrap up the day, local Catholics offered witness talks at the coliseum about how the Eucharist shapes their life.

Jeanne Pitkin of St. Stephen’s parish in Hagaman, Luke Geddies of Catholic Central High School in Troy, Earl Eichelberger of Black Catholic Apostolate based at St. Joan of Arc parish in Menands and Richard and Eileen Shirey of St. Vincent DePaul parish in Albany all stepped forward to share their stories (see sidebar).

Bishop Scharfenberger led a midafternoon closing prayer and benediction and offered final remarks as the Eucharistic Congress concluded.

“This was wonderful. It was a great experience,” declared Jane Canole of Our Lady of Victory parish in Troy.

“Take the joy of the Lord and bring it to the next person you meet, and the next and the next,” the Bishop told the crowd. “Spread the Good News. Thanks be to God!”