Men called to holiness at first annual Men’s Conference

More than 2,000 men gathered March 19 at Boston College High School to celebrate the Solemnity of St. Joseph with Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley, “The Passion of the Christ” star James Caviezel and other speakers at the first Boston Catholic Men’s Conference.

The idea for the conference sprung from two members of a men’s bible study group at Harvard Square’s St. Paul’s Parish, Scot Landry and Jo Tango.

Members of the group had attended men conferences in Worcester and Cincinnati over the last four years, and each time they returned telling the other members that Boston should have its own conference, Landry said.

Finally, last October, Landry and Tango, inspired by winning spirit of the 2004 Boston Red Sox team, took up the team’s theme “Why not us?” and decided they would put together a men’s conference for the Church in Boston, he said.

The two men became seven after they convinced their study group to pitch in. The seven then grew into an organizing committee of 35 men, said Tango.

“Scot roped us in,” said Robert Alexander, who was in charge of parish outreach for the conference.

Seven parishes sent more than 30 men, including the top parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Seekonk, which sent 69 participants, he said.

The farthest distance traveled by any of the attendees he knew of was a carload of men from Enosburg, Vt., who left home at 2 a.m., he said.

The headline speaker, Cavie-zel, spoke shortly after 2 p.m., before the Mass celebrated by Archbishop O’Malley.

Landry said it took three weeks to get a response from Caviezel’s office, and when the call came the conversation took some unexpected turns.

Landry said Caviezel’s assistant told him that she was surprised that he had accepted the invitation to speak because he only accepts 50 engagements per year.

When she told him Caviezel commanded a large fee, which he donates to a teen pregnancy program, Landry said he told her it was no problem.

When she told him Caviezel charged at least $25,000, Landry said he took a breath, then again told her it was no problem.

His next call was to his boss, Sean McLaughlin, the founder and CEO of Eze Castle Software. When McLaughlin at once committed to cover the Caviezel’s fee, the conference had locked down its featured speaker, Landry said.

The total budget for the conference was around $85,000, he said. In addition to McLaugh-lin’s support, the Knights of Columbus donated $50,000 and the balance was made up by members organizing committee, he said.

Caviezel’s talk was closed to the media in order to allow the actor to speak frankly about his faith and his personal experiences.

After he spoke, he mingled casually with a crowd outside in the parking lot that gathered around his car; posing for pictures, shaking hands and signing autographs with a succinct “J.C.”

Standing outside and watching as Caviezel drove away, Andrew C. Johnson from St. Brendan Church in Bellingham said the conference was awesome.

“It was like a teen rally, much better than I expected,” he said.

Johnson’s friend, Jared M. Marino, said 10 members of the parish’s youth group had come in two cars.

“I came because I want to have a closer relationship with Jesus and a deeper prayer life,” Marino said.

In his homily during the Mass at the conference, the archbishop said he was impressed how the event grew from two men, to seven, to 35 and then to 2,000.

Reminded of the John Wayne movie “The Quiet Man,” the archbishop said St. Joseph was the Bible’s true quiet man, since he is never quoted uttering a word, he said.

Yet, faced with the dilemma of his fiancée’s pregnancy, St. Joseph was the first man to confront the truth of Jesus, he said.

A prominent fixture at the conference was the Brotherhood of Hope, a community of priests and brothers, whose house is the former convent of the St. Catherine of Siena School in Somerville. In the Archdiocese of Boston, the community focuses on college campus ministries, with permanent staff at the Newman Center at Boston University and the Catholic Center at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Members of BOH provided the music program for the conference and three of the speakers.

In his keynote remarks, Father Phillip Merdinger, BH, the community’s founder, said he shared the frustration felt by the men in the audience.

After many years of compromises with the secular world, the Church is in serious need of reform and renewal, he said.

Confronting the damage caused by clergy abuse scandal, Father Phillip said he acknowledge the failure of he and his brother priests to prevent the tragedy. “I can only beg your forgiveness. We failed.”

But, that was not the end of the story, he said. “When the Church is in trouble, a man of God does not run away.”

The key to being a strong man of God is having a deep, spiritual hope, he said.

Men have experience pains as sons and fathers that force them to retreat from the world, but with hope in God men can face their challenges and succeed, he said.

Brothers Patrick Reilly and Samuel Gunn, also of the Brotherhood of Hope, led one of the day’s three breakout sessions. Clearly comfortable with the more than 100 college-aged men gathered with them in the high school’s cafeteria, the two brothers began by calling for the participants to pull out their notebooks and make three columns for Natural Man, Spiritual Man and Holy Man.

The Natural Man can be a force for good but has no focus, said Brother Patrick. The Spiritual Man has focus, but accomplishes nothing. It is important for Catholic men to embrace both modes. The Holy Man has a strong, informed masculinity.

It has been a problem for men that they have felt they had to leave their masculinity at the door when they enter a church, said Brother Samuel.

Instead of behaving true to their nature, men are told to dance in the forest and play in the fields, he said.

When the Natural Man combines with the Spiritual Man, he becomes Holy Man, he said.

The other breakout sessions were led by Karl Wirth, a protestant minister who will enter the Catholic Church this Easter Sunday and Pilot editor Antonio Enrique who led the workshop for Spanish-speaking men.

The conference’s opening speaker, James Towey, was for 12 years the legal counsel for Blessed Mother Teresa. He is now a deputy assistant to President Bush and the director faith-based initiatives office at the White House.

Following Towey was Father Larry Richards, the pastor of St. Joseph Church in Erie, Pa., and the one of the most popular Catholic speakers in the country, Landry said. More than 300,000 copies of his recordings “Confession” and “The Mass Explained” are in distribution.

Following Father Richards was founder of Domino’s Pizza and Ave Maria University, Thomas Monaghan. Monaghan said he sold his pizza empire for roughly $1 billion, and is now spending the rest of his life “trying to die penniless.”

A major part of Monaghan’s plan is to build Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., and the adjacent town of 11,000 homes, also called Ave Maria.

In addition to the speakers in the high school’s athletic field house, 29 exhibitors staffed information and merchandise tables in the hallways.

Throughout the day, dozens of priests heard confessions in a large dimly lit room for the hundreds of men, who formed a long line outside the door.

Joseph L. Attaido said he thought the conference was a success. “The speakers helped put things in perspective, especially concerning confronting and relieving a lot of burdens,”

When they contacted the secretary to the archbishop, Father Brian Bouchand, with the idea, they were not sure what the response would be, he said.

Landry said Father Bouchand called back to say not only would the archbishop participate, but that he had already locked the Feast of St. Joseph in his calendar for the event.

St. Joseph is the patron saint of husbands and fathers.

The group’s goal was to have 500 attend, but they passed that number by January. When the Web site registration was cut off March 16, the number was 1,600 with another 450 walk-in attendees the day of the conference, he said.

The planning for next year’s conference will start right away, Landry said.

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