By Michael O’Connell | CFP Correspondent
WORCESTER – Despite a steady record of strong attendance year after year, co-chair Angelo Guadagno admitted he was concerned about the turnout at the 17th annual Worcester Diocesan Catholic Men’s Conference. Snow, sleet and rain were in the forecast, and conference organizers braced themselves for no-shows.
“I’m so happy to see all of you here,” he told a packed Plourde Recreation Center at Assumption College Saturday morning. “I was thinking to myself last night, ‘What are we going to do with 1,200 lunches?’”
No need to worry. Men turned out in droves, as they always do, to take advantage of the country’s longest-running diocesan-sponsored Catholic men’s conference. They came to hear speeches, make a mid-day confession, attend a late-afternoon Mass with Bishop McManus, shop for Catholic vendors’ products, and just generally share a day with a crowd of like-minded men.
“I get so inspired every year,” said Gene Farrell, of Ashburnham, thumbing through a rack of Catholic books in the vendor area. “It’s so validating to be with a thousand Catholic men. That’s what I try to do every year – to pass along to the guys in my parish just how enjoyable this is.”
The 2017 program included a strong blend of speakers from across the Catholic landscape. 40 Days for Life Executive Director Shawn Carney anchored the morning session with a talk about threats to masculinity; and Joe Dittmar, survivor of the World Trade Center terrorist attack, inspired the afternoon crowd with recollections of his harrowing escape.
Other talks included Catholic TV and radio host Jeff Cavins’ discussion about being a disciple of Jesus, Father Chase
Hilgenbrinck’s journey from professional soccer to a life with the church, and Casting Nets Ministries founders Chris Stewart’s and Tony Brandt’s lesson on the “7 Pillars of Evangelization.”
Kicking off the morning program, Cavins, a Catholic evangelist from Minnesota, devoted his talk to outlining the difference between being an enthusiastic fan and a true disciple of Jesus.
“Fans don’t change the world. Followers are the ones who change the whole world,” he said.
Cavins told a story about the process of a boy in biblical days becoming a true disciple. First, he said, a rabbi chooses his disciples, offering to those that he thinks has a special quality to “come follow me.” The boys accept the rabbi’s invitation, and come to know his thoughts, know his ways, and truly buy into the rabbi’s faith.
“Some of you have this relationship – with your dad, with a pastor, with someone at work,” Cavins said.
Over time, male disciples will come to know Jesus’ voice, the same way each one knows the voice of his wife of many years: He hears it loud and clear among the clutter of worldly noise.
“You want to know his ways, but you also want to know his voice,” Cavins said. “The only way to truly know his voice is by spending time with the Blessed Sacrament.”
Most of the 17 men’s conferences’s speaking programs have included an athlete who inspires the men in the audience to look beyond the trappings of the sports world and seek something deeper.
Chase Hilgenbrinck brought that message. He grew up as a talented soccer player who played for traveling youth teams, U.S. soccer powerhouse Clemson University, a national championship team in Chile and the Boston area’s professional franchise, the New England Revolution.
During his time playing soccer, Hilgenbrinck attended church while at the same time buying into what he called “the three lies” society feeds to most young men. To be a “real man,” Hilgenbrinck said, males are encouraged to be big and athletic; to pursue money, cars and material things; and to “conquer” women.
Eventually, he looked more closely at the life he was leading and chose to give up soccer to become a priest.
“I don’t know about you, but (these lies) weigh me down,” Hilgenbrinck said. “And they have weighed me down. Especially in the life of an athlete, having these things served to you on a silver platter.… Off the field the pressure was on me at all times – to be something that I wasn’t.”
Capping off the afternoon speaking program, Casting Nets Ministries founders Stewart and Brandt explained how exercising the “7 Pillars of Evangelization” will elevate your faith.
Taking turns addressing the audience, the speakers urged attendees to be prayerful, invitational, hospitable, inspirational, sacramental, formational and “missionful.” (Stewart acknowledged that the last pillar is not a word: “I wanted it to end with an ‘L’ sound, like the others.”) Summing up several pillars: To be “prayerful,” you need to be in a relationship with Jesus before you can truly pass along goodness to others. To be hospitable, you need to welcome others into your church, into the faith. To be inspirational, you need to try to inspire others, in a small or a very large way. “We need all of us today to leave determined to save the world,” Brandt said.
Bishop McManus closed the day by celebrating Mass in the center.
The 1,200 men in the audience came from all over New England, and they all seemed to have a story about how the conference inspires them to be better Catholic men.
“It’s strengthening – a way to renew,” Pete Sabourin, of Northbridge, said, showing off a pair of blue conference T-shirts he had picked out for himself and his wife. “It’s always close to Easter, so it’s a great time to do this – a time to lift yourself up. You’re around all these guys. The speeches are fantastic. It helps you become a little better Christian – a little better Catholic.”
It was a day for fathers and sons to share a bit of time.
“The big thing is knowing you’re not alone,” said Mike Dolan, 46, of Marlboro, who attended his 10th men’s conference with his dad, Fred Dolan, 75, of Marshfield. “Every day, you can get so immersed in everyone’s negativism and relativism – you almost expect to come back (to the conference) and have seven people here. But every year it’s full.”
A much younger son, Conor DesGroseilliers, 13, of Lowell, came with his dad partly to fulfill a requirement for a Boy Scout merit badge. Conor said he enjoyed the speakers and had fun taping an introduction to WQPH radio. “It’s been pretty cool,” he said.
Then there were the groups who come year after year.
Marcel LaPlume, 79, of Millville, headed up Route 146 with a group of three at his parish, including his son, Mark LaPlume, 51. He said he wasn’t going to be scared away by a bad forecast.
“I wouldn’t miss it, even with the weather,” he said. “You’re meeting with your brothers with one thought, one mind: Get back to Jesus.”
9-11 Survivor tells his story of flight
By Michael O’Connell | CFP Correspondent
WORCESTER – It all started with a slight flickering of the lights.
The time was 8:48 on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Joe Dittmar was one of 54 insurance executives milling around on the 105th floor in the South Tower of New York’s World Trade Center, waiting for an 8:30 meeting to start. A plane had just struck the North Tower, a few hundred yards away. But the insurance group had no idea what was unfolding.
“We didn’t see anything,” he recalled. “We didn’t hear anything. We didn’t feel anything. Just a flicker.”
Very quickly, everything changed. The flicker turned into the disaster the world now knows as “9–11,” and survivors like Dittmar thank the powers that be that they’re still alive.
Dittmar, a Philadelphia native now living in North Carolina, shared his experience with the crowd at the Worcester Diocesan Catholic Men’s Conference April 1 at Assumption College. Unlike most of the speakers appearing at this year’s event and at the 16 previous conferences, Dittmar doesn’t take money for his talks. He said he speaks so he can keep the memories of the 9–11 victims alive.
“I don’t do this for notoriety. I don’t do this for fame. I don’t do this for money,” he told the Worcester crowd. “I do this because I feel it is my duty to tell this story – to give a voice to the 3,000 people who lost their voices that day, so they can be heard. Reminding us and reminding them their lives weren’t lost in vain. While I don’t seek compensation, I seek compensation from each and every one of you – to always remember and to never, never forget.”
So, what was it like inside the towers that day? Dittmar sums up the experience in a few words: confusing, scary, excruciating and, at times, beautiful.
At first, everybody was confused. The meeting was late. One of the meeting hosts received word that “there was an explosion in the North Tower” and they had to evacuate. Dittmar recalls dismissing the warning at the time: “This is New York. Stuff happens.”
The insurance group followed orders. They headed for the fire stairwells.
“Now you’ve got this group of 54 ‘Type A’ personalities at the 105th floor, getting ready to walk down the steps, and they’re double ticked off, doubly aggravated about what’s going on here,” he said.
“I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, ‘My god, didn’t you know what was happening?’ And that was exactly the point: Each and every one of you knew way more about what was going on outside and inside those buildings than any of the people in there. We had no clue.”
As Dittmar and others made their way down a series of stairwells, they had no communication with the outside world. Cellular lines were flooded, and land lines weren’t working.
Eventually, Dittmar was able to see through a window and realized what had happened to the North Tower. He called his first vision of the crash area “the worst 30-40 seconds of my life.”
“It was a beautiful, crystal clear September day that day in New York City,” he told the men’s conference crowd. “And I remember being able to see, through that smoke and that fire, seeing fuselage pieces from a large plane. I remember thinking to myself, ‘My god, it’s clear as a bell outside. How could this pilot not see the building? How could he miss?’
“The point was,” Dittmar added, “he didn’t miss.”
Dittmar’s group narrowly missed getting hit directly by the second plane. As he made his way down the stairs, passing the 74th floor of the building, the plane hit between the 77th and 83rd floors.
“I’ve never felt anything like that, ever,” he recalled. “And I hope to never feel anything like that ever again. That fire stairwell – that concrete bunker – started to shake so violently from side to side, the concrete was spidering out the handrails, breaking away from the steps, like waves of the ocean undulating under our feet. And we feel this heat wall go by us. We smell the jet fuel. This thing keeps rocking back and forth, back and forth. It felt like forever.”
He estimated that the rocking stopped after about a minute.
At that point, he said, his group still didn’t know exactly what had happened above them in the South Tower. He said people thought it might have been a fuel cell exploding. Nobody speculated about a second plane attack.
Instead, the group kept moving, step by step, floor by floor.
“You would think there was massive pandemonium,” he said. “But there was nothing in that stairwell but a stunned silence.”
Dittmar remembers people helping each other, lending a hand to people on crutches, coaxing each other down the steps.
“It was beautiful,” he said. “We all became teammates.”
It was also excruciatingly sad at times. He said he saw a group of police, firefighters and paramedics at the 35th floor, heading up the stairs to try to save people.
“Just the looks in their eyes – they knew,” Dittmar said. “They knew. They knew that they were going up those steps to try to fight the fire they couldn’t beat. They knew they were marching into the bowels of hell. They knew they were going up, and they knew they were never ever coming back.”
As he escaped the tower, through the underground concourse, Dittmar headed to Penn Station to take a train to his parents’ house in Philadelphia. From there, he rented a car and drove back to Chicago to meet his family. When he arrived in town, he received a message that his family was at Mass.
“I decided to meet them there,” he said. “It was a good day to go to church.”
A once local prayer effort goes national
By Michael O’Connell
WORCESTER – It was a homecoming, of sorts, when Texas native Shawn Carney took the stage to speak here in Worcester at the 17th annual Worcester Diocesan Catholic Men’s Conference.
Carney, president of the pro-life organization 40 Days for Life, had a summer job in New England during his college days, in the early 2000s, selling encyclopedias door to door. Part of his time was spent walking the streets of Worcester, lugging backpacks full of books.
“Some of you might have slammed the door on me a couple of times,” he said, with a smile, addressing the crowd of 1,200 at Assumption College’s Plourde Recreation Center. “No hard feelings.”
Since then, Carney himself has come a long way, growing in his faith and building an organization with campaigns in 40 countries.
In his talk, Carney related how he connected to the pro-life movement. He closed by challenging the men in the audience to commit to the faith, and pursue their own causes.
Carney said he became interested in the pro-life issue while in high school but didn’t become truly serious about it until he went to college. During his days at Texas A&M, his girlfriend – and now wife – took him to a Planned Parenthood facility to peacefully pray as part of a vigil.
“I saw young women, 18, 19 years old, being driven by their men, to have abortions, and it just broke my heart,” he said.
The trip to Planned Parenthood inspired Carney to participate in more rallies and support more causes. He made connections. And when a local pro-life organization offered him a job, he canceled plans to go to law school.
He later started his own local venture that focused on doing 40 days of prayer and fasting, 40 days of community outreach and 40 days of nonstop vigil to discourage abortions. He called the group 40 Days for Life.
“After that, we never imagined 40 Days for Life would go anywhere else,” he said. “But then a group in Seattle called us. And then Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Charlotte, North Carolina.”
Carney launched the effort nationally in 2007. It now has a presence in 675 cities in 40 countries. One local chapter operates here in Worcester.
Carney said the organization has achieved tangible results: “13,000 babies saved at the very last moment – that we know of,” he said. He said 143 workers at abortion facilities have left their jobs and joined his organization.
During vigils, Carney said, he experiences plenty of wrath directed against the Catholic Church. He accepts it as part of the territory.
“When we sign up for this, there’s no greater joy and no greater opportunity to live our faith in a world this is starving for Catholicism, starving for truth,” he said.
Carney encouraged the Catholic men in the audience to commit to their own cause – to use the last few weeks of Lent to renew themselves in the faith.
“I encourage you to make that commitment and to change the world, Carney said. “Because it’s an exciting time to be a Catholic man. We are needed. The world needs us.”