Bishop Barron, Father Schmitz Help Light ‘Eucharistic Fire’ at Minnesota Congress

The congress was the prelude to the start of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s Marian Route, which begins with Pentecost Sunday Mass and culminates at the national congress in Indianapolis.

Thousands of Catholics gather Friday at Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minnesota, for the Star of the North Eucharistic Congress.
Thousands of Catholics gather Friday at Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minnesota, for the Star of the North Eucharistic Congress. (photo: Courtney Meyer Photography)

In two months, tens of thousands of Catholics will gather in Indianapolis for the 10th-ever National Eucharistic Congress. But in Northern Minnesota this weekend, the local faithful got a taste of the impact a gathering dedicated to increasing knowledge and love of the Eucharistic Lord can have.

More than 3,000 people attended the Star of the North Eucharistic Congress May 17-18 in Bemidji, Minnesota, which featured testimonies on Eucharistic devotion, Adoration and Mass, and catechetical talks from prominent Catholic speakers like Bishop Robert Barron and Father Mike Schmitz.

The congress was the prelude to the start of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage’s Marian Route, which begins at the nearby headwaters of the Mississippi River with Pentecost Sunday Mass May 19, en route to the national congress in Indianapolis.

With lay and clerical attendees from across the state, including each of Minnesota’s six diocesan ordinaries, the event had the feeling of a Catholic version of the “Great Minnesota Get-Together,” as the state fair in the Land of 10,000 Lakes is called.

“There’s just a sense of the unity of the Church in Minnesota and the sense of hopefulness about what we’re going into,” Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the Diocese of Crookston told the Register.

Attendees and speakers alike frequently noted the irony that the small rural diocese of Crookston, with only 35,000 Catholics, would serve as the host of both the regional Eucharistic congress and the starting point of the Marian Route. By comparison, the starting points of the other pilgrimage routes — the Archdioceses of San Francisco and Hartford, and the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, have 500,000, 450,000 and 1 million Catholics, respectively.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda, ordinary of St. Paul and Minneapolis and metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province comprising Minnesota and the Dakotas, called the gathering “a beautiful sign of the wonderful things that God is doing in our Church.”

“It’s clear to me that there are magnificent things going on in Minnesota,” said the Pittsburgh native in his homily at Saturday morning Mass, adding that he was proud to tell people that he is from the Midwestern state.

Minnesota’s Evangelists

Diocesan officials said that more than 3,300 people had registered to attend, with hundreds of walk-ins also expected — with some attendees admittedly drawn by the chance to hear from the Midwest state’s cadre of well-known catechists.

Two of the most well-known Catholic speakers in the world — Word on Fire founder Bishop Robert Barron and Ascension Press’ Father Mike Schmitz — both reside in Minnesota. Bishop Barron leads the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, while Father Schmitz heads Catholic campus ministry efforts at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Archbishop Hebda humorously addressed Minnesota’s windfall of evangelizers in his homily for the Saturday morning Mass, noting that when he’d told some fellow passengers on a recent plane ride that he was from Minnesota, he was immediately asked if he knew Father Schmitz.

When he shared with his new companions that he was the one tasked with preaching at the big event, they asked, “Isn’t Father Schmitz or Bishop Barron coming?”

Bishop Cozzens told the Register that “the Holy Spirit has put a lot of great people in Minnesota who have a real fire for evangelization.”

Father Schmitz, who presented digitally due to a recent back surgery that prevented him from traveling to Bemidji in person, is a native Minnesotan, but Bishop Barron is a more recent arrival, coming from California to southern Minnesota in July 2022.

“As a fellow Minnesotan, how could I possibly say no to this?” quipped the Chicago native at the start of his Friday evening talk.

Of course, the reason Crookston was hosting the regional Eucharistic congress and serving as the starting point of the Marian Route in the first place was because their shepherd is Bishop Cozzens, the point man of the whole National Eucharistic Revival. 

Bishop Cozzens, who assumed responsibility for the revival when he was elected as the U.S. Bishops’ head of evangelization and catechesis, said that when he decided to move forward with four cross-country pilgrimage routes from each cardinal direction converging upon the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis, he knew his diocese would be a part of it.

“If we were going to start from the north, well then, we had to start from the ‘northland,’” Bishop Cozzens told attendees of the Star of the North conference, referring to the Diocese of Crookston’s nickname.


Eucharistic Fire

Several speakers regularly turned to Minnesota themes to illustrate the power of the Eucharist — especially the idea of starting a bonfire.

Bishop Barron spoke of the need to “stay close to the fire” of the Eucharist in an hour-long tour de force on the congress’ opening night, detailing how the love of the Eucharist was a thread that ran through the lives of Catholics like Dorothy Day, Jacques Maritain, St. John Paul II, St. Edith Stein and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Bishop Cozzens appealed to the Minnesotan audience’s knowledge of fire-starting, noting that the Lord wanted to use those gathered at the event to help kindle a wider movement of Eucharistic worship and love.

“God wants to start a fire. A bonfire. And that fire begins with this small fire,” the bishop said, urging those in the audience to live “a Eucharistic life.”

In his digital presentation, Father Mike Schmitz used his physical absence — and the disappointment that some attendees might have had over it — to drive home the importance of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist.

“There is something qualitatively different when [Jesus] is there,” shared the Diocese of Duluth priest.

And during his homily, Archbishop Hebda talked about the Eucharist as the intersection between Christ’s desire to stay with his people, and the Church’s desire to be with him.

Dominican Sister Jude Andrew Link also presented at the congress, using the humble headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River to illustrate the power of Eucharistic grace. A team from the Hallow App presented on styles of Eucharistic prayer and the hosts of the Saints Alive podcast gave an interactive demonstration. Musical accompaniment was provided by both Aly Aleigha, a Catholic singer-songwriter from Duluth, and the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, a relatively new women’s religious order founded in the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, and now present in St. Paul and Minneapolis and Duluth, as well the Diocese of Bismarck in North Dakota.

Near and Far

The Star of the North Congress was a collaborative effort between the Dioceses of Crookston and Duluth, which together cover the northern half of Minnesota.

Attendees from the two dioceses engaged in some playful Catholic competition when they tried to outcheer each other as their respective bishops, Bishop Cozzens and Bishop Daniel Felton, were introduced at the start of the conference.

But attendees weren’t limited to the two host dioceses.

Rob Jensen came with a group of about 50 people from St. John the Baptist parish in New Brighton, a suburb of Minneapolis. He described the chance to participate in the congress and pilgrimage as a “once-in-a-lifetime event.”

“The quality of speakers that are here right now — where else can you find all of those people together?” said Jensen, a convert, who added that the deepest draw was the chance to take part in a national celebration of the Eucharist.

A group of five teenagers came from even farther away, trekking all the way from Thunder Bay, Ontario. The teens didn’t hesitate to share that the chance to hear from both Father Schmitz and Bishop Barron was the reason they made the six-hour drive. The group was excited to deepen their love of God in the Eucharist and share that love back in their community.

One of the teen’s moms drove them all down in the family minivan. She was initially hesitant to make the drive, but eventually reconsidered.

“I had five teenagers begging me to take them to a Eucharistic congress,” she explained. “How could I say no?”