By Connie Berry
The Syracuse Diocese hosted the fourth annual IGNITE Catholic Men’s Conference at the SRC Arena at Onondaga Community College on March 31. More than a thousand men attended this year’s event. Vendors filled what is usually a sports complex with everything from statues of St. Marianne Cope to information on signing up to attend Christian Brothers Academy. Men chatted and browsed the tables in between listening to speakers and Mass with the bishop.
Father Joe O’Connor, director of the Office of Vocation Promotion, welcomed the men in the morning acknowledging that the diocese is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.
“The diocese has a history of gathering Catholic men together. In the 1940s there was a gathering of the Holy Name Society that featured a thousand men and that was just for one parish. Can you imagine?” Father O’Connor asked.
Bishop Robert Cunningham celebrated the opening Mass, which included a dozen priests and deacons. More priests arrived later to support the conference and to provide the Sacrament of Reconciliation throughout the day. The bishop told the men in his homily that the Gospel message of centuries ago was sometimes met with opposition, and the same is true today. “The Lord will guard us like a shepherd guards his flock,” the bishop said.
The theme of Bishop Cunningham’s homily was the erosion of religious freedom. He told the men gathered that the issue is not a democrat issue, a republican issue, not an issue for only young or old, poor or middle class, and it is not a women’s health issue. “It is gender neutral,” he said.
Bishop Cunningham said that Catholics have become complacent in recent years, taking liberty and freedom for granted. “The days of Catholic Action have faded,” the bishop said. “We need to resurrect the concept of protecting our first freedom from unjust interference.”
He said the government is trying to define what it means “to be church — any church.” The bishop said the media is portraying the issue of religious liberty as a women’s issue but they fail to mention that the HHS mandate covers abortifacients. “Pregnancy is not a disease that needs prevention,” Bishop Cunningham said. He said the church extends its care to the needy in the community and that Catholic universities, colleges and schools exist so “that we might teach as Jesus did.” The government would like to say Catholic hospitals, agencies and universities are not “really religious institutions.”
“Religion is much more than worship,” Bishop Cunningham said. “It is also moral teaching. Much of what Jesus did would not be considered ‘religious’ by our government. We celebrate the Mass, preach the Gospel but we also reach out to our brothers and sisters. We do not do these things because we are social workers or philanthropists. We do them because we follow Jesus Christ.”
He told those attending, “We need to stand together and prepare for tough times.” Through Catholic commitment to Jesus, the faithful will be asked to stand up and defend their faith, Bishop Cunningham said. In conclusion, he spoke of St. Augustine saying, “the city of man and the city of God are intermingled — we have obligations to both.”
Sister Grace Anne Dillenschneider, OSF, addressed the conference for a few minutes following the Mass, introducing the men to Syracuse’s saint, Mother Marianne Cope. She gave a brief history of Mother Marianne’s life and invited them to visit her portable reliquary which was available for veneration at the conference.
The conference offered three guest presenters, Father Thomas Williams, a Legionaries of Christ priest ordained in 1994, Sean O’Hare, an entrepreneur focused on mergers and acquisitions and major league baseball star catcher Mike Piazza.
Father Williams served as theology consultant to Mel Gibson during the making of “The Passion of the Christ.” He is also known for his television appearances as a Vatican analyst and for the numerous books and articles he has authored.
Father Williams told the audience that faith is often put on the list as something “we have like a wife, family or a job.” He said there is more to faith and that there is Catholic identity and Catholic conscience. “It [faith] is who we are not just what we do,” Father Williams said.
He talked about the “enemy of faith,” explaining that the real enemy of faith is secularism. Father Williams said people tend to believe only what they can see these days, only what is tangible.
“How can we be Catholic if faith is not our life? It changes our world view. We look at things in a different way when we approach them through our faith,” Father Williams said.
He challenged the audience to think of themselves as pilgrims just passing through the world. “We do not belong to this world therefore our hearts do not belong to this world. The older we get the more we realize we’re just passing through.”
Father Williams suggested that Catholics have spent the last 40 years trying to “fit in,” worried they are too “hard core” in an age of ecumenism. He asked them to consider a test: If they were brought into a court room because they were arrested for being Christian, what type of hard evidence would there be?
“Being Catholic makes us who we are. It changes the way we look at everything,” Father Williams said.
He cited the year 1968 as the “year we all became Protestants,” referencing an article he had written previously. That was the year Pope Paul VI published the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed church teaching on contraception. “What happened in 1968? Many Catholics and even priests said, ‘The church got this wrong. I’ll make my own decisions,’” Father Williams said. He said that resisting the church’s authority on contraception has led to resisting church teaching on other matters. “So you disagree with the church on birth control — it could be anything — once you say the church got that wrong the church is no longer teacher. It’s now my brain that decides the truths… If we start saying they got it wrong on one issue, how do we know it’s not wrong on everything? Then everything is up for grabs.”
He urged the attendees to live their faith actively, to be disciples. “Make your faith real and leave an imprint on those around you,” Father Williams said.
Each speaker left a powerful impression. Mike Piazza spoke last and as a 12-time major league baseball all-star, had a rapt audience. He told his own faith story. Piazza said he had strayed from his Catholic faith over the years. He did some soul searching along the way eventually asking himself, “Why am I living this life that everyone expects me to live?” He talked about dating super models but came to the conclusion that “sex without love is gross.” After Piazza was traded to the New York Mets, he became friends with a bishop who told him to reach and search for his faith. Piazza said this led to him wanting to become “a good Christian man.” Piazza spoke about what men are teaching their sons, urging the men to set a good example. One of the reasons why there are so many abortions, Piazza said, is because “men are not acting like men.”