As Archbishop John Nienstedt celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul March 31, a handful of stragglers came in and looked around for a seat.
They walked from back to front without finding an open spot, much less an open pew. It’s rare that the cathedral is this packed, but more than 2,000 men filled the building for the annual archdiocesan men’s conference, sponsored by the Office of Marriage, Family and Life.
“I think it’s amazing,” said Eric Larson of St. Stephen in Anoka, of the large crowd. “I think it’s so wonderful that so many men would come and join in fellowship. I think it’s a wonderful sign of our faith.”
There were so many men, in fact, that 200 of them did not get breakfast after Mass. But Father Bill Baer, chaplain of the men’s apostolate who helped organize the event, made a welcome announcement later in the morning that 200 additional bagels had been brought in for those who didn’t make it through the breakfast line.
By then, however, all of the men had been fed — spiritually. The four-hour conference featured Mass with Archbishop Nienstedt and both a talk and blessing by him along the way, the sacrament of reconciliation throughout the morning with several priests on hand, energizing talks by speaker and author Matthew Kelly as well as WCCO radio personality Dave Lee, and fellowship with one another during the breaks.
There were a number of men who came with their sons. One of them, Kurt Fasen of St. Henry in Monticello, was there with several dads in his parish who brought their boys. Kurt, who has four boys and two girls, came with his 17-year-old son, Joe.
“Joe and I both have read [one of Matthew Kelly’s books] and we’d like to hear him,” said Kurt, shortly before Kelly’s talk. “I’m very pleased that they’re doing this. It’s good to have these types of things.”
First-timer Jacob Simones of St. Nicholas in New Market was particularly interested in hearing both the archbishop and Kelly. He heard about the event from the pastor of his parish, Father James Adams, during a recent homily. He also heard about it at the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute, where he is taking classes.
“Because the archbishop is calling all men, that made me want to come,” Simones said. “That really got me. I love the archbishop. He’s a good man.”
Becoming ‘game changers’
One of the highlights of the conference for many men was the keynote address by Kelly, who was born in Australia and began speaking and writing in his teens before moving to the United States. He has written 12 books and, according to his website, founded the Dynamic Catholic Institute “to research why Catholics engage or disengage and explore what it will take to establish vibrant Catholic communities in the 21st Century.”
Kelly shared a few of those ideas in his talk, while also addressing his core message of helping people to be the best versions of themselves. His major theme at the conference was to help men become “game changers.”
“Our mission is to change the world. . . . We have to get serious about that,” he said. “If we want to change the world, it starts with us.”
He added, “There’s no better group of people to change the world than Catholics. So, we need to get our act together.”
He noted there are 77 million Catholics in the U.S., and only 50 million votes are needed to elect a president. If Catholics were to unite and take action, they alone could determine the outcome of the next presidential election.
But therein lies the problem, he said. Not only are Catholics divided, but they have lost their identity and been made vulnerable to attacks on the church by the culture and the media.
“We’ve lost our story, we’re failing to take our story into the public square,” he said. “I don’t know a game you can win by playing defense. As a church and as Catholics, we’ve been playing defense for too long. Christianity, by nature, is pro-active. We need game changers.”
Kelly offered the men three practical, concrete ways to be game changers:
• Read great Catholic books, at least five pages a day.
• Go to confession regularly (once a month).
• Keep a Mass journal, and ask God every Sunday to show you one thing you can do to be a better version of yourself.
Kelly said it all starts with connecting with God and hearing what he has to say to us.
“The problem isn’t that God stopped speaking, it’s that we stopped listening,” he said. “It’s time to start listening to the voice of God in our lives. . . . The world cannot change unless we change on a fundamental level.
“The Catholic Church is a sleeping giant. I’d like to wake that giant up. I think it’s time, isn’t it?”
Time to ‘rise up’
The men attending the conference seemed wide awake, especially when the archbishop stepped to the podium to deliver his remarks and received a thunderous, standing ovation. He talked about two things — the inspiring Christian witness of NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and the importance of the proposed marriage amendment, which will be on the ballot this fall.
“We need to support the natural institution of marriage,” the archbishop said. “Children are best raised in a home with a mother and a father in a stable relationship. . . . Our motivation is all about promotion and protection.”
He added that this issue is about more than just contacting legislators and signing petitions. “First and foremost, you must be about the task of living your vocation well,” he said, and “promote and defend the great gift of marriage.”
Archbishop Nienstedt ended his talk by signing a verse of the hymn, “Rise Up, O Men of God,” right after adding these final words:
“Rise up, O men of God, your family needs you. Rise up, O men of God, the world needs you. Rise up, O men of God, the church needs you.”