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A great innovation for growing in faith

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Because of the extended format and greater number of speakers, the online conferences are able to deliver on content even better, I think, than in-person conferences. Not only is there greater variety to meet the heterogenous needs of attendees, but the different approaches, experiences and expertise of speakers make for a broader and deeper learning experience.

Father Roger
Landry

For those who want to grow in their knowledge of the faith, there's never been a greater time to be alive.

We have ready access not only to the Bible in every spoken language but also to so many great commentaries, websites, podcasts, that help us to understand and live it.

There are scores of good Catholic publishing houses printing inspiring works from authors old and new.

There's free digital access in most modern languages to the works of the fathers and doctors of the Church and almost every spiritual classic.

There are now several 24-hour Catholic television stations and hundreds of Catholic radio stations that are no longer restricted to particular geographical areas but can be streamed anywhere in the world.

There are Catholic newspapers and magazines that through the web have increased their scope to form and inform from an authentically Catholic perspective.

There are millions of authentically Catholic websites and blogs, showing the beauty of the faith, carrying out the crucial work of apologetics, presenting Catholic commentary on every topic under the sun, and providing a digital narthex for millions.

There are the extraordinary apostolates of Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire, Matthew Kelly's Dynamic Catholic, the Augustine Institute's Formed, and Ascension Press' array of scriptural and theological courses, which help people better understand the faith, live it and teach it to others.

These are all key parts of what the popes have called the new evangelization. While there is an undeniable crisis of faith today in the West, leading in various parts to reductions in parishes and Catholic schools, sacramental practice, vocations and public influence, these new forms of outreach are all the buds of a new springtime that inspire hope, strengthen faith and build Catholic culture in the midst of the scorching rays of aggressive secularization.

The Covid-19 pandemic, while bringing much death and suffering, has also out of necessity mothered various inventions. Some, like parking lot confessions and parking lot Masses, won't outlast the pandemic. Others, however, will.

The streaming of online Masses, while obviously not the same as participation in person, is a great gift to those in places where faith is struggling, whether due to persecution or poor pastoral service or anything in between. My nieces and nephews told me in April that they loved attending the livestream Masses of Father Mike Schmitz from the Diocese of Duluth, one of the U.S.'s most capable priestly evangelists, especially to young people. Since then I have been told by friends from various parts of the country as well as from Trinidad, India, Spain, and Nigeria that they have been watching Father Schmitz as well and are grateful that the pandemic has allowed his gifts to be shared beyond northern Minnesota. Some have told me that, even though they love their parish priests and fellow parishioners, they have longed for more inspiring preaching and more conspicuously devout celebrations of the Mass. The pandemic's livestreams have made that possible. It's one illustration of the "catholicity" of our faith that many faithful are praying will continue.

I think one of the innovations occasioned by the pandemic that will and ought to last is the phenomenon of virtual Catholic conferences. COVID-19 hit the U.S. right as we were preparing for Lent, when many Diocesan men's and women's conferences, educational and Eucharistic conferences take place. When almost all of them needed to be cancelled, some Catholic apostolic entrepreneurs tried to convert that disappointment into opportunity and host a conference online. Speakers and interest Catholics responded. And in the last few months, there have been massive virtual Men's and Women's Conferences, Theology of the Body Conferences, Marriage and Family Conferences, as well as conferences on chastity, Catholic Social Teaching, the Eucharist, apologetics, Catholic formation and other themes. Two of them had over 60,000 attendees. Another had nearly 40,000.

Over the course of my priesthood, I've had the chance to speak at many large Catholic conferences, from World Youth Days, to diocesan Men's and Women's Conferences, University and Youth Conferences, Eucharistic Congresses, Theology of the Body conferences and more. As a pastor, I always prioritized bringing as many of my parishioners to such events as I could. Their value goes beyond the powerful talks, sacraments and opportunity for prayer that are the routine fare. It's being surrounded by so many others like them seeking to grow in faith and to rejoice in it. While Catholics can sometimes feel like outliers in their schools, workplaces, and even sometimes homes, when they attend such conferences, they recognize that they're not isolated tapers in the midst of strong headwinds, but rather a united torch with a mission to ignite the world with the light of faith.

I wondered how the online conferences, some of which I was asked to speak at, would be able to substitute for that experience. It was easier than I thought. At a typical in person conference, there is a finite program with four to five speakers over a given day. The virtual conferences were able to have several dozen speakers watched on demand, in the order the viewer wished, over three days (Friday through Sunday). The fact that so many speakers signed up to share their gifts on related themes already created a baseline of community. That tens of thousands of others were interested in attending the conference added to a sense that the Holy Spirit was working to unite despite the isolation caused by social-distancing. And most of the conferences had breakout sessions over Zoom, where participants could interact directly with the speakers, ask questions, and engage with Conference-goers from across the world. It's not the same as in-person contact, but nevertheless the conferences produced a palpable sense of Catholic community.

Because of the extended format and greater number of speakers, the online conferences are able to deliver on content even better, I think, than in-person conferences. Not only is there greater variety to meet the heterogenous needs of attendees, but the different approaches, experiences and expertise of speakers make for a broader and deeper learning experience. Being able to rewind to hear an important point missed, or to watch a whole talk again, can clearly assist comprehension. There's also something powerful about the immediacy of a speaker looking right at you and, albeit through a screen, speaking directly to you, rather than addressing a multitude of hundreds or thousands from a stage.

The financial model of the virtual conferences likewise is innovative and a win-win-win for attendees, speakers and organizers. Attendees are generally able to watch the talks for free during the weekend, which makes the content accessible to all, regardless of their financial situation. Those who would like to have access to some special talks and live sessions during the conference, or to the videos on demand afterward, can sign up for "premium packages," but those fees are normally far less than what one would pay to go to in-person conferences.

Speakers are not given stipends but receive generally half of the proceeds of all those who sign up for the premium packages through their recommendation. If speakers have large social networks, their own apostolates can do very well. The other half of the fees go to the organizers to cover the computer and other costs incurred for a virtual conference as well as to strengthen their apostolates financially, which is particularly important during pandemic-related financial shortfalls.

Since these virtual conferences have been so successful, many are now trying to organize similar events. There will only be so many weekend conferences that even zealous Catholics will have the stamina to attend. But even after the pandemic has abated and in person conferences are able to be held again, I believe -- and am hoping -- that the virtual conference model will remain an option, since it is able inexpensively, measurably and conveniently to expand the amount of people able to attend such powerful opportunities to grow in faith.

- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.



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