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EASTON — There are excellent weekend conferences for men and for women, some for couples, and others for teenagers, but very few if any for the entire family, thought Father Michael Harrington of St. Paul Parish in Wellesley. That was two years ago and after much planning the first Northeast Catholic Family Conference was held July 16-17 at Stonehill College. Nearly 800 people attended the conference, which was themed “Making the Faith Visible.”
"People kept coming up to me saying they liked that it was a family conference, where everyone could participate and enjoy themselves as family," said Father Harrington. "We wanted to plan something for everyone, something that would speak to everyone's hearts. Here was an event where you could bring the family to pray together."
Many people worked tirelessly to put the event together, recruiting guest speakers for the many workshops available for adults. Topics of the seminars included “Raising Catholic Children in a Secular Age,” “Family Prayer,” “Living the Gospel of Life in a Culture of Death” and “Evangelizing through the Rosary.” The weekend was focused on strengthening the family and passing on faith to the next generation.
In addition to the workshops, there were separate keynote addresses on both days of the conference as well as activities throughout the day for children, teens and adults. Mass was celebrated on both Saturday and Sunday and Saturday evening featured a eucharistic procession and Holy Hour led by Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley.
"We hope this conference will help us to become models of holiness in our families and as our families become stronger in faith, our communities and our world become stronger," said Susan Wallace, director of external relations at Holy Cross Family Ministries, who helped organize the event. "You have to start with the family, which is the domestic Church."
Earline Tweedie felt that the conference would be a good opportunity for her family to spend quality time together in an atmosphere of faith. After expressing her desire to attend the conference, her parish, St. Michael in North Andover offered to send her, her husband and their four children. “We came to be supported in our values and beliefs as a Catholic family,” she said. “There is not always a lot of support out in the world. It’s nice to be where people are all on the same page.”
The weekend began with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, bishop emeritus of the Worcester diocese and Massachusetts state chaplain for the Knights of the Columbus. In his homily, he praised the families gathered for taking the opportunity to “rejuvenate their faith.”
"So many of our Catholic people go around half dead," he said. "If we really knew what we were talking about when we proclaim the Catholic faith, we would be alive with it all the time."
He went on to state that many of us do not bear witness to our faith in public because we are afraid to offend people. However “There is no place the Church can’t be,” he said. “We have to bring it everywhere … especially in our families.”
Today’s secular culture downplays not only the importance of religion but also that of family. As Catholics, “we profess the enduring necessity of marriage and family life that can be traced to the providential plan of God,” said Bishop Reilly, who was one of nine children growing up during the Great Depression.
Referring to the conference’s theme, “Making the Faith Visible,” Bishop Reilly exhorted the assembly saying, “We must let the world hear what we believe. Let people see that we are followers of Christ. We cannot hide the light of our faith any longer.”
Telling people about your faith is not always easy, but opportunities to come together for strength, like the family conference, help, said Jim Riley, a parishioner at St. Mary Parish in Mansfield, who was in charge of finance and fundraising for the conference. One of eight children, he said it is important for faith to be present in the family.
"My parents lived their faith and shared it with us and they invited us to share it with our children," he said. "We need to pass on the faith to our children and they need to experience it for themselves."
The Saturday keynote address was given by Carl A. Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus and a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and a consulter to the Pontifical Council for the Family.
"The personal, loving community of the Trinity is the first model of any community and the model on which all families are based," he told attendees. "The family, because it reflects the Trinity, is the first culture of life and love."
Referencing the writings of Pope John Paul II’s, Anderson reminded the assembly that God created man through love for love. “God inscribed in humanity the vocation for love and communion,” he said. This capacity to love compels us to protect the dignity of each person and calls us to work for the renewal of the Church, Anderson continued.
"There is no other cause for us than of renewal and evangelization," he said. "The evangelization of our culture can only proceed through the daily witness of families, communities and associations," of faith.
In face of society’s assault on morality, “we will not permit the institution of the family to stand along to face the wolves,” said Anderson. “The future of the family is too important to leave to those who would manipulate it.”
Archbishop O’Malley also spoke of sharing faith with others and making present the kingdom of heaven on earth when he celebrated Mass for conference participants on Sunday July 17. When we follow Christ, His kingdom of love, truth and justice begins to grow in our hearts, he said during his homily.
Speaking about the Gospel in which Jesus teaches about the kingdom of heaven in parables, Archbishop O’Malley said that Jesus teaches us that God is our father. “God is the perfect father, who is present in our lives, who protects us and sustains us,” he said. “He loves us with a love that is beyond all our imaginations.”
In the Bible the Greek word “Abba,” which Jesus uses to refer to God is “much more intimate and affectionate than simply saying father,” said Archbishop O’Malley. “Jesus is teaching us to turn to God with trust and love … If we really believe that God is our father and trust Him then we believe that what he wants for us is the very best thing that could happen” to us.
"Heaven begins right here on earth when we begin to do God's will lovingly," Archbishop O'Malley continued. "There is much spiritual starvation in the world ... Jesus wants to be invited into our lives freely, for us to say come stay with us, remain with us."