This Mass ‘was different’ 

November 6, 2023

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, 

Our Diocesan Eucharistic Congress held at the Bank of Springfield Convention Center on Oct. 28 was an inspiring and memorable event that exceeded all my expectations! Months of preparation came to fruition as approximately 5,000 people gathered to listen to dynamic speakers talk about the meaning and mystery of the holy Eucharist, watch informative videos about miracles and healings, confess their sins and receive absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation, participate in the holy Sacrifice of the Mass with their bishop and priests, and receive the papal blessing from the bishop with a plenary indulgence authorized by the Holy Father. 

I am deeply grateful to Dr. Scott Hahn, Professor of Biblical Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, for accepting my invitation to serve as our keynote speaker. He hit a figurative home run out of the park with his insightful reflections on the disciples’ encounter and conversation with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, recounting how, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He interpreted to them what referred to Him in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27) and “how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).

Dr. Hahn was followed by Father Chase Hilgenbrinck, Vocation Director of Recruitment for the Diocese of Peoria, who gave a spirited and energetic talk on “Living with a Eucharistic Priority.” I have known Father Chase for several years due to our common interests in sports and faith. While playing hockey and running marathons are hobbies for me, Father Chase was a professional soccer player before quitting his promising career in professional sports to enter the seminary. The Church is blessed that Father Chase said yes to God’s call to serve as a priest!

Father Denis Robinson is a Benedictine priest who serves as Rector of Saint Meinrad Seminary in southern Indiana, so he is especially well-known by our priests who studied there. Father Robinson related stories from his own life as he spoke on “The Surprise of the Eucharist.”

Sister Karolyn Nunes, Vocation Director for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George in Alton, is also well-known to us here in our diocese. She gave a powerful witness talk on “The Eucharist as the Source of Communion and Mission.” Sister Karolyn traced her vocation to seeing the power of God answer her prayers to help her favorite baseball team, the previously hapless Boston Red Sox, win the World Series in 2004. My favorite baseball team, the Chicago White Sox, then won the World Series the following year in 2005. Go Sox! Sister Karolyn started her talk playing her harmonica for us and ended by singing, Set a Fire Down in My Soul.

From my perspective as your diocesan bishop, it was spiritually uplifting to recognize so many familiar faces that I have seen in their respective parishes over the years, now all gathered together in one place to honor our Lord in the holy Eucharist and celebrate the centennial of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. Our gathering was a microcosm of the Church itself: the bishop as successor of the Apostles, surrounded by his priests, deacons, seminarians, consecrated religious sisters and brothers, lay ecclesial leaders, and a multitude of the Christian faithful. 

It is said that the Eucharist is a foretaste of heaven. Going to Mass frankly does not always feel that way, but this time was different, as people were there who wanted to be there and who vigorously participated in praying and singing enthusiastically. As you know, I often like to include a song in my homily on special occasions. This was certainly a special occasion, but I did not want my homiletic song to be a solo performance. Since my homily ended on a Marian note invoking the intercession of the Patroness of our Diocese, the Immaculate Conception, I thought it would be good to end with a hymn that everyone could sing from memory, Immaculate Mary. It was deeply moving as the whole crowd eagerly and devoutly joined in singing, especially the refrain, “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria, Ave, Ave Maria!” (Watch/hear that and other sights, sounds, and reactions in a Eucharistic Congress recap video)

In my homily, I noted that our diocesan Eucharistic Congress was part of the National Eucharistic Revival going on now. A spiritual revival seeks to bring back to life a faith that has become dormant or deadened. Thus, my hope is that our diocesan Eucharistic Congress will not simply be a one and done kind of event, as powerful as it was, but will have a far-reaching effect that extends to many more people beyond the 5,000 that were in attendance and will have a long-lasting positive impact for many years to come, just as great things happened after Jesus fed 5,000 hungry people through the ministry of His Disciples. We should note that the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus that is recounted in all four Gospels. The principal reason for that may be that it was seen as anticipating the Eucharist and the final banquet in the kingdom.

Some of these great spiritual fruits began happening that very day. There was a man who came up to me as I was greeting people who were leaving the BOS Center after Mass. He told me that he went to confession that day for the first time in 35 years, and his previous confession was his first confession! Having made his first confession as a young boy and then not going again until this past Oct. 28, God’s grace was apparently having a profound impact that day as he was moved after so many years to confess his sins and receive God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation.

Another woman attended the events that day, walked through the Eucharistic Miracles exhibit, went to confession, received holy Communion and the papal blessing with the plenary indulgence, then went home and suffered a massive brain bleed. She died the next day. The Eucharist was her last meal, as was also the case when my mother died in 2019. That is the best and most beautiful example I know of being prepared to die in the state of grace!May God give us this grace. Amen.