Eucharistic Congress a labor of love for Diocese of Knoxville

Deacon Sean Smith leads team of volunteers

LOGISTICAL LEADERSHIP Deacon Sean Smith escorts Cardinal Timothy Dolan inside the Sevierville Convention Center during the Eucharistic Congress on Sept. 14. Photo by Scott Maentz

LOGISTICAL LEADERSHIP Deacon Sean Smith escorts Cardinal Timothy Dolan inside the Sevierville Convention Center during the Eucharistic Congress on Sept. 14. Photo by Scott Maentz

The Eucharistic Congress began in spring 2012 as an idea floated by Sister Mary Timothea Elliott, RSM, during a conversation with Deacon Sean Smith about how to celebrate the Diocese of Knoxville’s 25th anniversary.

It ended 18 months later with the successful completion of a world-class event, the first Eucharistic Congress in the diocese’s history. It attracted Catholics from throughout Tennessee, across the country, and even Canada to a two-day worship experience in Sevierville that many, if not all, of the 5,000 attendees called spiritually moving.

By most accounts, the congress was a momentous occasion in the history of the diocese that fulfilled spiritual needs ranging from the liturgical, theological and catechetical to the sacramental. The congress also was a fun, social, entertaining two-day retreat that offered a little something for everyone.

But in between Sister Timothea’s concept and the end of the congress closing Mass on Sept. 14, thousands of hours of planning involving hundreds of volunteers were required to create a cathedral in Sevierville’s convention center large enough to accommodate 5,000 faithful plus more than 100 priests, deacons and women religious to celebrate the Holy Eucharist and mark the beginning of the diocese’s silver jubilee year.

As Bishop Richard F. Stika blessed the concept of a Eucharistic Congress and led the effort, he asked Deacon Smith, the diocese’s chancellor, to make the idea a reality. The idea wasn’t exactly foreign to Deacon Smith.

“I started planning for this well more than a year ago because I know one of the measures of success would be attendance. So you really had to have a quality speaker corps. And the caliber of folks we had made it imperative to book them more than a year in advance. That was the most critical step,” Deacon Smith said.

For such a small diocese, the Church in East Tennessee sure did dream big. Working with Bishop Stika, Deacon Smith secured commitments from all-stars in the U.S. Catholic Church—Cardinal Justin Rigali, a high-ranking prelate in the College of Cardinals who has directly served several popes; Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is archbishop of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world; Father Robert Barron, a world-renowned theologian and author considered the Bishop Fulton Sheen of our time; and Dr. Scott Hahn, a highly regarded theologian and author who has a wide following for his brand of theology.

Securing those speakers early in the process was a huge hurdle to overcome. But it was only the beginning of 18 months of hurdles to get over to make the congress a success.

Deacon Smith relied on previous experience overseeing another diocesan event to organize the Eucharistic Congress. Both attracted 5,000 attendees and involved converting convention center space into worship space that could accommodate large numbers of men and women religious, from cardinals to seminarians.

But there were stark differences, too.

The diocese had never put on a two-day event of that magnitude that involved lodging, transportation, hospitality for 5,000 guests including lunch, multiple live programs, safety and security for that many people for that duration.

“The model I used for this whole thing was Bishop Stika’s ordination and installation Mass [March 2009]. But this was that event times 10 because this event went over two days and we had multiple things going on,” he said.

As chairman of the Eucharistic Congress organizing committee, Deacon Smith called upon key volunteers, many who played essential roles in the ordination/installation Mass, to lend their time and talent to the 25th anniversary celebration, such as Paul Simoneau, diocesan vice chancellor and director of the Office of Justice and Peace, and the Knights of Columbus.

And while planning a Mass for 5,000 Catholics led by more than 100 men and women religious is a daunting task under any circumstance, diocesan volunteers had experience to make it work…and work well. Volunteers executed each of the hundreds of vital details, from organizing the sacred music and creating the keepsake program to assembling a team large enough to register the 5,000 visitors.

Deacon Smith offered a heartfelt thank you to all the volunteers who worked on the congress, saying without them the event would not have been possible.

“The other measure of success that I strived for was it had to be spiritually enriching. That is a key measure of success. People who were walking out of that Mass should be spiritually enriched and charged. The speakers and liturgies have a major impact on spiritual enrichment, and we wanted to transform a convention center into a cathedral,” Deacon Smith said. “So, people participating in the liturgies felt like they were in a cathedral, not a convention center.”

To do that, volunteers moved essential elements for the Masses to the convention center from different parishes. For example, Holy Cross in Pigeon Forge contributed the altar and large crucifix hanging above the altar. Holy Ghost in Knoxville contributed the large ambo on which the Scripture was proclaimed as well as the bishop’s and deacon’s chairs, the cardinals’ chairs and kneelers. Other ecclesial furnishings came from the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. John Neumann Church.

“You felt God’s presence there,” Deacon Smith said.

That also was of utmost importance to Sister Timothea, who also felt the Holy Spirit at the congress.

“One of the things that is troubling is many Catholics don’t go to Mass on Sunday and they have begun to doubt the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” she said. “I think it was truly wonderful.”

“I just saw so many happy people. It really was spiritually uplifting. Just the thought of 5,000 people at one place; it really made you begin to think about Jesus feeding the 5,000,” she noted.

In addition to the sacrifice of the Mass, an important element of the congress was the sacrament of reconciliation made available to all 5,000 attendees. Priests serving on the organizing committee like Father Randy Stice, Father David Carter, Father Ron Franco, Father Steve Pawelk and Father Joe Reed oversaw the Masses, adoration and benediction, the liturgies and sacraments.

And in addition to celebrating Masses for more than 5,000, another remarkable result was the hundreds of confessions heard. Father Carter said 49 priests heard 136 hours of confessions over the two-day period.

Confessions were heard in 20 portable, plastic confessionals that could be assembled and disassembled on site and offered penitents the sacrament with priests face-to-face or behind a screen. The confessionals were set up along a hallway in the convention center.

“Possibly a fifth or more of the attendees were in confession. It was a true outpouring of grace. People’s lives were touched. People’s hearts were converted, Father Carter said. “It was a powerful moment during the weekend.”

Father Carter said it was easy to see God’s presence at the congress through the sacraments of reconciliation and communion.

“God was speaking to his people during the Eucharistic Congress and people were responding,” he said. “They were some of the most powerful conversions I’ve heard. This event changed people’s lives.”