It was a gorgeous blue sky, sun-splashed Saturday morning, the kind where one might expect that anybody and everybody would be outdoors. What’s not to love on a day off like this? Such a golden opportunity to cherish a beautiful, warm spring day as Wisconsin finally loosens its icy winter grip.

A Eucharistic Procession in downtown Milwaukee is one of the highlights at the Men of Christ Conference. (Catholic Herald Photos by Peter Fenelon.)

But, for some 3,000 Catholic men from all across Wisconsin and more than a dozen other states, Saturday, April 1 offered a very different kind of warmth indoors. It featured a special brand of camaraderie that even Mother Nature couldn’t provide.

This was the 10th annual Men of Christ Conference at the Milwaukee Theatre downtown, and it drew the largest crowd in conference history. Attendees gathered to re-connect with God while enjoying the support of other like-minded men seeking to strengthen their spiritual walk while becoming better family men and citizens in their communities. The theme for the event was “Obedience Amid the Rebellion.” Confessions were heard throughout the day and many took encouragement from the long lines of men waiting to take the sacrament.  There were dynamic, inspirational speakers and an urgent plea for young men to consider the priesthood as a vocation. Archbishop Jerome Listecki celebrated Mass to conclude the day’s activities.

For guys like Bob Freiboth, a member of St. Jerome parish in Oconomowoc, the conference represented a fresh start. It was his third Men of Christ conference. About about five years ago, he says, he felt his spirituality slipping a bit along with his desire to go to church.

“I think this conference is an excellent opportunity to grow in my spirituality and my faith and to also have my friends join me in that journey,” said Freiboth. “I think having the support of other guys is critical. You know there will be times where you struggle and maybe aren’t 100 percent committed. To have a support team like I have with friends to push me along and get me back on track is really important.”

“This is the third conference that I’ve attended and what everyone who attends these conferences has to remember is you don’t come here for eight hours and then forget what you’re hearing at the conference,” said Phil Bail who attends St. Francis Borgia Catholic Church in Cedarburg. “We have to carry the word of the conference out into the society. With the Internet and hundreds of thousands of movies, there is so much diversion out there that it takes you away from your family, your wife. You have to focus on those things that are most important and not be pulled into spending hours on the Internet, trolling from one fake story to another.”

Following a 7 a.m. Mass celebrated by Fr. Rick Heilman, the doors officially opened for the conference itself. Fr. Philip Schumaker, Administrator of St. Augustine of Hippo in Bay View, served as master of ceremonies for the conference’s morning session and welcomed a packed house in the auditorium. He then introduced first of the featured speakers, Jesse Romero, who got things off to a rousing start.

Romero is a high energy, dynamic speaker who possesses a master’s degree in Catholic theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. A Catholic author and radio host, Romero has a reputation for speaking passionately about Catholic evangelization, bible studies, apologetics, marriage/family, spiritual warfare, men’s and teen topics, and culture-war issues.

In a symbolic move that grabbed the audience from the start, Romero unsheathed a sword on the podium and reminded those in the audience that Catholic men today perhaps like never before must be prepared for spiritual warfare in an evil world.

“Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, ‘Jesus Christ did not come into the world to die for us and give us the Holy Spirit to make us nice men,” Romero said. “He came to make us new men, not nice men.’  When we were baptized we became sons of God and when we became confirmed we became soldiers for Christ. When we were confirmed God gave us all; through the laid on hands of the Bishop in confirmation, he gave us a mystical sword. It’s called the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God.”

During an interview shortly before his speech began, Romero clarified a bit further.

“The message I have today is, number one, don’t live in fear,” Romero explained. “We have to live by faith. Number two, I’m trying to show Catholic men that the most important thing they can do with their life is to fall in love with Jesus and to lead their family to heaven. You can only do that if you fall in love with Jesus because now you have meaning and purpose. You’re focused and you’re on a mission when you become the faith leader of your family.

“We live in very evil times. John Paul II called it the ‘culture of death.’ It’s impossible to live your Catholic Christian faith by yourself because none of us lives on an island. We live in a community, in a society, cities and suburbs. As Catholic men, we need to find fellowship with like-minded men as. St. John Bosco says, ‘Show me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.’

“Much like a football team or a biker club,” Romero continued, “men run in packs and that’s good because that’s how they build strength in numbers. But you have to choose the right men and venues, such as the ‘Men of Christ’ conference are where you find good men that want to follow the Lord and have the same goals that you have.”

Finding men who share these goals and then walking the spiritual walk with them as a source of strength and accountability to each other sums up the importance of getting involved in men’s small groups, too. A short time after Romero concluded his talk, the stage was filled with men who made that decision to seek out the support of other like-minded men who desire to improve their character and become better husbands, fathers, neighbors and co-workers.

Gathering and connecting at the Men of Christ conference are these UW-Milwaukee alums (from left) Sam Kasper, Michael Van Dusen, David Boyce, and Brian Fellers. “I went because the men’s conference is always a very powerful experience and it reminds us of who we are called to be as followers of Christ,” said Boyce. “Not to mention they had an all-star line up of speakers this year.”

In 2008, Joe Dentice and several other men at St. Leonard Parish in Muskego realized that their spiritual lives were lacking.  They decided to form a church men’s group that has now grown to more than 60 members.  With many of them on the stage behind him, Dentice shared with the audience that he understands from personal experience what it means to have that void in one’s life and needing the help and support of other men.

“Maybe some of you guys have been there and maybe some of you are there right now,” said Dentice. “God puts people in our lives and slowly, patiently he leads us in the right way. Bringing you to events like this and putting men in place to guard your back gives the devil a much tougher fight on his hands than dealing with you one-on-one. We need brothers at our back. Make no mistake, the Holy Spirit has brought you here for a reason.”

Following a passionate call to vocations by Fr. Luke Strand, Dr. Scott Hahn took the stage as the next featured speaker. Dr. Hahn, who speaks internationally on Scripture and Catholicism, is also the bestselling author of numerous books including The Lamb’s Supper, Reasons to Believe, and Rome Sweet Home (co-authored with his wife, Kimberly). He has been awarded the Fr. Michael Scanlan, Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990, and is the founder and president of the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

Dr. Hahn zeroed in on what it means to be a spiritually alive Catholic man in today’s world.

“So often we have this spiritual image of being a Catholic ‘macho man’ and it’s important to rise to the challenge of obedience amidst the rebellion,” said Hahn. “But, what we really need to do in order to become men of God is to first allow ourselves to be sons of God, to be beloved children of God. We need to allow God the Father to father us and raise us up as prodigal sons transforming not just bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood but transforming sinners into saints. We need the Lord’s help more than we realize, especially today in our culture.”

Hahn also shared a short anecdotal story that drew a loud burst of applause. Recently, Hahn said he had met with Pastor Rick Warren of Saddlebrook Church in Southern California at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Some 20,000 people attended the meeting, including Pope Francis. In fact, Warren was the only Protestant speaker.

Speaking of Warren, Hahn said, “I realized that he was calling us as Catholics to recognize that the new evangelization is precisely the mission for all Christians in today’s secular world.” He then quoted Warren’s observations about the world in which we now live.

“In today’s society,”  Hahn quoted Warren, “materialism is idolized. Immorality is glamorized. Truth is minimized. Sin is normalized. Divorce is rationalized while abortion is legalized. On the Internet, through movies, crime is legitimized, drug use is minimized, comedy is vulgarized while sex is trivialized. The Bible is fictionalized and churches are satirized. God is marginalized while Christians are demonized. The elderly are dehumanized, the sick are euthanized, the poor are victimized, the mentally ill are ostracized and our children are tranquilized. In our families, around the world our manners are uncivilized, our speech has become vulgarized while even faith is secularized and everything is commercialized. Too often, as Christians we find ourselves disorganized, our pastors are demoralized, our faith is compartmentalized and so our witness is compromised.

“What do we need? We need our worship to be revitalized, our differences to be minimized, our members to be mobilized, our marriages to be re-energized and our families to be re-evangelized.”

“And we sat there, mesmerized!” said Hahn as the audience roared its approval.

In closing, Hahn reminded the men who came to this conference that there is strength in numbers and that Catholic men can make a real difference in society.

“God the Father loves us and when he punishes sin it’s because he loves us not because he’s stopped loving us,” said Hahn. “We’ve got to learn from our Lord and to trust him more and ourselves much less than we do. I don’t find it hard to hate sin especially when it’s your sin against me. Oh, I have a holy hatred for that kind of sin. But what our Father is showing me is that I’ve got to learn to hate the sins that I commit, especially the ones that I commit the most and enjoy the most because those are the sins that do the most damage. Those are the sins that can take his life out of my heart. We’ve got to cultivate a holy hatred for the sins that draw us away from God and realize that he loves us more than we love ourselves.”

The Men of Christ conference was a day of new beginnings for some and of renewed commitment for many others. It was a calling for these men to live their faith boldly and to become the spiritual pillar of their families.