ALBANY -- Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese has called the diocese's first Euchartistic Congress in 80 years, as the Catholic Church continues to face a crisis over sexual abuse by priests.
In an Aug. 31 letter to all priests in the 14-county diocese, Scharfenberger said he would "request and require" that the diocese's priests come together at the Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs in Auriesville at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, to concelebrate a Mass to renew their promises of priesthood.
The letter acknowledges the sex abuse crisis the church is facing, urging priests to come to the event and renew their vows.
"When we are weakened and demeaned by the ravages of sin, we betray our people's trust and God's commission," Scharfenberger wrote.
The Hearts Aflame Eucharistic Congress will be the first such meeting in the diocese since 1938, when a six-day event was held in Stamford in Delaware County. In Catholic tradition, a “Eucharistic Congress” is a special gathering led by the bishop to which priests, deacons, religious order members and lay Catholics are invited.
"The congress itself has been in planning for months," said diocese spokesman Mary DeTurris Poust. "The bishop wanted a day for all Catholics to come together and refocus on our faith."
The 600-acre shrine in rural Montgomery County contains a coliseum that can seat 6,500 and accommodate 10,000. All Catholics in the diocese are invited to attend and priests are asked to be there despite any other church commitments, such as masses or weddings, they may have that day.
The most recent events in the on-going sex abuse scandal extend to the Vatican, where Pope Francis has been accused of not taking action after being made aware of allegations against American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. A Pennsylvania grand jury report last month found a pattern of abuse of minors by priests over many decades, with church leaders covering up the incidents.
In the letter, Scharfenberger acknowledged that many Catholics are "angry and dismayed at revelations of ongoing duplicity and unchastity among priests and bishops."
"They want swift justice for the victims of sexual abuse by clergy and accountability for those who enabled it for so long," the bishop wrote. "Most of our people, however, are remarkably compassionate and forgiving. While they understand the need for justice and transparency, they also love Jesus and his church and will not abandon us, if they can only have the assurance we will shepherd them, hear their voice and share their journey of faith."
The Albany Diocese has not been immune to the scandals that have rocked the church since the late 1990s. In the past two decades, the diocese has removed from ministry 26 clergy credibly accused of abusing minors.
The Rev. Dominic Isopo, the priest at St. Luke's and St. Joseph's parishes in Schenectady, said he hasn't personally heard many concerns from parishioners about the scandals.
Isopo said the congress has been in planning for more than a year, so it hasn't been called in direct reaction to the most recent scandals. But he said those who may be questioning their faith are encouraged to attend.
"There is no connection between two, but for those who do feel a loss of faith, this is a chance to renew that faith," Isopo said.
He said he is suggesting people attend the Eucharistic Congress as it is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The day-long event will feature speakers, a Mass, a Eucharistic procession and other activities on the grounds of the shrine, which is known as the birthplace of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, as well as the sacred ground where the first North American martyrs died for their faith.
"The bishop is trying to further the spirituality of the laity and of the priests," said the Rev. Richard Carlino, who oversees the St. John's and St. Anthony's parishes in Schenectady.
Carlino said the abuse accusations the church is facing make it "all the more important" that priests and laity renew their faith. He said members of his parishes are signing up to attend.
The diocese has 126 parishes, with 93 active priests and 81 retired priests. It also has 36 religious order priests, 82 active ordained deacons and religious order brothers and sisters, according to the diocese website. There are about 300,000 Catholics living in the diocese.
Attending the event is free, and the parishes in Schenectady plan to coordinate free bus transportation for those who attend.
Isopo said that, while the coliseum offers a large event space, the real reason to hold the Euchartistic Congress there is its significance as a site where people were killed for their Catholic faith in 1642 -- the first Catholic martyrs in North America.
"That ground holds the blood of martyrs who were killed in the name of faith," Isopo said. "It's not just the number of people it holds, it's what the grounds represent."
DeTurris Poust said about 1,700 people are already registered and the diocese hopes at least 2,000 will attend.
The public can register for the event at rcda.org.