The frustration for Catholics during the coronavirus crisis is not unlike that in the rest of society: We can’t travel. We can't go to the movies, or go shopping, or get together with our neighbors for a friendly game of cards. We can’t gather in church to pray as a family of faith. Here we are, stuck in our houses with nothing to do.... but wait! The internet can offer a solution to the isolation we face; and last week, thousands of Catholics from across the United States and around  the world gathered for the first-ever virtual Catholic Family Conference.

The free conference was presented by Regina Caeli Academy, Ignatius Press and Solidarity HealthShare, and brought together dynamic speakers including Dr. Scott Hahn, Lila Rose, Matt Walsh, Dr. Janet Smith, Patrick Madrid, Danielle Bean and more. The Catholic Family Conference opened on Friday, May 1, with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas. Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City celebrated the closing liturgy on Saturday, May 2. Attendees were treated an exclusive preview of the film Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton, which will open in theaters in October 2020, and saw a clip from another upcoming film Fatima, which tells the story of Mary's appearance to three shepherd children at the Cova da Ira in Fatima, Portugal.

The Register talked with Lisa Wheeler, founder of Carmel Communications and one of the conference's organizers, about the ambitious project. “We had just over 8,000 registrations,” Lisa confirmed. “We asked people to share with us their family size to account for all the eyes that would be watching many of the workshops and keynotes. Based on the data shared with us, we know that the 8,000 registered attendees represent 45,000 family members.... We were surprised by how many people were interested and willing to be a part of it, but we are so grateful for their yes!” Over 30 nations were represented, with families participating from their homes in Poland, the Philippines, Nigeria, the U.K., Canada, Italy, Ireland, the Cayman Islands, Singapore, Scotland, New Zealand, Germany, Kuwait, Portugal and elsewhere.

Originally Lisa, together with Kari Beckman, executive director of the Regina Caeli Academy, had hoped to present a robust live conference geared to the average family, featuring the most beloved and inspirational voices in the Catholic space. “We knew that families around the world were struggling with disconnection due to the noise in the culture,” Lisa reported. “School, work, after-school activities, sports, appointments — these were all keeping families from going deeper in the faith life of the family. We talked about a conference that would meet parents where they are and speak to the core need of the family unit: connection with the God who loves them, the Son who died for them and the Holy Spirit who dwells within them. Ironically, the busyness of the work of both of our apostolates kept us from being intentional about the idea.”

 

How COVID-19 Interrupted One Plan, But Made Room for Another

But then the pandemic happened. Regina Caeli Academy, a hybrid education program that offers a classical education for children who are homeschooled, had been planning a series of gala fundraising events in the 16 cities where they operate centers; but strict social distancing programs forced them to cancel all of the events. Those events, according to Lisa Wheeler, not only raise critical funding to support homeschool families in those areas, but they are a huge source of awareness building for their continued growth across the country.

So just before Holy Week, Lisa talked with Kari Beckman about resurrecting the Catholic Family Conference, but offering it online. Since everyone is at home, Lisa thought, what better way to nourish the hearts, souls and minds of Catholic families than by bringing their favorite Catholic speakers into their living rooms, onto their porches, down into their basements, or wherever they wanted to gather as a family. An online event would also provide an opportunity for Regina Caeli to be made known to more families across the country, and possibly raise funds to continue their mission.

The project was comprehensive: Such a conference would be broadcast live all day, with multiple workshops occurring simultaneously. Lisa began research into possible platforms that could encompass their vision, settling on Crowdcast; and after Easter, the two women got to work. They chose May 1 and 2 for the conference, even though that meant they had less than three weeks to pull it off, because it seemed a great weekend to reflect on family life. St. Joseph’s Feast Day would fall on Friday; and the following day, the first Saturday in May, is traditionally devoted to Mary and begins the month reserved for Marian devotion. At the time their plan was taking shape, Lisa and Kari had no idea that Archbishop Gomez would also announce that most of North America would be re-consecrated to Mary, Mother of the Church on that day.

 

The Pro-Faith, Pro-Family Message

Bishop Strickland, in his address following the opening liturgy, encouraged people of faith to serve all of God's people in this world, a world broken with the idea that we can do it our way. Archbishop Naumann encouraged young married couples to follow Christ, and to be open to the possibility of bringing new life into the world.

Conference faculty encouraged Catholics to grow in faith. Father David Guffey, national director of Family Theatre Productions and executive producer of the film Pray, which will be released later this year, encouraged conference participants to strengthen their prayer life, as exemplified by the “Rosary Priest” Fr. Patrick Peyton. Kendra Tierney talked about “living a liturgical life” — celebrating saints and feast days in the home. Dr. Janet Smith extolled the beauty of Humanae Vitae.

Struggles within the family were on the agenda, with Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons teaching healthy habits in marriage; experienced parents Dave and Mercedes Rizzo explaining how to pray with your special needs child; Laura Ricketts on pregnancy loss and miscarriage; and Michael and Alicia Hemon reflecting on parenting as a path to holiness. Popular speaker and mother of eight Danielle Bean, in her presentation “Bless This Mess,” helped parents to overcome unreasonable expectations.

Political topics included the dangers of moral relativism (Patrick Madrid); progressive feminism (Fiorella Nash); defending true masculinity (Matt Walsh). Matt Fradd encouraged families to disconnect from digital media. Stephanie Gray applied the power of storytelling and the Socratic Method to confront “hard cases” on topics such as abortion and assisted suicide.

 

Looking Toward the Future

Asked what she hoped people would take from the conference, Lisa Wheeler said, “We hope that they know that as Catholic families, we really are in this together – and that whatever they are struggling with is cared about, prayed about and shared by many other families all over the world. We want them to know that there are Bishops who love them and who support them unconditionally in their openness to life.”

Lisa added that they hoped to stay connected with the families who participated the virtual conference, occasionally sharing with them resources about the faith which they might find encouraging and helpful. And the conference organizers, learning from registrants' feedback that families need this with or without a lockdown, have already begun planning another virtual conference. Additionally, Lisa confided, they are still exploring the original idea of a flesh and blood conference when things return to some kind of normal. “As both a mother to special needs children and he head of an apostolate always looking for new ways to communicate,” Lisa said,

...I believe we stumbled on a model that can serve Catholic families for years to come. It is not easy for families to physically travel to conferences, even when there isn't a pandemic that keeps us confined. Being able to connect families virtually and serve them like we would in person is a grace that we might not have explored outside of this time, so we are grateful.

Talks from the Catholic Family Conference are now available in a bundled package at https://catholicfamilyconference.com/shop/.