Catholic News Service photos
Bishop Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte, N.C., leads a eucharistic procession through downtown Charlotte Sept. 20 on the second day of the 2014 Eucharistic Congress. The Sept. 18-20 congress at the Charlotte Convention Center drew an estimated 13,000 Catholics from across the Carolinas.
Catholic News Service photos
Bishop Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte, N.C., leads a eucharistic procession through downtown Charlotte Sept. 20 on the second day of the 2014 Eucharistic Congress. The Sept. 18-20 congress at the Charlotte Convention Center drew an estimated 13,000 Catholics from across the Carolinas.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Attendance at Mass remains central to Catholics' faith because they must be nourished by Jesus' body and blood or they will not remain strong Catholics, said Bishop Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte.

"Take a moment to ask yourself: Why do you go to Mass?" he said in his homily for the closing Mass of the 2014 Eucharistic Congress in Charlotte.

He emphasized that Catholics need the Eucharist to remain focused on Christ and keep their faith alive.

"You need the Eucharist. You need Jesus. If you think you can live a Christian life without Jesus, you are mistaken," he said at the Sept. 20 Mass. "You are not really living. A Catholic without the Eucharist will not remain a strong Catholic for long. One's faith will become watered down, if he is not constantly being fed by Jesus."

The 10th annual congress, organized by the Diocese of Charlotte, focused on the theme "Behold, I make all things new," from Chapter 21, Verse 5 of the Book of Revelation. It drew an estimated 13,000 people to the Charlotte Convention Center for Mass and eucharistic adoration, confession, educational talks and music Sept. 19-20.

"Sometimes if we are not careful," Bishop Jugis said in his homily, "our Mass attendance can become routine," a habit that Catholics don't really think about.

Catholics cannot live as "watered down Christians," he noted, echoing Pope Francis' words. "After all, why did Jesus give us the Eucharist? He wants the Eucharist to be a real part of our life -- not just something we do once in a while" but an essential part of our lives.

Receiving the Eucharist also renews us, he said. "Jesus is always doing new things: lifting up those who have fallen down, forgiving sins and giving us a new start, healing the wounded. ... There is no limit to his ability to make all things new. And in the Eucharist he lifts us up, he renews us, he fills us with his love, he refreshes us, he makes us new."

That message was echoed by the Congress' two other keynote speakers: Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Cardinal O'Brien spoke following the Sept. 19 sacred music concert that traditionally opens the congress.

"Before the words of consecration, there is simply bread and wine," he said. "After the words of consecration, all the senses attest that only bread and wine remain. No proof did Jesus offer of what he said about that bread and wine at the Last Supper -- no supporting proofs or evidences of his divinity similar to those he had provided earlier through his many miracles.

"Then as now, only faith justifies us receiving the bread and wine not as the bread and wine but as he insisted: 'This is my body. This is my blood. Here on the altar my body is real food, my blood real drink. Only if you eat this food and drink this drink will you have life in you.'"

Cardinal O'Brien noted that for some followers of Jesus this was too much, and many walked away. But others remained, saying, "Lord, You have the words of everlasting life, to whom else should we go?"

Catholics today are called to exercise that same confident faith, he said. "Ours is a call to a mono-maniacally consuming vocation. There is a single standard of holiness for all of us: the uncompromised and uncompromising following of Jesus."

The beauty, goodness and truth of the Eucharist are what attract people to Jesus, he noted, and Catholics must not let themselves become numb to the profound truths of their faith.

During the congress' Holy Hour Sept. 20, Archbishop Kurtz also harkened back to the apostles, preaching that people's faith in Jesus today must be as resolute as that of his first disciples.

Just as the apostles' faith in Jesus remained steadfast despite being rocked by persecution and tumult in their times, Catholics' faith should be no less certain in the face of today's challenges to the faith, their families and the Church itself, Archbishop Kurtz said.

Peter and the other apostles experienced the safe "harbor" of Jesus when a storm blew up around them out on the Sea of Galilee, Archbishop Kurtz noted, referring to the familiar Gospel narrative.

Jesus calmed the storm, reassuring his disciples. And although Peter later denied even knowing Jesus three times during his Passion, Peter ultimately confessed to the Lord that he loved him, when the risen Jesus asked him three times if he would love him and feed his sheep.

Jesus is "our anchor, our rudder, our lighthouse our lifeboat, and, yes, our harbor," Archbishop Kurtz said. Jesus, he reassured, "is in his church and with his church and he continues to calm the storms of our lives."

During the congress, 7,000 Catholics participated in a eucharistic procession through downtown Charlotte.

Marie De Mayo, a member of St. Gabriel Church in Charlotte, recalled attendance at the first congress, when 3,500 Catholics processed through downtown -- an unusual sight for the majority Protestant region.

"As the procession was moving along Tryon Street that first year, there were a lot of curious stares from non-Catholics, construction workers hanging on windows," she told the Catholic News Herald, Charlotte's diocesan newspaper. "Even policemen did not know what to make of the bishop, priests and devout Catholics in total devotion, silence and prayer."

"As the Lord was passing and families knelt down, there was a hush of the real presence of Jesus blessing the people and the city," she added.

Now, she said, "after 10 years, the numbers have increased greatly as more Catholics participate."