BOSTON — “Lent is about coming home, like the prodigal son.”
These words, delivered by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston in his homily at the closing Mass of the Boston Catholic Men’s Conference March 4 captured the spirit of a phenomenon that is growing by leaps and bounds across the country. The Catholic men’s movement and, more specifically, Catholic men’s conferences, are drawing thousands of Catholic men together in prayer and fellowship.
Many of the men attending the conferences are already active parishioners. But many others, like the prodigal son, are returning to their spiritual home for the first time in years.
According to Maurice Blumberg, executive director of the National Fellowship of Catholic Men (www.catholicmensresources.org), which provides support and resources for Catholic men’s groups and conference organizers, more than 40 conferences have been or will be held throughout the United States in 2006. There are confabs slated for Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Peoria, Ill.; Saginaw, Mich., and other places.
Asked if the Catholic men’s movement was influenced by Pope John Paul II’s call for a New Evangelization, the early success of the Protestant Promise Keepers’ movement or simply the recognition that Catholic men needed to be drawn back to an active practice of the faith, he laughed and said, “All of the above.”
Blumberg noted the success of the Promise Keepers’ “funnel approach,” where large groups of men would hear the Gospel at a major event and listen to talks on issues important to men. It was then expected or hoped that the men would “go down the funnel” and return to their local areas with an understanding that they needed to get together with other, smaller groups of men on a regular basis.
Father Gary Dailey, director of vocations and men’s ministry for the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., agreed that the movement in Massachusetts was “driven initially by Promise Keepers.” He noted a concern on the part of then-archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law that men were leaving the Catholic faith as a result of their attendance at the huge evangelical events. Catholic men’s events were organized for all of New England and, later, by the individual bishops in their own dioceses.
According to Father Dailey, the spiritual fruits of the conferences have been inspiring. “There is a growing desire among men to be spiritually fed,” he said. “It’s really remarkable to see them engage in prayer with one another.”
Among the most important aspects of a large men’s conference is that it provides a place where men, especially those who have been away from Church for some time, can in the words of Blumberg, “hide” among so many others.
While one among many, however, they are exposed to sound preaching and encouraged by those numbers as well. And, for many, their attendance at a conference may mark their first return to the sacrament of reconciliation in many years.
According to Father Dailey, the priests to whom he has spoken have said they have heard the most beautiful confessions at these events from men who have not confessed their sins in 20, 30 or 40 years.
One remarkable success story has taken place in the Archdiocese of Boston, which this year hosted more than 5,200 men in only their second conference. With a slate of international speakers, including Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Father John Corapi, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, author Scott Hahn and youth leader/musician Sean Forrest, the attendance more than doubled that of the previous year. As Father Corapi noted in his keynote address, Boston was “ground zero” for the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
The Church in a city once considered the most Catholic of American cities has been buffeted by scandal and includes a population that, at times, seems more formed by the editorializing of the anti-Catholic local press than the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Obstacles notwithstanding, the event attracted nearly twice as many men as were initially expected. More than 2,000 men went to confession.
One effect of these conferences is that they encourage men just through the sheer numbers involved. This was certainly the case in Boston.
According to Scot Landry, one of the organizers of the Boston Conference, a common reaction of attendees is “how awesome it is that over 5,200 Catholic brothers came together to celebrate our Catholic faith and to grow closer to Jesus. Sometimes I feel isolated in my work and community. This shows me how many Catholic men feel exactly the way I do. It gives me a huge boost.”
That “boost” and common feeling was reflected in the convention center as the statements by the speakers which most directly challenged “the world” on any number of topics were those which drew the loudest and most sustained applause.
The conference also drew men from all over the state and beyond. One relatively recent convert to Catholicism, Lonny Ricketts of Wendell, Mass., in the western part of the state, said, “It changed the way I think. It changed my life.” Ricketts said that he listens to Father Corapi’s tapes and prays the Rosary on his drive to and from work.
The topics addressed at the conferences vary from the spiritual life to exhortations to assume their roles as men in society and leaders of their families. The latter topic has, at times, generated some controversy. What is often missed by critics is that the leadership men are called to at these conferences is a leadership of service.
According to Father Dailey, the goal of these conferences is to challenge men to follow Christ. He said it is the man’s job to “lead his wife and his children to Christ, and they can’t do so unless they know Christ. It sounds chauvinistic or domineering, but it’s not. What wife would not want her husband to be involved in something like that?”
Cardinal O’Malley, in his closing homily, touched on one reason these conferences are so important in modern society.
“Belief in God for many people today is more like a hangover,” he said. “They feel the effects of the religious activities of the past, but their own consciousness borders on agnosticism. They still make space for God in our churches, but He is given very little space everywhere else.”
The sprouting of Catholic men’s conferences across the country is one indication that, for more and more men, the effects of that “hangover” are wearing off.
John Moorehouse is editor of
Catholic Men’s Quarterly and is based in Bernardston, Massachusetts.