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‘In that moment, we were one’

November 1, 2023

Editor’s Note: Individuals from around the Diocese of Ogdensburg offered reflections on their experiences at the New York State Eucharistic Congress, held Oct. 20-22 in Auriesville. Many of those comments had to be shortened – some significantly – due to space constraints. The North Country Catholic plans to offer additional reflections and Bishop Terry R. LaValley’s homily from the Saturday Mass at the Congress in a future edition. They are featured here in the order in which they were received.

Bishop Terry R. LaValley
One word that captures my experience at the recent NYS Eucharistic Congress in Auriesville is JOY. What a shot in the arm to be one of literally thousands of faith-filled Catholics, young and not-so- young, young adults and college students, who gathered to truly celebrate our faith. They came from all over the State and beyond to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, hear inspiring talks, confess their sins, adore the Blessed Sacrament and share faith stories with others.

I was particularly inspired to meet many of the faithful pilgrims who came from across the North Country. I was thrilled to visit with parishioners from Morrisonville, Plattsburgh, Lyon Mountain, Adams, Dannemora, Potsdam, Canton, Massena, Clayton, Waddington, Indian Lake and many more locations. On a busy weekend, pilgrims included priests, deacons, and consecrated religious from our Diocese, as well.

This was the first time that many of our pilgrims visited the Shrine of the North American Martyrs. It brought fond memories for me of my early priesthood when I would have my annual retreat at the shrine. It also was a good occasion to reflect on our bond with the Native Americans, particularly those who live in Akwesasne. Saturday’s Mass was celebrated on the eleventh anniversary of the canonization of the Lily of the Mohawks, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.

I want to thank Anita Soltero who served as our Diocesan representative on the State Committee that coordinated the huge event. I’m also grateful to Father Bryan Stitt who served as the Master of Ceremonies for the Saturday Mass and provided other liturgical assistance, particularly for the impressive Eucharistic Procession.
The rain stayed away and there was nothing but Son-shine at the Congress. We are blessed!

Anita Soltero, diocesan assistant director of Faith Formation, director of Youth ministry & representative on the Eucharistic Congress Committee
Seeing so many people with such strong Eucharistic devotion, joy for the Lord and deep faith was my own Eucharistic revival. As a committee member, I worked the entire weekend doing whatever was needed, and did not get to hear any of the speakers or participate in the procession. I had the great privilege of being a lector for the Saturday opening Mass, which is something I will cherish for the rest of my life. Once Mass was over, I was back in jeans and a sweatshirt on my golf cart, with walkie talkie in my ear waiting for whatever direction came my way. I lost count of the number of people I encountered who spoke of coming to the shrine as children or coming to visit all their lives. This event meant the world to them.

There was a wheelchair bound 90-year-old priest who just wanted to be present on site. As difficult as it was for him, I saw consolation I on his face as he was brought to the coliseum. I will never forget that look. I saw Jesus so very present and in action in both of those situations. My heart was touched as I received Jesus in those moments in a very special way.

There were also many young people and young families as well. Many people say “where are all the young people, where are the families?” “The church is dying”. “What will happen when all the devoted elderly are gone?” Well  I can tell you, the Church is NOT dying, the young ARE there and so are families. I saw them this weekend, and they are full of Eucharistic Devotion!

Father Bryan Stitt, diocesan director of Worship & pastor of St. Mary’s, Canton
My favorite moment was captured in a photo taken by Father Mark Reilly. Giving Benediction to the crowd of thousands overlooking the Mohawk River Valley – the same place where three of the American martyrs laid down their lives for the faith was particularly powerful to me. Processing from that spot also had moments of pure levity and joy. There was a group of about eight or ten children that were very focused on the procession and very energetic. I first noticed them as we sang: “O Sacrament Most Holy.” Their voices were little, but they sang with gusto! After another priest was carrying the monstrance, I was able to see them. They snuck through the low limbs of the bushes and trees along the procession route to get around to the front of the canopy over the monstrance. Once they were a few paces in front, they all fell to their knees and then once the Blessed Sacrament passed by, they would jump up and do it all again. Is there any wonder that the Lord said that to enter the kingdom, we must become like little children?

Marika Donders, diocesan director of the New Evangelization
I think what always strikes me at large Catholic events, pilgrimages, gatherings like this is despite our differences how united we all can be and everyone coming together to worship. Very often it is the little kindness that speak louder than words: someone holding a bag for a stranger so they can use the portajohn without having to juggle bags/umbrellas, someone offering a piece of candy to someone, someone scooting over in their pew to make room for one more person or people simply being patient while waiting in line.

JB Kavanaugh, Waddington
I was amazed and so inspired by all the different YOUNG nuns in attendance. The inspiration of seeing these young nuns walking around smiling, laughing, obviously enjoying life and their vocation was wonderful to see.

Father Mark R. Reilly, pastor St. Peter’s Parish, Massena, & dean of the St. Lawrence Deanery
We don’t often get to do Eucharistic Processions of that elaborate a nature, and on such a scale in which thousands of people are participating. It was quite a sight to see, and a powerful experience.

When the Eucharistic Procession was starting, I crossed paths with and made eye contact with a Sister of Life whom I’ve known for about 30 years or so - since before I was a priest, and before she was in the religious life. Hadn’t seen her or spoken with her in quite some time, and then - there she was. We weren’t able to chat right there on the spot of course (though we caught up with each other a little later). But “how awesome is that,” I thought to myself, “to have that kind of friendly reunion, while adoring and worshiping Christ in such a way.” What a lovely surprise that was.

Haleigh Wilson, SUNY Plattsburgh freshman & part of Newman Association/RCIA
I attended the Eucharistic Congress as part of the Newman Association. The experience was extremely uplifting and joyful. Spending time in adoration allowed me to hear Jesus. In adoration, all of my worries disappeared and a weight lifted off of my shoulders. Adoration put a lot of things in focus for me. It is easy to get caught up in everyday life and not dedicate alone time with God. This event reminded me to take time out of my day when I am alone and to spend it with God.

One of my favorite parts of the Eucharistic Congress was the Mass. Hearing thousands of people praying at the same time is extremely powerful. You could feel the Holy Spirit in the room with everyone.

Brandon Bertrand, SUNY Plattsburgh freshman & part of the Newman Association and RCIA
The Eucharistic Congress was probably the best spiritual/religious opportunity I’ve ever been a part of. I attended the Eucharistic Congress not because my club friends went or that I had to go because it was a club event, but to find myself within Christ and see what he has done for others. Upon arrival, there were already so many people attending this event. It seemed to be people from all over the country. Never had I seen so many white collars gathered around since the St. Andrews dinner I was a part of. I believe I was told that around 7,500 people went. 7,500! Not just the five I see every morning prayer, not just the 20 in the pews I see in daily Mass, but 7,500. It brings a smile to my face and a joy to my soul to hear and see that many people who partake in the same walk with you. We were all there for the presence of our Lord, and to just be with Him and the family he had gathered in time of adoration. I always seem to find certain troubles with my faith and God but it’s retreats like these that bring me closer each time. I know he is truly looking out for me.

Erica VanValkenburg, SUNY Plattsburgh junior & secretary for Newman Association
I went to the Eucharistic Congress mostly out of curiosity, since I hadn’t heard of it before. It gave me a sense of peace, as the location was beautiful and definitely sacred ground. My friend and I bought rosaries at the gift shop, both dedicated to St. Kateri, and when we touched the one my friend bought, we both got a really strong feeling that she was there. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was surprised that I ended up enjoying it a lot despite having no clue what I was getting into. The coliseum is beautiful just like the whole place, and I’d love to go back.

Riley McQuade, SUNY Plattsburgh graduate student & president of the Newman Association
I took away hope from this experience. Hope for my faith. Hope for the faith of others. Hope for the future of the Catholic Church. Hope that there are always going to be others out there who share my faith and believe it even stronger than I do. One of my favorite memories I will take away is watching how much this event impacted my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that I went with. I could see how much this event meant to them and the profound impact it had on them. Honestly, what surprised me was the number of people there. There were so many people, and it was so beautiful to see them all there for one purpose: worshiping Jesus. I am so incredibly grateful to have had this experience!

Desiree Kirk, advisor for the SUNY Plattsburgh Newman Association & campus minister
The Eucharistic Congress was a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness God in action in so many ways. It was an experience that inspired me and left me speechless all at the same time. The beauty in the people gathered together in such large numbers all just to be in the true presence of Jesus was so breathtaking. To see babies, young adults, people speaking in all languages all in Jesus’ name. One of my most amazing moments was sitting in Mass and hearing the thousands of voices say the Our Father with all their hearts. From young to old, from new to the Church to those who have always had the blessings of the Church, in that one moment we were one.

Msgr. Dennis J. Duprey, dean of the Clinton-Northern Franklin Deanery
I primarily went with the perspective of helping to hear Confessions. I heard about 7 hours of Confessions. I was very impressed with the numbers and young people from colleges and – those studying law, marine biology, etc. – from secular and Catholic universities, who came from Plattsburgh to Ithaca to Cornell to RIT. It was just amazing. I was also amazed about their faith. Sometimes we think that the faith is centralized to middle age to older adults. Honestly, the fervor of faith among the young is strong. Maybe not the numbers but the fervor is there. Bishop LaValley gave an excellent homily, there was great participation and reverence at Mass.

In 53 years I had not seen a Eucharistic procession that well-ordered, with singing and prayers, and thousands of participants. The reverence was stunning.

I was there (at the Auriesville Eucharistic procession), and people just fell to their knees – older people, younger people, priests, bishops, and sisters – as we stopped along the way. The volunteers were so helpful and smiling and they got you set on the right direction. It deepened my faith. I have Mass and the Eucharist all the time. Sometimes you wear it like an old shoe and you forget to hold it in your hands and in your heart. I have more intensity and more fervor. Sometimes we get discouraged with the future of the Church but we ought not to be at all. God is working.

Kathy Hart, Massena
I attended the Congress to profess my love and respect for the real presence in the Eucharist and to receive all the Graces that God would give me.
I was impressed with the thousands of men, women, children and young adults who took part in walking in the procession of the Eucharist. The rains stopped and the clouds parted. It was BEAUTIFUL!

Deacon James Carlin, Plattsburgh
The driving factor was to be in a community with 8,000 people who believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I have always found that large Catholic gatherings have provided a positive and renewing energy that reinvigorates my faith life and my relationship with the Church and Christ.

I took away a deeper appreciation for the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the gifts and graces that come from the sacrifice He made for us. I also took away a deeper appreciation for the diversity and unity of the Church. There were no rich, poor, young, old, black, white, or brown; there were only disciples. It was a beautiful reminder to me of the one body of Christ.

Wanda Kavanaugh, Waddington
We sat down for lunch and a group of Sisters were sitting at the table. They were trying to pronounce Ogdensburg and talking about the Bishop who gave the Mass. We pronounced Ogdensburg and told them where it was and that Bishop LaValley was our bishop. They said how wonderful his homily was, how humble, sincere and down to earth he was. We agreed and said that’s how he is always. We had a similar conversation at dinner with college students.

It was so wonderful to see so many young Sisters.

Margaret “Maggie” Ernenwein, Tupper Lake
I have a belief in the real presence and am saddened by the statistics (70% of Catholics do not believe) it was inspiring to see so many true believers.

After adoration there was a large group from a charismatic church that sang for about 30 min many Spanish traditional adoration songs. Their joy was contagious.

Josh Fontana, Campus Ministry Program in Canton & Potsdam
Coming together to pray with other Catholics and celebrate the Eucharist is worth doing, even if it takes getting up early and enduring an exhausting, long day. It was about giving praise and worship to God, Who is worth it, regardless of how I felt. It was not about getting some emotional consolation or hearing some intellectually interesting, philosophical talk.

I had never been to the Auriesville Shrine, and I was struck by the uniqueness of the Coliseum Church. Father Mark (Reilly) primed us with a little background about the place and the martyrs, and I thought the church’s aesthetic was so fitting for the history that took place there. The altar of the church was on a raised platform that looked like a Native American palisade. There were statues of saints on some sides of it, including a statue of St. Kateri. She was standing confidently with a tall cross in her hand – not like someone who suffered as an innocent and helpless victim, but like someone who won a great victory for Jesus with humble Faith and quiet conviction. (I have since learned she was not a martyr, but she still suffered persecution for the Faith.) On the pillars in the aisles leading to the center of the church there were rough wooden crosses – one on each pillar, with the word “Jesus” written under it in red, squiggly letters, as if in blood – a reminder of the total, sacrificial love that the martyrs had for our Savior. And then the kneelers were bare wooden planks –  another small reminder of the comforts these saints gave up for Jesus.

Sandra Geiss, Clayton
I attended the congress for inspiration and education and I received both. The highlight for me was the Saturday Mass with 7,000 plus participants; a procession that included hundreds of priests and deacons, and 25 bishops, the sounds of 7,000 people singing and saying the Mass responses and our Bishop LaValley was a super star celebrant. At lunch afterward, our group of five from Clayton sat next to a group of nuns from downstate who were saying Ogden….what! They were singing (Bishop LaValley’s) praises, and we told them about us! In spite of relatively cool and rainy weather I think the Congress was a huge success. I only wished that there were more people there from our diocese! I’m grateful to have been there

Jennifer Lucia, Clayton
I attended the Congress with my husband, Jack. I read about it in the NCC and immediately booked a place to stay way back early May. My devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist was really why I wanted to go. I wanted to be on the holy Ground of the North American martyrs and being able to attend adoration, anytime I desired, and to hear the speakers for inspiration. It was beyond anything I imagined it would be. The Eucharistic Procession was phenomenal. And, of course, having our Bishop Terry LaValley there was a highlight of the time. Everything about it was wonderful and exceeded my expectations.

Father Leagon Carlin, parochial vicar, St. Peter’s Parish, Massena
I attended the event because there is nothing quite like the energy of a large Catholic gathering. In this fraught and divided world of ours, there could be nothing more powerful than thousands of Catholics gathering in unity to worship Christ in the Eucharist, and being a part of that was immensely important to me. It was also my first opportunity to attend such an event as a priest, and that itself was a great grace.

We are barraged on a near constant basis by the mainstream narrative that both religious belief and practice are on a steady decline into nothingness, and there is no doubt that we are struggling in some ways. Our pews are not as packed as they once were, and in the North Country we are living in the wake of a wider social decline which extends far beyond merely the doors of our Churches.

Nonetheless, events like this Eucharistic Congress serve to demonstrate that this narrative of decline is not an inevitable or foregone conclusion, that, in fact, it is not nearly as progressed as some would have us believe, and that the Human spirit still longs for the meaningful lives of self-gift and fulfillment which Christ offers us in His Body and Blood.

All is not lost, Jesus is still with us, perhaps now more than ever, in our greater need. There is much to be hopeful about, and the Eucharistic lens helps us to see that clearly.

Deacon Carter Pierce, seminarian for the Diocese of Ogdensburg
I always knew that the Eucharist was an important and unique aspect of the Catholic faith, but only as I entered college did I come to experience and encounter for myself the intimacy and power of God in the Blessed Sacrament. Since then, it has been at the core of my relationship with God. It brings me great joy that, together, the church in America is taking this time to intentionally promote devotion to the Eucharist. Desiring to contribute to this movement, I came to statewide Congress in Auriesville to share my love for the Eucharist and share in the joy of the other pilgrims. It was an almost six-hour drive from the seminary to the Congress, but it was worth it.

This Congress was a reminder to me that there continues to be so much to be grateful for and that there are still so many people of deep faith. At Mass on Saturday, the Coliseum was full, every available ticket having been reserved. I met pilgrims from all over the state and in all stages of life. Elderly people for whom the travel was no doubt difficult, college students for whom the attraction to the Lord was stronger than academic pressures or the lure of parties, teenagers who were not too cool to show their love for Jesus, and young couples who came despite infant children. There were dozens of priests and even more consecrated religious. Neither cold temperatures nor windy and rainy weather kept people from coming.

Some pilgrims stayed up the whole night keeping vigil in adoration. I was very impressed by their devotion to our Eucharistic Lord.

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