What Really Happens at the Napa Institute’s Summer Conference?
Media accounts that focus on politics and price tags ignore the unique fruits that come out of the annual event, attendees say.
What do efforts to bring relational ministry to Catholic parishes, school choice to families in Georgia, and potable water to the people of Guatemala all have in common?
According to their proponents, they’re all initiatives that have benefited through involvement in the summer conference put on by the Napa Institute, a Catholic organization dedicated to aiding Catholics to face contemporary challenges in America.
But you probably wouldn’t know that if your only impression of the annual event, which took place this year July 27-31 in Napa, California, was formed by critical media reports.
Whether from outlets on the respective fringes of Catholic media like Church Militant and the National Catholic Reporter, or secular publications like the Santa Rosa-based Press Democrat, these accounts tended to portray the conference exclusively through the lenses of money and politics.
According to conference organizers and, more critically, those who attended the conference, characterizations like these miss the mark and reveal more about the agendas and preoccupations of the publications in question than they do about the Napa Institute’s conference and its attendees. Notably, none of the aforementioned accounts included on-the-ground reporting from within the event, nor interviews with attendees, instead relying upon selective reviews of the conference’s program and presentations from afar.
A more accurate portrayal, attendees told the Register, would have focused on what the Napa Institute’s Summer Conference uniquely provides: an opportunity for Catholics leading the way in evangelization, ministry and advocacy to come together with those with the means to support them, all in a context of intellectual formation, spiritual renewal, and good old Catholic fraternity.
“There’s an ethos of fellowship, of communio, at the conference that I was really pleasantly surprised by,” said second-time attendee Jason Simon, president of The Evangelical Catholic, a service that equips parishes and other ministries for evangelization. “It’s a lot of people with really good intentions trying to connect with more people in the Church.”
A Catalyst for More
Simon’s descriptions of the conference mesh with the one provided by John Meyer, executive director of the Napa Institute. In comments to the Register, Meyer described the conference as a “catalyst for efforts of evangelization throughout the country,” one that provides attendees with a “one-stop shop for funding, for support, [and] for idea exchange.”
“We want to build a community of like-minded, mission-aligned Catholics who want to go out and change the culture,” Meyer told the Register. This involves putting “the right people in the room” — including not just Catholic leaders with great ideas and bishops who can offer their ecclesial backing, but also those with the means to financially support them.
To that end, the Napa Institute aims to make the summer conference an attractive, enjoyable event. It’s hosted at the Meritage Resort and Spa, a property owned by the real estate group of Catholic business-leader Tim Busch, the institute’s co-founder and a board member of EWTN, the Register’s parent company. The four-day conference includes its fair share of good food, good drinks and even the occasional cigar.
Organizers also don’t skimp in terms of the speaking lineup they bring in. This year’s conference included noted evangelists like Chris Stefanick and Jeff Cavins, thought leaders like Ethics and Public Policy Center President Ryan Anderson and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks, and Catholic public servants like former U.S. Rep Dan Lipinski and Bill Barr, the attorney general during the Trump administration.
Prayer and liturgical life is also a priority, as more than 100 Masses are celebrated at the resort during the conference, while mini retreats, confession and opportunities for group prayer are also prevalent.
The Napa conference’s growth over the years is an indication that its formula for bringing Catholic difference makers together is working. Meyer says that attendance has expanded from 150 at the inaugural conference in the summer of 2011 to 800 attendees at this year’s installment. He told the Register that the Napa Institute does little advertising for the event, as word of mouth is enough to ensure at-capacity attendance.
A Big Investment
The full-fare price for attendance is hefty — $2,700 per head — but conference attendees like Simon say it’s a worthwhile investment, as the enjoyable backdrop creates the opportunity for those in attendance to relax, move past superficialities, and “become friends, interested in each other’s work and interested in continuing the conversation.”
David Adams, the vice president for missions with Cross Catholic Outreach, an apostolate whose mission is “to mobilize the global Catholic Church to transform the poor and their communities materially and spiritually,” attended the Napa Institute’s conference for the first time and also described it as a fruitful experience, despite being “not inexpensive.”
Cross Catholic Outreach paid to present between keynote speakers, displaying a compelling video of their work to bring drinkable water to the poor in Guatemala, and also hosted a breakout session. Adams told the Register that the organization’s approach to alleviating poverty worldwide in a way consistent with Catholic moral teaching “resonat[ed] a lot, we found, with serious Catholics who attend Napa.”
Shawn Peterson, the president of Catholic Education Partners, a nonprofit that aids local Catholic dioceses in establishing initiatives to give families greater choice in education, said the in-person conference setting provided him with the opportunity to make connections with bishops and other possible collaborators in a way that “you can’t do over Zoom” and is more efficient than traveling to multiple states and dioceses.
Some of these connections lead to financial support for CEP’s work, but Peterson said they can also lead to fruitful advocacy partnerships. He shared with the Register one experience where he sat down to lunch one day next to an attendee from a public policy think tank in Georgia. That initial meeting has led to two subsequent conversations about collaboration and the possibility of Catholic Education Partners aiding in the effort to expand education options for families in the Peach State.
Peterson told the Register that the conference fee is “definitely a hefty price tag,” but ultimately worth it.
“I don’t know where else you can go and spend three or four days with people so dedicated to the Church that might be willing to support what we do,” he said.
Several other Catholic organizations and apostolates must feel the same way, as this year’s conference included attendees of all types: Catholic higher education initiatives, like the University of Mary, The University of St. Thomas (Houston), and the newly launched College of St. Joseph the Worker; cultural evangelizers like “Bearded Blevins” and Family Theater Productions; young-adult formation offerings like the Leonine Forum and Young Catholic Professionals; and plenty of social advocacy groups, like Students for Life of America and Alliance Defending Freedom.
A significant number of priests and religious were also in attendance, such as the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary, the Sisters of Life, and the Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa.
Catholic ‘Shark Tank’?
With all those attendees and only so many dollars of support to go around, does the Napa Institute’s summer conference descend into something like a Catholic version of Shark Tank?
That was at least a concern The Evangelical Catholic’s Simon had before he learned more about the conference, noting that events where one simply “works” potential donors to find wealth “really repulse me.”
But those who attended told him the conference was more about fellowship and relationship — something that he says has been confirmed by his own two times in attendance. He described the atmosphere as “welcoming and non-competitive.”
CEP’s Peterson shared a similar experience, noting that fellow attendees were very kind and receptive, “no matter how ‘well-heeled’ they were.”
In fact, the Napa Institute prohibits any sort of direct asks for fundraising during the event, giving space for organic connections to form, leading to relationships and the potential for support down the road.
The result is an environment where attendees say they could make connections that weren’t only professional, but personal.
“It kind of recharges your battery, because you’re with 800 people that are really trying to build up the Church, renew the Church, and do a lot of good things,” said Peterson.
Simon agreed, telling the Register that one comes away from the conference with “just a deep encouragement in your heart, in your mind and your soul, that only comes through in-person contact with other believers who are wrestling with the same issues you’re wrestling with.”
Responding to Criticisms
Some criticisms of the Napa Institute’s summer conference focus on the content of the talks provided, noting how the social issues discussed tend to align more with interests advanced by the Republican Party. For instance, at this year’s event, ending abortion was spoken about frequently and emphatically, while other aspects of Catholic social teaching, such as just immigration laws and care for creation, were absent from the agenda.
Meyer told the Register that abortion is a major focus of the Napa conference, but not because the Republican Party happens to advocate for greater restrictions on abortion than Democrats. Instead, it’s a major focus because the Catholic Church is so emphatic in its condemnation of the practice and also because the abortion landscape has significantly shifted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki, who said his attendance at the 2019 Napa conference allowed him to meet the daughter of St. Gianna Molla, eventually leading her to select his Diocese of Springfield, Illinois, as the site of an international pilgrimage center dedicated to the Italian saint, noted that abortion has been formally called “a preeminent issue” by the U.S. Catholic bishops as recently as 2020.
“So if there’s an emphasis on trying to fight abortion [at the Napa conference], I think that’s appropriate,” he told the Register. “But I don’t think that’s being done to the exclusion of other issues.”
Meyer added that issues such as immigration reform and racial justice have been discussed at previous Napa summer conferences and events, oftentimes in a panel discussion style, given the variety of viewpoints concerning how to apply the Church’s teaching on these issues. He also noted that the two political figures who spoke at this year’s summer conference, Attorney General Barr, a Republican, and Congressman Lipinski, a Democrat, both spoke critically of the excesses of their respective parties.
“We’re not a conservative organization; we’re not a liberal organization; we’re a Catholic organization, and the only thing we’re concerned with is what our Lord Jesus Christ thinks and what the Church has to say about any particular topic,” Meyer told the Register.
Regarding the other chief criticism of the Napa Institute’s summer conference — the cost and comforts of the event and the wealth of some of its attendees — Bishop Paprocki noted that “the Church has always relied and needs to rely on very generous benefactors” for its various ministries and apostolates.
“I don’t know why anyone should begrudge the fact that we’ve got some very generous people who are trying to help the Church,” he told the Register. “I think that’s a beautiful thing that should be praised and for which I think we should be very grateful.”
Additionally, while some might criticize the Catholic perspectives on economic reform highlighted at Napa as too narrow, the responsibilities connected to personal wealth is not a topic that goes unaddressed at the conference. Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, the Napa Institute’s ecclesiastical adviser and chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Domestic Justice and Human Development, celebrated the Sunday vigil Mass on the conference’s final evening, preaching on Luke 12:13-21 and reminding the wealthy that the money they’ve generated is ultimately meant to be stewarded for the sake of God and others.
Meyer told the Register that criticisms of the price of admission fail to recognize both that many attendees, including clergy and religious, as well as smaller apostolates, receive significant discounts off the $2,700 sticker price, and also that revenue generated by attendance fees contributes to the Napa Institute’s overall budget and supports other initiatives like the institute’s priest conferences and first-time pastors formation program. He added that while the Napa summer conference is already livestreamed, the institute is exploring ways to expand the conference’s presence in the digital space, so those unable to attend in person can be more involved.
Meyer also quipped that he almost wished the cigar and wine receptions that end each night were removed from the program, given the amount of grief the conference gets over them.
“It’s something that makes the conference very nice and relaxing, but to focus on that is a very narrow lens and doesn’t encompass what’s really happening here.”
Simon described the Napa institute as an instance of “breaking the jar,” referring to the biblical scene in which a woman pours expensive oil on Christ’s feet. Like a nice meal one offers when they invite friends over, the goal isn’t self-indulgence, he said, but honoring Jesus by bringing people together in deeper connection to serve him and the Church.
Peterson agreed, noting that while the meals at Napa are nice, they’re “not why most people go to the conference.”
“I think it’s a little bush league to gripe about Napa all the time,” he told the Register. “Is it the local St. Vincent de Paul Society dinner? No, it’s something different than that, but that’s okay.”
For those who take issue with the conference from afar, Peterson has a suggestion: Come next year, and experience it for yourself.