Friday, April 19, 2024

Men Tasked with ‘Raising the Bar’ as More Than 300 Fill Diocesan Center for Annual Conference

Commanding an audience of more than 300 who filled the Diocesan Conference Center in Harrisburg for the annual Men’s Conference, keynote speaker Marcel LeJeune challenged them to “raise the bar” on what it means to be good, Catholic men.

“If you want to raise the bar of what it means to be a Catholic man, you have to change your habits, you have to change your hearts,” said LeJeune, President and Founder of Catholic Missionary Disciples, an apostolate that equips leaders for transformational ministry and renewal.

An impassioned and relatable speaker, LeJeune captivated the audience with personal examples and hard-hitting truths about effective evangelization and striving for the bar set by Jesus instead of the low expectations set by society.

“The Catholic Church has some issues today, doesn’t it? We’ve gone through scandal, we’re in the midst of decline…,” he said. “For every one Catholic that joins the Church, six walk out the back door.”

That’s a problem that starts with each of us, LeJeune said.

“The decline in our Church is our problem, because we are the Church. And if we’re the Church, what are we going to do about it?” he asked.

The first place to start is with the person in the mirror. “Do we realize just what God has done for us? Scripture tells us that, while we were still His enemies, God sent His only Son to come and save us,” LeJeune said, challenging the men to regain their identity as sons of God and to “start to live a little bit better.”

Today’s culture sets the bar low for what it means to be a good Catholic man: go to Mass and receive the Eucharist, just like checking off a to-do list, LeJeune remarked. To raise the bar, develop a prayer life, spend time in Adoration, get involved in the life of the parish, he suggested.

Raising the bar also means changing your habits and hearts, he told the men.

“There are men here today who have addictions, who are trapped in sin, who have disfunction in relationships, who are lonely and depressed, and who don’t know they are loved,” LeJeune said. “But God has the answer to all of it.”

“You are not powerful enough to make an all-perfect, all-good, all-knowing creator of the universe, who made you in his image and likeness with dignity, stop loving you. Your sins are not big enough. You are not powerful enough,” he said.

”Here’s the bar: be a saint, be an evangelist, share your faith in season and out, when convenient and inconvenient. Do it because this world needs salvation. This world needs grace. This world needs God,” he said.

LeJeune challenged the men to get out of their comfort zone and evangelize just by how they act and what they say, and by sharing the ways in which God has transformed their own lives.

“We can’t just do evangelization in a secret little silo of our lives in church, where things are nice and comfortable, when the world does not come to our churches…. That’s not evangelization. Evangelization is leading other people to conversion, turning around a life,” LeJeune said. “We get them to do that by saying yes to Jesus.”

“The people of Pennsylvania are hurting – in their problems, in their broken families, in their addictions,” he said, and God sends us to them, to share our experiences and our faith.

“You don’t need a theology degree to do that,” he said.

Band of Brothers

The annual conference was Saturday, March 18, hosted by the Secretariat for Catholic Life and Evangelization. The daylong inspirational and prayerful event began with Mass celebrated by Bishop Ronald Gainer and featured several break-out sessions, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the opportunity to go to Confession, vendors and lunch.

The day also invited the men to consider forming and participating in small groups, in order to continue faith formation and build relationships beyond the conference.

Having a “band of brothers” who share the same faith is key to combating loneliness, maintaining accountability and answering the call to evangelize, LeJeune underscored in his break-out session.

We can reach people, and the world, by looking at how Jesus evangelized – by investing his time in a small group, the disciples.

“Jesus had the task of saving every human being, ever. He didn’t form a media apostolate or set up institutions – he put his time in 12 men,” LeJeune pointed out.

“Programs, events, classes and talks aren’t bad, but if they take the place of 12 guys in intentional community together, then we have failed. This is a problem, because we don’t do community well,” he said.

He encouraged the men to consider how they might start a small group, such as inviting a few friends for coffee or around a backyard firepit. It doesn’t have to take place at the parish or within a prayer group, he stressed.

“Normal evangelization is winning the right to talk about Jesus after first forming relationships with people,” he said. “Don’t see people as projects that have to be saved. Human beings are worthy of your love regardless of their relationship with God. We have to treat them with dignity, respect, kindness and humanity…. It’s about relationships.”

He challenged the men to “invest in each other, and accompany each other.”

“When we get back to real relationships in our own lives with a handful of men and teach them to do the same thing, it’s going to transform the world,” LeJeune said. “It’s hard work, and we have the right to do this kind of ministry in our lives because Jesus has already commissioned us. We don’t have to wait.”

Bragging Rights

Catholics can turn to the saints for examples of following the call to evangelize, and Bishop Ronald Gainer spoke of one such witness in a breakout session, “Bragging Rights Can Be Virtuous.”

The bishop recounted the life and legacy of St. Edmund Campion, a 16th century saint from London who was martyred for speaking boldly about his faith at a time when practicing the Catholic faith was punishable by law in the Church of England.

After refusing three times to denounce his faith, and continuing to “boast about Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church,” the saint was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered in 1581.

“He stood firmly in the truths of the Church, of his faith, and not afraid to proclaim them at the cost of his life,” Bishop Gainer said.

“I’d like to suggest for us…that St. Edmund Campion possesses two virtues that we would do well to cultivate in our own lives,” the bishop said. “First of all is his humility – to know the truth without ego getting in the way…. The greatest service we can render to any person is leading that person to the truth. If we remain silent, reticent, bashful, ashamed of our faith, then it’s some form of hatred to our brothers and sisters not to tell them the truth.”

“The second virtue is the audacity to speak the truth boldly without regard for what others may think of us, or what it may cost us; simply to speak what we know to be true, to resist conforming to the trends of our culture and to stand boldly in that truth,” Bishop Gainer said.

‘No Man is an Island’

A recurring theme throughout the conference was the value of brotherhood, and presenters gave workshop sessions reiterating the value of connecting with others to combat loneliness and depression, and to find true bonds of support.

They also encouraged the men to focus on their encounters and relationships with Jesus and how those experiences help reveal human dignity and a connectedness to others.

In a breakout session, Deacon Armando Torres gave a personal testimony of his encounters with Jesus, and how he has responded to Christ in his daily life.

“We often hear about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but what does that look like, and do we recognize those times when Jesus is with us?” he asked.

Deacon Torres, who serves at San Juan Bautista Parish in Lancaster and as Diocesan Director of Culture, Identity and Outreach, offered his “conversion story” – one of developing a deeper love for the faith and a stronger relationship with Christ after becoming more involved in the Church.

When he was attending Mass as though to check it off his list on Sundays, “my bar was set low,” he said. “I was involved with the Church, but I wasn’t internalizing it. But then I converted from doing the minimum to doing more and doing it intentionally.”

Intentional participation in the Mass and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, involvement in catechetical classes, volunteering at food drives and then serving as religious education coordinator for his parish converted him back to the fullness of the Church, and to eventual ordination to the diaconate in September of 2020, he said.

And while each person’s faith journey is different, it’s vital to share those personal experiences with others.

“Don’t ever minimize your experience, because I learned to listen to other people’s stories and found that it was filling me up,” Deacon Torres said. “Everywhere I was, I saw God and Jesus in my life…. It was a vibe of being at peace.”

In a presentation entitled “What Good Am I?” Father Ryan Fischer, pastor of St. James Parish in Lititz, addressed the various types of self-doubt that can occur within us, and contradicted them with passages from Scripture affirming who God says we are, and what He has in store for us.

Whether suffering from low self-esteem, hardship or illness, the stain of sin, or the judgements of others, “You don’t get too far into the Bible before you have all the elements that refute the statement, ‘What good am I?’” Father Fischer remarked.

“God made us to be eternally with Him…and we have dignity and goodness,” he continued. “If we didn’t have any worth to God, he would have never placed any of that in us. The things where we think negatively about who we are, are contradicted by God having made us for Himself.”

Father Fischer encouraged the men that anytime they question, ‘What good am I?’ they should remember three truths:

“The first important truth is that God has desired our good and sees us as good, and He has mercy on us when we act otherwise. God sees our good and our worth, whether we or others don’t. The second truth is, when we believe that I or others degrade my dignity, even if it is because of sin, this judgment is not in accord with the Divine testimony – it places my assessment and opinion over and above God’s. The third truth is that while a common and colloquial question, ‘What good am I?’ is actually misstated for Christians. More apt for us believers is, ‘Whose good am I?’ – a question of belonging and not of status,” he said. “If we ask that question, therein we see the good.”

The themes of raising the bar as Catholic men and being part of a community essential to fulfilling who God created us to be also surfaced in Deacon Virgilio Centenera’s breakout session, “No Man is an Island.” In it, he described how bonds play an essential role in spiritual, mental and physical health.

“Today, we have heard a call to become stronger men of faith, to raising that bar. Our marching orders have always been straightforward, in my mind: love God, and love your neighbor. But I think we’ve heard those Commandments so often that it’s easy to take for granted what they actually mean,” said Deacon Centenera, who serves at St. Patrick Parish in Carlisle.

The Commandment to love God is understandable, he said, but it can be difficult to love our neighbors, especially when we don’t see each other through Jesus’ eyes.

“Scripture tells us we are made in the image of God. Could this be why Jesus tells us that to be His disciples, to see the world as He sees it, we have to both recognize and strengthen those bonds?” Deacon Centenera pondered.

“Consider the gifts that God gave us to make those bonds stronger. We are given power to bring change into people’s lives, wealth to improve our standard of living and theirs, pleasure to promote what is necessary and good, and honor to guide us to a life of virtue,” he said.

Yet, one in three men describe themselves as chronically lonely.

Valuing others requires a change of vision and a change of heart, Deacon Centenera remarked.

“Once we begin to see each other as Christ sees us, then the depth of His mission becomes clear. We are so closely connected that it’s almost necessary to love your neighbor. We need to strengthen those friendships based on the love of Christ, and then we have to evangelize, realizing those connections are to be strengthened for everybody,” he said.

“The Church is not just theory. It’s a way to live your life. It’s an excellent place for you to change your vision, to change your heart,” Deacon Centenera said. “But don’t forget that the door to that Church doesn’t rest on hinges; the door to the Church rests in your heart. When that door is open, you will see the other as God sees them and realize there was never an ‘us’ and ‘them,’ there was always just us.”

(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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