Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., preaches during the morning period of adoration and Benediction June 9 at the 2012 Eucharistic Congress in College Park, Ga. Drawing on the themes "We Though Many Are One Body in Christ" and missionary work, the two-day conference focused on unity and service. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

COLLEGE PARK, Ga. (CNS) — Tens of thousands of Catholics filled the Georgia International Convention Center June 8 and 9 for the 17th annual celebration of prayers and speakers at the archdiocesan eucharistic congress.

Drawing on the themes “We Though Many Are One Body in Christ” and missionary work, the two-day conference focused on unity and service.

Opening his remarks in Spanish to the diverse crowd, Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas said the Eucharist isn’t complete until Christians go out into the world in service.

“We are a church of the Eucharist and a church of mission. The Eucharist transforms our hearts and minds into one body, responsible to go out and bring God’s word to the world in which we live,” said the bishop of Tucson, Ariz., whose 20-minute talk was interrupted several times with applause.

As the congress began, he told the large crowd, “The Eucharist, broken and shared, forms us into the people of God. What a great gift. It makes strangers, sisters and brothers; that makes a crowd a church.”

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said the congress is an opportunity for chance encounters, reconnecting with an old friend, hearing from a moving speaker, spending time in the eucharistic chapel. These are times for an “unforgettable experience and they are priceless,” he said.

The congress is free and open to the public, with tracks presented in English, Spanish, French, Vietnamese and American Sign Language and for youth, teens and young adults. Attendees are estimated to number more than 30,000.

The Eucharist draws people together so they can be energized to serve those in need in an unfriendly world, said Bishop Kicanas.

“We come together, disciples of Jesus Christ, seeking inspiration, longing, desiring for a deeper relationship with the eucharistic Lord. Together with him, we can overcome any struggle, overcome any fear, face any difficulty. Gathering in him, we garner strength,” he said.

He compared the struggle to a tug of war and said, “No one wins a tug of war on their own. They have to pull together, in one direction, to win.”

And it isn’t an accident that people join around the altar to be fed together. Gathering breaks down barriers and allows “strangers” to see each other in new relationships.

“We are not just people gathered together by chance like we are at an Atlanta Braves baseball game,” he said. “We are one whole family, gathering together, who eat at the same table, who drink from the same cup, who pray the same prayer, the Our Father, in which we are reminded that we are sisters and brothers to one another.”

Bishop Kicanas asked if Catholics are “angry enough” when they see the gap between the world “as it is and seeing the world as God intends it.”

“Do you feel anything when you see life aborted, life cheapened, mistreated, do you feel anything when you see people suffering the ravages of war, or the migrant struggling to get through the desert? Do you feel anything when you see human beings in pain and struggling?”

The transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ starts “our own transformation as we are led forth to respond to the world, until God is all in all,” said the bishop.

The event started on the evening of June 8, as people made their way to the opening Mass celebrated by Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama. After the Mass, young adults filled a ballroom in the adjacent Marriott Hotel and the French-language track started in another room at the convention center.

The lead organizer for the congress, Deacon Dennis Dorner, said the event seemed to attract even more people this year. After virtually a year of planning, the two days are a blur of activity, but he thought all went well.

“This is one of the largest and most effective evangelization efforts that we do as an archdiocese. When people are strengthened in their faith and when they hear the message presented this year, that we are all called to be missionaries in the environments where we live and work and play, we will touch the hearts of many, many people,” he said.

As he celebrated the closing Mass of the congress, Archbishop Gregory said the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ is actually “the celebration of God’s fidelity” because of his abiding presence in the Eucharist.

“The Eucharist is the same throughout the world,” he said. “The church is a community of diverse races, customs and cultures. … Our differences are rendered secondary to the spirit of oneness the Lord calls us to embrace in the Eucharist.”

At the end of the Mass, Archbishop Gregory unveiled the logo for the 2013 Eucharistic Congress, May 31-June 1. The theme is “Do Whatever He Tells You: Mary and the Year of Faith.”

By Andrew Nelson Catholic News Service