SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (CNS) — The Diocese of Knoxville celebrated its 25th anniversary in grand fashion by holding its first eucharistic congress, which drew about 5,000 Catholics from throughout Tennessee and around the country to gather in prayer and song, fellowship and worship.

“My wife, Karen, and I attended this conference and were just blown away by the sea of love and affection for our Catholic faith in east Tennessee. A great experience it was,” said Allen Martin, who traveled from the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Ione, Calif., to attend the congress.

A lineup of Catholic luminaries shared their theological insight and Christ-filled inspiration during the congress, held Sept. 13-14 at the Sevierville Convention Center.

Guests attending the congress asked how such a small mission diocese in east Tennessee attracted such big-name speakers.

They included New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference; Cardinal Justin Rigali, former archbishop of St. Louis and Philadelphia who has served on two Vatican congregations and is currently in residence in Knoxville; Father Robert Barron, currently rector of Mundelein Seminary in the Chicago Archdiocese, who created the “Catholicism” television series; and Scott Hahn, best-selling author and theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika opened the eucharistic congress with a youth Mass Sept. 13 and also celebrated the closing Mass Sept. 14. About 50 priests led the sacrament of reconciliation, hearing 136 hours of confessions in 20 portable private confessionals set up for the worship event.

During the youth Mass, Bishop Stika emphasized that the diocese’s teens are not the church of the future, but rather they are the church of today.

Youths attended presentations by noted prayer and worship leaders ValLimar Jansen, a gospel and jazz singer, and missionary and evangelist Paul George, as well as performances by Sarah Kroger and Josh Blakesley, who also led adoration.

Hispanic attendees could attend Spanish-language presentations by Piarist Father Rafael Capo, executive director of the Miami-based Southeast Pastoral Institute, and Sister Rosa Hernandez, a Guadalupan Missionary of the Holy Spirit, who is associate director of the School of Ministry of the Diocese of Stockton, Calif. Musician Johann Alvarez gave a concert and also led adoration.

Cardinal Dolan, in a keynote address, praised the Diocese of Knoxville for its spirit of growth, saying it is a shining example of the Catholic Church growing dramatically in areas that historically have been dominated by other faiths.

The diocese, established Sept. 8, 1988, has about 62,000 Catholics out of a total population of close to 2.4 million. The congress was the starts of its yearlong silver jubilee celebration.

“The youth, vitality and promise of this diocese is inspirational for me,” Cardinal Dolan said. “Here in the South, you have a remarkable sense of pride and cohesion, and a sense of what it means to be Catholic.”

He was surrounded by well-wishers as he made his way through the convention center. He stopped to chat and pose for photos, prompting Bishop Stika to joke that it seemed paparazzi had descended on the congress.

The bishop and the cardinal are longtime friends from having served together in the St. Louis Archdiocese. Both are St. Louis natives and both were ordained priests for the archdiocese. Among their many assignments there, the cardinal was a St. Louis auxiliary, and Bishop Stika was secretary to then-St. Louis Archbishop Rigali.

In his talk, Father Barron spoke of the importance of receiving the holy Eucharist and approaching Communion with eager anticipation.

Hahn also talked about the Eucharist, telling his listeners that partaking of it at Mass is the closest thing Catholics have to heaven.

He said the Last Supper and Calvary are fused, adding that if they are not, then the Last Supper is just a meal and Calvary is just an execution.

“Jesus is not a victim of the Romans, but he is a victim of divine love,” Hahn said.

A highlight of the congress was a chat with Cardinal Rigali and Bishop Stika the first night, which attracted more than 1,200 people.

During the 90-minute dialogue, Bishop Stika asked Cardinal Rigali about his experiences as a cardinal, as a Vatican emissary and adviser to several popes, as an archbishop, a member of the College of Cardinals and participant in two papal conclaves, as well as their long friendship and time spent working together.

In the closing Mass, Bishop Stika said the Knoxville Diocese is a special place and “we give thanks for our faith as it is lived in a particular way in east Tennessee.”

But he reminded the congregation it is one part of the whole — the universal church — and that the congress was a celebration of “the faith of the apostles, the faith of our fathers and mothers, transmitted throughout the ages from Jerusalem until this time and place.”

Other prelates at the congress included Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., currently vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who was Knoxville’s second bishop (1999-2007); Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis; Bishop James V. Johnston of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., one of the first two priests ordained for Knoxville and he was a parish priest in the diocese and its chancellor; Bishop David R. Choby of Nashville; and Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis.