Prayer, song and talks inspire at Catholic Conferences

CHESTNUT HILL -- For many of the estimated 2,000 attendees at the fifth annual Boston Catholic Men’s Conference held April 18, it was the second coming of Christ that drew them to Boston College’s Conte Forum.

Actually it was the return appearance of actor Jim Caviezel, best known for portraying Jesus Christ in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” who once again served as one of the conference’s keynote speakers, reprising his role from the inaugural 2005 gathering.

In fact, Caviezel joked about his repeat performance as he was greeted with a standing ovation during the packed afternoon session.

“Don’t get too excited, it’s pretty much the same speech,” he said.

But any similarities to his earlier presentation certainly didn’t lessen the impact of Caviezel’s stirring message: an impassioned call for all men present to proudly proclaim and defend their faith in Christ.

Citing examples throughout his career where praying the rosary and a devotion to Christ and his Blessed Mother Mary had served him well, Caviezel stressed how important it is today to stand apart from those who choose to shut God out of their lives.

“His talk was a highlight for me because it wasn’t anecdotal,” said Mike Waxman, an attendee from St. Martha’s Parish in Plainville. “It was extremely compassionate and heartfelt. Sometimes you look forward to something and it’s a letdown, but this was completely the opposite.”

A Jewish man who converted to Catholicism 12 years ago, Waxman decided to attend the conference for the first time this year after going through a “difficult time” recently with the death of his father.

“Actually, it’s been awesome,” he said. “I reached a crossroads in my life and this is exactly what the doctor ordered. It’s been compelling, compassionate, philanthropic -- whatever you want to call it. It was totally unexpected.”

“Jim Caviezel gave a very fiery and inspirational speech,” agreed Jeff Estano, parishioner from St. Mary’s Church in Plymouth. “I heard him back in 2005 and he actually gave a bit of a longer talk this time.”

The theme for this year’s conference was “In the Footsteps of Christ,” a message that was echoed in presentations from other key speakers such as Jerry York, hockey coach for Boston College, which hosted the event for the second time this year; Curtis Martin, founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS); and Jim Stenson, author and one of the Church’s foremost experts on Catholic men’s issues.

Catholic men of all ages traveled from throughout New England to attend this fifth annual convention to share not only Communion, but also their communal belief in Jesus Christ and his Church.

Younger participants like high school student Wyeth Dion, a member of St. Catherine’s Parish in Manchester, N.H., returned for his second conference this year and this time brought along his friend, Tom Ciccarello from St. Marie’s Parish, also in Manchester.

“I came last year and I thought some of my other friends would want to come to learn more about their Catholic faith,” Dion said, adding that Jim Caviezel’s speech was a highlight for him.

“Wyeth came last year and I had wanted to go with him, so this year we came together,” Ciccarello added. “I love it. I work a lot with the youth ministry in my parish and I love the team involvement and the inspiration that you get from being here is just great.”

While Ciccarello agreed Caviezel’s talk was a high point, he also cited Curtis Martin’s speech as being “terrific.”

Robert Durette of Holy Name Parish in Fall River -- likely one of the few in attendance who didn’t immediately make the connection between Jim Caviezel and his role in Mel Gibson’s film -- also said his passionate speech was a “highlight” of this year’s conference.

“I attended last year’s conference and returned again this year,” Durette said. “Both years were inspirational.”

“I also attended last year and I think both years have been equal ... maybe this year was a little better,” said Kevin Ward from St. Patrick’s Parish in Wareham. “All the speakers were good and it’s always a well-run and organized convention.”

Although he noted that recent attendance numbers suggest they’ve “hit a plateau,” conference co-founder Bob Allard said he’s been consistently pleased with the turnout over the conference’s five-year history.

“Overall, I’d say this year’s conference met all our expectations,” Allard said. “We still get a core group of about 2,000 who come every year and bring others along with them. Even this year people have come up to me and told me they heard something at a past conference that changed their life for the better. You don’t hear that often -- that something you’ve been involved with has changed someone’s life for the better.”

In keeping with past tradition, three men this year were honored with Catholic of the Year awards as selected by the conference committee. Father Rodney Copp of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Waltham was presented with the priest award; Deacon Leo Donoghue, former director of the permanent diaconate office for the Archdiocese of Boston was given the deacon award; and Steve Guillotte, a Knight of Columbus from St. Anthony of Padua Parish in New Bedford, received the layman award.

“The Catholic of the Year award, to me, is the most definitive Catholic moment we have during the conference,” Allard said. “It’s when you honor guys who never in a million years expect to get an award for anything. They don’t do it for an award and it’s never something they aspire to. Everything they do is about humility -- it’s really the humility award -- which is ironic when you think about it.”

The Boston Catholic Men’s Conference -- which also included a Catholic Women’s Conference counterpart on April 19 -- was borne out of a meeting of a Catholic Men’s Group at St. Paul Parish in Cambridge in the fall of 2004 and was established to help then-Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley rebuild the Church in Boston.

Following the format of a day-long retreat, the agenda included the aforementioned keynote speakers along with music and video presentations, exhibitions and group discussions, prayer and worship with confession, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and a closing Mass celebrated by Cardinal O’Malley.

“This is my third conference and I think this is the best one yet,” Estano said. “As far as the venue goes, this is a very comfortable place and the speakers have been great. I would absolutely come next year and encourage others to attend. It’s a great opportunity to grow in your faith and learn something new.”