Napa Conference 2023: Good Wine, Inspiring Speakers and Generous Helpings of Hope

The theological virtue of hope, appropriately enough, overshadowed talk of current cultural maladies at the annual Catholic conference in California.

In addition to talks and panel discussions, the Napa Institute’s 2023 summer conference offered daily Masses, spiritual direction and other events, including a Eucharistic procession on July 27, in Napa, California.
In addition to talks and panel discussions, the Napa Institute’s 2023 summer conference offered daily Masses, spiritual direction and other events, including a Eucharistic procession on July 27, in Napa, California. (photo: Shannon Mullen / National Catholic Register)

NAPA, Calif. — The final dinner of the Napa Institute’s summer conference, held at the four-star Meritage Resort & Spa, is always the fanciest and friendliest of the four-day gathering, a premier Catholic social event known for its top-tier speakers, beautiful Masses, fine food and wine, and excellent networking opportunities. 

This year’s dinner, on July 29, was pretty enough to paint: With linen-covered tables set up in a large courtyard lit by stringed bulbs and wreathed by nearby hillside vineyards, one half-expected to find a bride and groom whirling around somewhere amid the hum of hundreds of happy conversations.

The Napa Institute is a religious nonprofit that “leverages liturgy, formation, and community to prepare leaders to bring truth, faith, and value into the modern world.” It describes its popular (and pricey, at $2,800 per ticket) summer conference as the “preeminent annual touchpoint for Catholic leaders, clergy, and changemakers to advance Christ’s mission.”

Napa’s carefully curated program features a wide range of talks and events, and at the end of it all, at dinner on the last night, it falls to one speaker to sum it all up.

This year, it was Jonathan Reyes who drew that assignment.

There was lots of discussion all week about rising secularization, plummeting marriage rates, pervasive gender ideology, indifference toward the Eucharist, and concerns about efforts to undermine long-standing Church teaching on human sexuality, among other troubling trends.

But Reyes, senior vice president for evangelization and faith formation for the Knights of Columbus, pulled out another thread that always runs through Napa’s conferences: hope.

“I don’t deny a single critique we’ve heard about the modern world; I give them myself,” Reyes said in his 19-minute keynote address. 

“We know the challenges, but we also know the hope,” he said, paraphrasing Paul’s letter to the Romans, “that no principalities, no angels, no heights, nor depths, nor creature that lives can separate us from the love of Christ. Nothing.”

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L to R: Keynote speaker Jonathan Reyes gives an address on hope on July 29, on the last night of the Napa Institute’s summer conference in Napa, California. Alexandra DeSanctis (right), a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and her husband, Nick Marr, listen to Reyes of the Knights of Columbus as he delivers the keynote. DeSanctis was one of the other presenters during the conference.(Photo: Shannon Mullen/National Catholic Register and Napa Institute)

Other presenters emphasized the same theme. “Hope,” Protestant scholar and author Carl Trueman said earlier in the week, “arises in tension between the present and the future. It involves a dissatisfaction or an anger at the present and a longing for something better.”

But Christian hope isn’t naive optimism or misplaced self-confidence that every obstacle and setback can be overcome, he noted.

“Christianity offers a more concrete form of hope,” Trueman said, “for Christians have a taste now of that which we hope for in the future. We live now in a way that anticipates that which is to come.”

Or do we?

The discouraging news we hear every day shouldn’t lead us to despair, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, who attended the conference, told the Register.

“We have to be brutally honest with ourselves and recognize that we live in a very pagan — in a lot of ways — secular culture, a culture that is not too different from [at the time of] the early Church,” he said.

“But at the same time, we have this faith that’s been given to us; we’re 2,000 years into it now. And it’s the same faith that the early Christians had, and it’s the same God and the same Jesus Christ who suffered, died and rose from the dead and wants us to be with him forever in heaven. And he’s still very much alive and present in the Church.”

This is a crucial message for all Christians to hear, and it’s a major reason why people return to Napa year after year. Because on top of all that good food and fine wine, the conference serves up generous helpings of hope.

This isn’t Las Vegas, though. What happens in Napa isn’t supposed to stay in Napa.

So how can we share Christian hope with a world that seems so disinterested in God or anything transcendent? That’s the question Reyes tackled in his talk.

He began with St. Peter’s words to the early Church: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15).

“What a remarkable thing to say to a community that’s considering its own extinction,” Reyes observed.

“To say, ‘Oh, by the way, you will be called on for evangelization, you will be asked about the hope in you, because the world around you lacks hope and it will see precisely in your suffering the answer to its longing,’” he said. 

“What an interesting truth,” Reyes continued, “that it’s in these times, and this is historically true — when the Gospel is most pressed, when the Christian people are most under duress, when the suffering and the fear and the temptation to discouragement is the greatest — when a faithful life in Jesus Christ shines the brightest and bears witness to the world.”

“Brothers and sisters,” he urged, “however dark our moment is, it’s a moment precisely for Christ to shine.”

Again, though, how do we do this?

St. Peter provides the “how” in the very next verse: with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:16).

“I think there’s a temptation, because of our day, to want to fight with our enemy’s weapons,” Reyes said.

“We want anger, anxiety, outrage, frustration, sarcasm, fear. We want to use these tools because our enemy seems to use them so effectively.”

Yet Our Lord never used those tools, Reyes pointed out. Just look at the way Jesus opened the Scriptures to the dispirited disciples he walked with on the road to Emmaus, he said.

“So, you’ve been in this great experience,” Reyes said, returning to the Napa attendees. 

“You’ve been walking for three days on the road to Emmaus, and Jesus has been speaking to you. And he has been saying that what you think is losing is actually the road to victory for you. And as it says in Scripture, ‘Were not our hearts burning with fire? Were not our hearts burning with fire when we saw what God was up to?’”

“Brothers and sisters,” Reyes concluded, “we can take our place beside the Lord — in hope — working to do his work, spreading the fire that is within us, if we keep … seeing the world the way he sees it, loving the world with his love, living hope.”

“If we do these things,” Reyes promised, “we will set the world on fire.”

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