Five years ago, Richard Lane of St. Louis attended an event with Promise Keepers, a Protestant organization that helps men develop a relationship with Christ. It drew 15,000. He was inspired by the event, but wondered why the Catholic Church didn’t have a similar movement.
So he went to his archbishop, Raymond Burke, and asked him if he could launch an annual Catholic conference for men in the archdiocese. The conference’s purpose was to get men excited about living their Catholic faith, and then to return to their parishes to form Catholic men’s apostolates that would meet regularly and support and encourage one another in the faith. Archbishop Burke (today a Rome-based cardinal in charge of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court) gave him an enthusiastic “Yes.” That was the beginning of Catholic Men for Christ (CatholicMenforChrist.org).
The first conference was held in 2008, with 1,200 attending. The conference featured many prominent Catholic speakers, such as Detroit deacon and convert Alex Jones. The conferences have continued annually and still draw many: The 2012 conference was just held Super Bowl weekend. The featured speakers included the current archbishop of St. Louis, Robert Carlson.
“The men really enjoy it and can’t wait for it each year,” said Lane.
The successful story of the men’s conference movement over the last decade has been repeated in many major cities and dioceses across the country. Father Larry Richards, one of the most popular speakers on the men’s conference circuit, called it “the biggest movement in the Church.”
Lane, himself a sought-after speaker, remarked, “Men’s conferences give Catholic men the opportunity to share the fire of the Gospel with other Catholic men.”
His own experience fuels his evangelization zeal. Lane was raised a Lutheran and converted to Catholicism in 2003. He began passing out Bibles and preaching on street corners. Today, he has a full-time Catholic apostolate, Qorban Ministries.
Lane is the son of NFL Hall of Fame member Dick “Night Train” Lane (1927-2002), and he frequently uses sports analogies in his talks. In one of his talks, for example, he speaks about the “six inches of daylight” a running back in football looks for to break through a defensive line: “Matthew 7:13 tells us the road to heaven is narrow and the gate to hell wide. When that running back sees his ‘six inches of daylight,’ he hits it hard to break through and score. When we recognize that narrow road, we have to hit it hard and break through to heaven.”
Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers is also a favorite speaker at men’s conferences. He is a deacon serving the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., and also has an evangelization apostolate (DynamicDeacon.com).
He recognizes how vital faith formation is for men: “Men are sucked into the many lies of our culture. They get involved with the culture of pornography, contraception and abortion and get pulled away from the men they’re called to be.”
He seeks to be “a witness of Christ and Christ crucified” and “to encourage men not to just know, but live the Catholic faith.” As he puts it, “The Holy Spirit can transform us, and we can turn the culture around.”
Burke-Sivers’ experiences with his father, who was hostile to religion and divorced his mother, taught him from an early age the importance of men accepting the responsibilities of fatherhood. He lamented, “My dad loved alcohol, women and cigarettes more than us. Men need to be servant leaders to their wives and children and be an example of Christ to them.” (Burke-Sivers would later have an emotional reconciliation with his father, who came to embrace religion after watching a series his son did for EWTN.)
Burke-Sivers was naturally drawn to the Catholic faith, became an altar boy and even spent four years in a Benedictine monastery. “I found the life of a monk appealing,” he recalled. “The Benedictine’s motto is ‘Pray and work,’ a wonderful combination.”
He chose marriage as his vocation, moved to Portland, and today is the father of four children. He works in college security, but devotes much of his free time to the diaconate and his apostolate.
He said there has been an “explosion” in the number of men’s conferences in recent years, perhaps due to more men “recognizing the emptiness of their lives and wanting to be free from the power of Satan.”
Burke-Sivers said the end goal of the conferences is to “create a spark to get men to be active in men’s groups in their own parishes, so that they can continue to grow spiritually when the post-conference feeling goes away.”
Hector Molina is another popular men’s conference speaker. He became active in the Catholic faith at age 15, after having a conversion experience on a retreat. He worked as a pastoral associate at a Brooklyn parish for 11 years. He became director of Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and then was appointed by then-Archbishop Burke as head of the Office of New Evangelization.
Two years ago he became a “freelance” apologist (HectorMolina.net): “I discovered I had a passion for evangelization, preaching the Good News.”
He speaks regularly at men’s conferences and retreats and also leads seminars. He is dedicated to men’s ministry because he believes “it is the most under-served community in the Church.”
He wants to reach the men who conclude that religion is “a woman’s domain.” He sees a direct correlation between men not going to church and their failure to fulfill their proper roles in society, such as not taking responsibility for their offspring.
The good news, he believes, is that “the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction.” More men do want to assume the role of shepherd and guide to their families, and those involved in evangelization, including bishops, are seeing the need to reach out specifically to men. Men’s conferences are a tool in “awakening the sleeping giant” of well-meaning but misguided men, teaching them what it means to be Catholic men.
Molina recently led a men’s retreat in Phoenix. Many attendees told him, “If I’d only heard this when I was younger.”
“Men need to be mentored, to be properly formed,” Molina said. “They need to know God has a plan for their lives and that they should follow Christ, the ultimate model of manhood.”
He said that Christ teaches men such things as heroic virtue, self-sacrifice, devotion to others, and how to be a “suffering servant.” Men, in turn, need to be an image of Christ to their wives, models of virtue and protectors of their families. The role of the evangelist, Molina believes, is to point men to this noble end: “A man needs another man to call him to manhood.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.