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By Tanya Connor
And Michael O’Connell
WORCESTER – Father Larry Richards didn’t pull any punches. He just punched listeners. Figuratively, of course. After making them laugh.
The occasion was the 12th annual Worcester Diocesan Catholic Men’s Conference, held Saturday at the DCU Center. The conference featured five speakers, numerous exhibitors, confessions and Mass celebrated by Bishop McManus.
“I believe what has brought you here … is your desire to see Jesus,” Bishop McManus said in his homily, likening listeners to Greeks in the Gospel asking Philip’s help to do that. (Jn 12:20-23) For St. John, “to see” is “to encounter,” the bishop said.
The bishop told fathers and grandfathers present that their “marvelous vocation” was “bringing new life into the world” and their continued vocation is to help their offspring see Jesus.
“Our mission in life is that we get to heaven, but that we bring with us as many people as we can,” he said.
Some men brought their sons to the conference, or came with other family members.
“It helps you learn about what’s going on,” Ethan Fatcheric, 15, of Princeton, said of the conference. His cousin Ben Fatcheric, an eighth-grader in Weare, N.H., said he plans to let classmates know that these conferences are worthwhile.
“If you really care, you’ll come to something like this – to grow in your faith and just to see other people,” he said. “You know you’re not alone.”
Bob Duca, a 75-year-old from Holden, echoed that.
“When I leave here, I’m different,” he said. “It tends to elevate you about the normal everyday quest. The speakers initiate it, but more than anything it’s the group feeling – you feel you’re surrounded by 1,000 other men with like thoughts.”
Msgr. Thomas J. Sullivan, conference co-chairman with Angelo Guadagno, estimated that about 1,200 attended.
He said Father Richards, an inner-city pastor from Erie, Penn., was back by popular demand for the annual confession talk, which he gave in 2004.
“They laugh at themselves, see their sins and all line up for confession,” he said of listeners. So much so that about 200 didn’t get to receive the sacrament because time ran out, Msgr. Sullivan said.
Father Richards said his style is to make listeners laugh, then punch them in the stomach, but he wasn’t making light of sin.
He told listeners they need a weapon – God’s word.
“To follow Jesus Christ is going to kill you,” he said.
“I call myself a spiritual coach,” he said, asking what people would think of a coach who suggested players show up for a 45-minute practice – if they wanted to. High school boys he worked with were proud to be state champions, and showed their desire to win by much practice, he said.
“We put all this time and energy into all these things that don’t matter,” Father Richards said. But to get to Heaven, does one expect to simply attend weekly Mass?
“Let’s say you just dropped dead,” Father Richards said. “The God of the universe says, ‘I love you. I’m going to give you what you loved in life.’ If it’s anything other than him, that’s hell.”
He advocated doing everything out of love not fear, “suffering because of love” like Jesus did, learning to love on earth in order to enjoy the eternal place of love.
If the greatest commandment is to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength, it makes sense that the greatest sin is breaking that commandment, yet everyone does so, he said.
“You’re not forgiven until you have a repentant heart,” Father Richards said. One might fall into sin again, but should “firmly resolve … to sin no more.”
He said if one dies in mortal sin, one goes to hell.
“One time jumping off the Empire State Building is enough to kill you,” even if it’s fun on the way down, he said. The same is true with the spiritual life.
In America today nobody wants to take responsibility for their actions, he said, but told listeners it’s time to be men and start standing up for what’s right. He said he believes that in the next 10 years there will be great tribulation and they will have to be man enough to respond. Listeners applauded.
He told youth to honor their parents and older people to take care of theirs. If they must put them in a nursing home, they should call them daily, he said.
John Baker, from St. Denis Parish in Ashburnham, said he enjoyed Father Richards’ talk.
Others took up themes like his.
John Pacek, 66, who attends St. George Church, expressed concern about freedom of religion and the media assaulting the Church. Attending the conference gives Catholics an opportunity to come together and speak with a powerful voice, he said.
“And we need to realize we have a long struggle ahead of us,” added his cousin, Len Pacek, 70, who attends Christ the King.
Joe Skrip, 49, who also attends Christ the King, said he skis, runs and participates in a karate club, and that attending the men’s conferences is like “exercising your faith.”
Fr. Longenecker offers help from St. Benedict
By Tanya Connor
Don’t like where you’re at – or who you’re with?
Have problems with Church teaching?
Can’t get the kids to listen?
Try St. Benedict.
Father Dwight Longenecker, a married Catholic priest, offered this remedy to life challenges at the diocesan men’s conference Saturday at the DCU Center. The former Anglican priest’s talk was called, “Listen My Son: St. Benedict for Fathers.”
Benedict, fed up with fellow-students’ partying, became a monk, he said. Others joined him, and they scratched out a living on the land in Italy.
His rule is a classic, but very ordinary, Father Longenecker said. He understood how God intends people to live in community. Benedictines take a life-long vow of stability; other people take life-long marriage vows.
Hearts break over pornography, divorce and adultery which trample the sacrament of marriage, through which people are to learn difficult lessons of love and sacrifice, Father Longenecker said. Marriage is to make one’s way to heaven, and Benedict’s rule can help.
Besides stability, Benedictine monks also take vows of obedience and conversion of life, he said.
“God is not elsewhere,” he said, explaining the reason for stability. “If you can’t find him here, you won’t be able to find him anywhere;” he’s present whether or not one likes one’s situation or fellow community members.
“Isn’t it wonderful that we can choose our wives, but we can’t choose our children?” Father Longenecker asked.
“Obedience means learning to listen,” he added. “I’ve had to think more as a Catholic. … Obedience does not actually men being a mindless robot. … God gave us two ears and one mouth. … Do we have problems with the Church’s teachings? You listen carefully and you struggle to understand. This listening attitude is very positive – a person with open ears…has an open heart and an open mind.” That person is alert to God’s goodness and beauty.
Often God speaks in a whisper, he said.
Or through a bell. Benedict’s rule instructed monks to put down their tools as soon as the bell called them to chapel, Father Longenecker said, comparing that with a call to supper unheeded by PlayStation-absorbed youth.
“Instant obedience – beautiful,” Father Longenecker said. “The reason is even more beautiful” – to prepare for God’s call.
He told of feeling God’s call to resign completely from work as a school chaplain, and how he argued with God about it for fear of causing scandal or financial difficulties. People must keep in mind prudence and their responsibilities too, he said.
“I’m not advising you to go out and do something crazy,” he said, then added, “Maybe I am.”
Speaking of conversion of life, Father Longenecker said one’s whole life and world are to be transformed.
“Not one scrap or whiff of hell” is to remain in Christians; they are to be transformed totally into Christ’s image, he said. He said “it’s easier to do now,” rather than waiting until purgatory, which he called “finishing our homework.” It’s not enough to settle for just getting in the front door of heaven.
“It’s in the tough times that we make progress,” Father Longenecker said.
Monks work, pray and study, he said.
“For men, work gives them dignity,” he said. “We do something useful … positive.”
That is “breathed through” with prayer, which monks do about eight times a day, Father Longenecker said.
He encouraged listeners to pray morning prayer, get inspirational things on their smart phones, have a constant conversation with God, keep their finger rosaries handy, or turn mini-swears like “Oh God!” into mini prayers. He also encouraged them to read good spiritual material.
Father Longenecker applied these disciplines to human beings, who are body, mind and spirit, and spoke of sharing them with one’s family, building beautiful Christian homes.
“When we do that, our spirituality becomes incarnate,” he said.
Lombardi coaches men to ‘talk about faith’
By Michael O’Connell
Is the player committed? Does he love the game? Is he willing to work?
These are among the questions pro football coach Joe Lombardi asks himself when evaluating players – and this past week he asked the same questions of the audience at the 12th annual Worcester Diocesan Catholic Men’s Conference at the DCU Center.
Do you, as Catholics, love your game? Are you, he asked the 1,200 men in the audience, willing to do the work to be better men?
The question is, what kind of work are we putting in – how committed are we, Coach Lombardi said. “Are we the first ones out the door on Friday, or are we putting in the extra work?”
Coach Lombardi, the fourth of five keynote speakers at the March 24 conference, carries some credentials on the football side. He is known partly for being the grandson of perhaps the most famous NFL coach to ever walk the sidelines – the late Vince Lombardi, leader of the legendary Green Bay Packers teams in the 1960s. Joe Lombardi himself is the quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints. His job centers on preparing Saints starting QB Drew Brees, a well-respected leader who broke the single-season mark for passing yardage this past season and led the team to a Super Bowl championship in 2010.
During his speech, Coach Lombardi didn’t address the current controversy surrounding his team: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s punishment of the Saints’ head coach and former defensive coordinator for running a “bounty” program that paid defensive players bonuses for injuring opposing players.
He also didn’t talk at length about the topic many other football fans and Catholics have focused heavily on this past year – NFL quarterback and outspoken Christian Tim Tebow. Coach Lombardi did mention Tebow briefly, describing him as “inconsistent” in his play – weak in the first three quarters of games, strong in the fourth quarter – but later acknowledged that he respected Tebow as a person.
Coach Lombardi’s talk focused on the specific qualities he and other coaches look for in football players that, he said, can drive people – and particularly Catholics – to success in other parts of life.
Qualities he looks for include: the need to be tough, resilient, schooled in fundamentals, coachable, and, most of all, a leader. He framed each bullet point with discussions of his own life, rooted in football and Catholicism, and of the way Saints quarterback Brees approaches his job.
Coach Lombardi wants his players to be tough – to be able to take a hard hit and come back strong the next play. Likewise, he said, he tries to be tough in his own life – to not give in when he’s “discouraged,” to make sure he says his prayers each night, even when he may not be in the mood.
As much as we’re going to strive for perfection – we’re all of a fallen nature – we have to learn to pick ourselves up when we get knocked down, and play to our best,” he said.
Coach Lombardi looks for players that are “coachable.” In his own life, he said, he tries to be a good coachable subject when it comes to the Catholic faith.
“In my life, I say I’m going to be coachable. This thing called faith, it’s the most important thing by far … And if it’s the most important thing, then I’m all in,” he said.
Perhaps most of all, Coach Lombardi said, he looks for players who are leaders. He praised the Saints’ quarterback, Brees, as “one of the best in the league” at motivating teammates. Coach Lombardi himself said he tries to show leadership by speaking to crowds about his faith, even though he finds it uncomfortable at times to do so.
“The world needs leaders,” he said. “The world needs people of character and principle that will stand up for those things. Your community needs them and most of all your family needs them. We need men who will stand up for what’s right. That’s why it’s important. I’m getting the opportunity to get up here and talk about it, and you all should, too. “
Ways to evangelize outlined
Before he capped the men’s conference speakers’ program with a song and a prayer, Catholic educator Mark Nehrbas offered the men ways thay can “step out and evangelize.”
Mr. Nehrbas, executive director of Christian Outreach at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, urged people to simply live a holy life and show others how it’s done.
“That in itself is going to be evangelistic,” he said. “As they say, preach the gospel at all times, and use words when necessary.”
Also, Mr. Nehrbas said, attendees need to pray for others. He related a story about a Russian soldier keeping guard in Cuba in the 1970s who suddenly had Christ appear before him. “The story is,” he said, “the guard’s mother was praying for her son’s salvation. We don’t know the power of prayer.”
Other ways: Help the sick and the poor, get involved in politics to help pro-life candidates get elected, and share the faith with words.
Maybe it’s as simple as inviting someone to the next men’s conference, or inviting someone at work or in your neighborhood to go to church with you.
– Michael O’Connell
America must get life issues right, Weigel said
By Michael O’Connell
Bob Dylan has inspired millions, if not billions, with his transformational lyrics – but he didn’t leave much of an impression on Pope John Paul II.
As Catholic scholar George Weigel related in Worcester last week, Pope John Paul II and Bob Dylan appeared at the same Eucharistic conference in Bologna, Italy, back in 1997 – Dylan to sing three songs, the Pope to deliver the conference’s main address. Dylan concluded with the counter-culture anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and the Pope followed with some thoughts about how “the Holy Spirit is the wind blowing through the church on the way to the great jubilee of 2000, etcetera, etcetera,” he said.
Two days after the 1997 conference, Mr. Weigel said, Pope John Paul II confronted him at a dinner. “The Pope looks across the table at me, gives me that look and says, ‘Who is Bob Dee-lahhhn?’” Mr. Weigel tells the story, mimicking the Pope’s Polish accent, to a sold-out crowd at the DCU Center.
If there’s one scholar qualified to tell stories about Pope John Paul II, it’s George Weigel. Two of his 20 books focus directly on Pope John Paul II, and his 1999 biography, “Witness to Hope,” is often described as the definitive work on the former pontiff.
Weigel’s men’s conference keynote, titled “The Achievement of Blessed John Paul II: A Retrospective,” focused on three facets of the late Pope’s teachings: the sense of the Church as a missionary presence, the tying together of freedom and virtue, and the commitment to “solidarity.”
Mr. Weigel urged attendees to evoke Pope John Paul II’s belief that Catholics must embrace their callings as missionaries. “You’re Catholic because you made the decision to be a disciple of Jesus Christ,” he said. “You made that decision because someone has offered you the possibility of friendship with Jesus Christ.”
In connecting freedom with virtue, Mr. Weigel said, Pope John Paul II strengthened the foundation for Catholic employers’ current fight against the federal government’s healthcare mandates.
“We are fighting for rights of Catholic employers to follow their consciences in the provision of healthcare insurance for their employees,” Weigel said. “We are fighting for the life of civil society. We are fighting for the future of an America that is the America we have known up until now. We are fighting in defense of religious freedom, which is the first of human rights and the keystone and architecture of human rights. Over the past two months,” he added, “it’s often been said this has been an argument about birth control. Well, as a Catholic feminist blogger of wicked wit wrote a month ago, this is as much about birth control as the American revolution was about tea. This is about religious freedom. This is about the rights of the institutions of civil society. The church is not imposing anything on anyone. The state, by contrast – in this case the federal government – is attempting to impose its view in what it calls preventive health services.”
Regarding the concept of “solidarity,” Mr. Weigel discussed how the Pope extended the definition of support for human rights to the support of “life issues” – such as the rights of the unborn, the elderly and the severely handicapped. “What that means is that life issues are social justice issues,” he said. “That virtue of solidary is extended through time.”
Mr. Weigel added that the United States faces a crossroads over life issues and solidarity. “If America does not get the life issues right,” he said, “then the American promise of life, liberty and justice for all will not be fulfilled.”
Back to Mr. Weigel’s exchange with the Pope about Dylan: How did the Pope’s biographer respond to the question about who this scraggly looking pop culture troubadour is?
“Holy Father,” Mr. Weigel told the Pope, “think of him as someone whose songs always sound better when someone else sings them.”