Closer to heaven

There was a moment during the recent Napa Institute conference where I found myself looking around and thinking the exact opposite of what everyday news headlines suggest: We were not too far away from heaven.

The Napa Institute was formed to renew and equip Catholic leaders, preparing them to face the challenges of a growing secularized American culture. It hosts events across the country, namely the annual conference, which celebrated its eighth year in July.

I think I was first invited to speak at the third conference and have been attending on and off as a moderator or participant of some kind in years since. And every year what impresses me is not only the time set aside for prayer — and the people who pack in the Masses and Eucharistic adoration hours — but the conversations that seem to overflow from that time spent in prayer and reflection.

This year there were a few moments in particular. First of all, marriage was celebrated throughout the conference. Scott Hahn and the Augustine Institute’s Tim Gray gave scheduled talks about the topic, and co-founder Tim Busch and his wife, Steph, were crucial to the whole enterprise — this year with grandchildren on full display. Executive Director John Meyer of the Napa Institute and his wife, Kristin, were essential to the success of the operation and its evangelical spirit. This year, Curtis and Michaelann Martin of Fellowship of Catholic University Students, Bill Mumma of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and his wife, Kathy, and President Steve Minnis from Benedictine College and his wife, Amy, were all couples I ran into, including in the chapel.

And then, of course, there were the priests married to the Church, some of whom pour themselves out during the conference — hearing confessions and doing spiritual direction, like Opus Dei’s Father Luke Mata, or Dominican Father James Moore, who directed music for the many Masses (he was one of many Dominicans present). There’s also the legally blind Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, who emcees the event, memorizing biographical facts for everyone he introduces. This year there were Carmelites and Sisters of Life on hand, to name a few of the religious sisters. And I’m only beginning to list beloved names here.

And I can’t forget the tribute to James Joseph Hanson. J.J. was an Iraq war vet who was diagnosed with brain cancer at the same time Brittany Maynard was being celebrated for moving to Oregon to avail herself of legal physician-assisted suicide there. It was hard to keep from crying while watching the video the Patients’ Rights Action Fund debuted of clips taken during some of J.J.’s last days of life. J.J. and his wife, Kristen, who was at the conference, believed God had a purpose in their pain and were convicted about being hopeful and showing a better way to live and die with such a diagnosis. A few-months diagnosis became a few years, and Kristen now has a 1-year-old child who is living testimony to their witness of faith.

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As I looked around at so many people who are friends or collaborators or readers, I was overwhelmed with the knowledge that there are so many people who truly love our Lord and want to grow in his love. We can’t all be in Napa for a few days, but we look around and enjoy God’s creation, and we can see and surround ourselves with people trying, trusting, loving — people who want to see you in heaven, too, one day, hoping you’ll help them along as much as they desire you there.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review and co-author of “How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice” (OSV, $17.95).