The first thing I noticed at Franciscan University were the tables supporting large water coolers. Set up by students for the convenience of “Defending the Faith Conference” attendees, they were everywhere.   

I stopped at a cooler and downed a cup of water before entering the field house, where musician Matt Maher was speaking to the crowd.

“They told me, ‘You’ll never hear the word ‘transubstantiation’ in a song,’” Maher was saying. “So I did this.” 

Maher plucked a few guitar strings and then began to sing, “Transubstantiation, heaven kisses earth. We become a living tabernacle …”

It was with Maher’s songs in mind that I stepped outside after the concert to take part in a reception honoring Franciscan University’s 40 years of summer conferences. I made my way to the watercooler table for a refreshing drink, but found that, where the cooler had once stood, there was an ice bucket filled with wine bottles.

Water into wine? Sure, why not? It wouldn’t be the first miracle to take place at a Steubenville conference.

I picked up a glass of rosé, then stood back to simply revel in the warm camaraderie of the gathering. I thought of Hilaire Belloc’s verse: “Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine.”  

The wine bottles were soon emptied, but the laughter continued into the next day, as Saturday’s roster of speakers included a few who proved to be as entertaining as they were learned.

Offering his reflections on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address, philosopher Peter Kreeft brought home the message that, even in the most inhospitable of environments, “truth connects.” Along the way, Kreeft offered an amusing biographical tidbit:

“‘Peter’ means ‘rock,’ and my last name means ‘crayfish,’ so my name literally means ‘rock lobster.’”

Not to be outdone in the personal-disclosures department, apologist Patrick Madrid, during his very popular “Why Be Catholic?” presentation, revealed why he would not be running for president. “There’s a height requirement,” he dryly admitted. 

But despite the levity, the conference remained focused on one goal: to “Fan the Flame” of faith and evangelization. 

“The Catholic faith has its own gravitational pull,” noted Madrid, and indeed, one couldn’t help but feel the tug of the Holy Spirit.

For my dorm mate Mary Frances, “Defending the Faith” 2015 was her 10th Steubenville conference. “The talks used to be way above my head,” she remarked.  “But as my faith has been guided by the amazing conference speakers, I’ve learned so much more. I will keep coming back each year.”

It wasn’t only conference participants who were enthusiastic. Faustyna, a Steubenville bookstore employee and a self-described “Jennifer Fulwiler fangirl,” was excited that Fulwiler was giving a talk. She encouraged me to get a copy of Fulwiler’s book (Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It) to have signed at the “Speaker Meet and Greet.”

“The book’s a page-turner,” Faustyna exclaimed, adding, “It’s easy to recommend, even to an atheist!”  

Later, during Saturday afternoon’s free time, the conference-goers who wanted to take a prayerful break visited the university’s quiet places: the Portiuncula Chapel, the Tomb of the Unborn, the Marian grotto and the outdoor Stations of the Cross.  Those who were in the mood to mingle gravitated towards the beautiful Rosary Garden at the heart of the campus.  From there, it was a stone’s throw to the field house, where, on Saturday night, the conference would culminate in a “praise and worship” session, followed by a Holy Hour.

“Save souls, not seats!” exhorted author and theologian Scott Hahn late that evening, as folks hastened into the field house to claim chairs close to the aisles where the Blessed Sacrament would be carried in procession.

I managed to get a seat six rows from the stage, directly behind four older women wearing bright yellow #LoveLikeFrancis t-shirts. For over an hour, the women belted out the words to praise songs, alternately reaching heavenward and extending the palms of their hands towards the Real Presence. The women were old enough to have been in their teens during the Woodstock era. I wondered if they had been part of the “peace and love” movement of the time. And I was awed by the thought that, somewhere in their life journeys, these four women had come to know the Peace the world cannot give and the One who is love.

With a six-hour road trip ahead of me, I decided to leave Steubenville at dawn the following day. As I drove away from St. Francis Residence Hall, I noticed that the early morning light was just beginning to wash over the campus. 

A “Catholic sun” was shining.