By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
They follow him as he walks down the road. Turning, he sees Andrew and John. They ask the rabbi where he’s staying.
“Come and see,” Jesus says.
The time the two men spend with Jesus is so powerful, so transformative, it sends Andrew running to find his brother Simon. Come, he says, pulling Simon along. We found the Messiah.
“There is something about that man, so fired up by his encounter with Christ, who goes to his brother and says, ‘Come meet Christ. It has changed my life forever,’” said Father Joe O’Connor, recounting the first disciples’ encounter with Jesus in the Gospel of John. “That brother-to-brother invitation to a deeper faith is what we’re trying to create at IGNITE.”
The fourth annual IGNITE Catholic Men’s Conference will be held Mar. 31, delivering compelling speakers — baseball great Mike Piazza, entrepreneur Sean O’Hare and author and professor Father Thomas Williams, LC — opportunities for worship, and fellowship with men on a shared mission to grow in their Catholic faith.
“IGNITE is designed to bring together men who want to dive deeper into their faith and as a result strengthen their families and participate more in their churches,” said Ed Kirk, chairman of the planning committee. “This conference aims to motivate and ignite them to do that.”
The spark that lead to IGNITE was lit in 2008 following a mission at Holy Family Church in Syracuse led by Father Larry Richards, a well-known speaker and priest from the Diocese of Erie, Pa.
“The mission really spoke to men and had a great impact on them,” said Father Richard Prior, pastor of Holy Family. “I wanted to find a way to replicate the experience more widely in the diocese.”
Father Prior got Father O’Connor on board with the idea, followed by Kirk and several others; a planning committee was formed. The committee members, who brought talent and expertise in areas from business planning and marketing to graphic design and sales, reached out to other groups that had already put on successful conferences, collecting best practices and cautionary tales.
“The goal was to launch an event that was professional in its look, its preparation, its execution from the get-go,” said Kirk. The committee honed its vision for the event, ultimately creating and executing a plan for the first conference in 2009.
They secured “some top-notch speakers” that year, including National Football League player Danny Abramowicz and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, and “got great feedback” from the nearly 1,000 inaugural attendees, Kirk said. An annual event was born.
Organizers hope this year’s conference headliner, former Mets catcher Piazza, will help them break that attendance record.
“Mike Piazza has been on our wish list for a long time and we are very excited to have him now,” Kirk said.
Piazza, O’Hare and Father Williams will each speak about how his faith motivates and animates him in his professional and personal life. Providing strong male Catholic role models like these is a key piece of the conference, said Kirk.
Worship and the sacraments are another key, and will be at the core of the conference. The day will open with Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert Cunningham and close with adoration and benediction. There will also be priests available to hear confessions.
“At least half [of the attendees] go to confession at the conference,” Kirk said. “Seeing fellow attendees going is powerful and spurs the men on.” Kirk also said the experience of the sacraments and worship at IGNITE has led many men to become better in their prayer lives and more consistent in confession, and several have started men’s prayer groups in their home parishes.
Providing and supporting that connection between Catholic men is the conference’s defining factor.
Dr. Jack Hsu, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception in Fayetteville, recalled walking into IGNITE for the first time in 2010.
“Just to see 1,000 men, from all walks of life, all in a room together, with a passion for God, was incredibly encouraging and invigorating. You see you’re not alone,” he said.
Dr. Hsu credits the conference with helping him to grow as a Catholic at home and at work.
“In the last few years, I’ve experienced a deepening of my faith and I feel the conference had a fairly sizable role in that. The impact is tremendous. It has reinforced how to, in my daily life, wear my faith more on my sleeve,” he said — a challenge after years of college and medical school where “there was a real absence of any sort of talk of faith in any scientific course or class, a complete separation of faith and work.”
Tom Gilhooly, the creative force behind IGNITE’s graphic identity and a regular conference attendee, also said the conference has helped him enhance his spiritual life.
“IGNITE is an opportunity for me and the other men to refocus on our faith, and to use that to be a better father, a better husband, a better Catholic,” he said. “This conference is helping men fulfill their Christian lives.”
The fourth annual IGNITE Catholic Men’s Conference will be held Saturday, Mar. 31 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the SRC Arena at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse. Tickets are $45 before Mar. 5, $55 after Mar. 5 and $65 at the door. To register and learn more, visit www.ignitecatholicmen.org.