At a time when the culture seems to have forgotten what it means to be a man or a woman of God, there is a growing movement within the Catholic Church to offer conferences exclusive to men and women. In the company of their own gender, people are reinforced in their God-given roles and inspired to live that out in their families and in the world.
Eucharistic conferences became popular during the ‘90s, especially building up to the year 2000, the Holy Jubilee year. Since then, there has been a growing trend to hold conferences designed specifically to nurture the roles of men and women. They include speakers, Mass and adoration. The Blessed Mother always has a presence as the perfect model of womanhood, as well as St. Joseph, as the head of the Holy Family and example of godly fatherhood.
Vocation of womanhood
Deacon Tom Fox and his wife, Mary Jane, organize women and men’s conferences in San Antonio, as part of their work with the Pilgrim Center of Hope, which they founded in 1993. They left their respective careers in the travel industry and hotel management to work full-time for the Church.
Mary Jane had assisted with Eucharistic Marian conferences from 1990-2000. “People were getting ready for the Holy Jubilee Year in 2000,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “The conferences were also part of the New Evangelization encouraged by John Paul II.”
When that ended, the idea to begin holding women’s conferences came to Mary Jane after an article about the vocation of holy womanhood inspired her. “I thought, ‘Every woman needs to know what it means to be a woman today,’” she said.
Mary Jane understood the power of conferences to inspire and spread the Faith. With her bishop’s blessing and a committee of volunteers, she began holding the two-day “Come to Me” Catholic Women’s Conference in 2002. It was only the second diocese after Boston to hold a women’s conference, although today, they are held in dioceses across the country.
“The messages of the world are attacking human dignity,” Mary Jane said. “People are tired of it and they want to receive direction.” Last year, 2,800 women attended, and 900 of them went to confession during the conference.
|Testimonials from attendees
“I was so deeply touched and inspired at that first conference that I began volunteering the very next year... In serving our Lord, I have grown ever closer to him, while also cultivating meaningful, forever friendships with so many beautiful, grace-filled women who share my faith.” — Sharon Menezes, San Antonio
“One of the biggest joys was when I discovered to my amazement the dignity to which the Catholic Church regards women. When I attended my first Catholic Women’s Conference in San Antonio in 2011, I found a place where the vocation to womanhood is taught, encouraged and challenged and knew I had found my mission!” — Nan Balfour, San Antonio
“As a young man, I loved attending this conference because I was able to witness and connect with men who I can look to as role models. Seeing them living joyful lives of faith encourages me to pursue what they have: true masculinity.” — Christopher Uhler, Bismarck, N.D.
“It’s vital that Catholic men engage in faith activities with other Catholic men so that we can help each other in fighting the spiritual battle for our souls and the souls of our family.” — Steve Lipp, Minot, N.D.
“The first thing I remember noticing was testosterone. During Mass, especially the singing parts sounded so incredibly different. I think we need conferences like these so that guys can be guys, the way God intended.” — Kevin Keller, Bismarck, N.D.
The goal, Mary Jane said, is to bring women to an encounter with Christ, just as the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John encountered him at the well. “We call the conference our ‘net’ because we get women to come to this ‘spa for the soul’ day that is fun and has great music and presenters where they hear the truth.”
The conferences are a mission, according to Mary Jane, who has written a handbook to help others interested in organizing a conference.
Velma Burnett first attended the San Antonio conference in 2005 and became part of the steering committee thereafter. She said it was exciting to be around so many Catholic women on fire with for faith. She was especially touched by the presentation of the Blessed Mother as our feminine role model. “A lot of times, women feel less than men — that’s what I hear some women saying—but at Catholic women’s conferences, they are encouraged to understand how special they are, not just in the Church but in the world.”
When Velma and her husband moved to Helena, Montana, in 2008, she missed being a part of the women’s conference. The remedy was to bring one to Helena. After receiving her bishop’s blessing, the first Western Montana Conference for Catholic Women was held last spring. There were 350 registrations, and 150 more had to be turned away, even after the website announced they were full. This year, the event will be at the Helena Civic Center, and they are planning for 1,000.
Men reach their potential
Four years after seeing the fruit from the women’s conferences, Tom Fox decided to do the same thing for men and began the Catholic Men’s Conference in San Antonio. It always starts on Friday night with adoration, confession and healing of memories through guided meditations.
On Saturday, there is Mass and speakers who address being a faithful Catholic man. “A lot of things that our culture accepts can be an obstacle to a relationship with God,” Tom said. “If we are not able to reach our potential in a loving relationship with God, we won’t be able to do that in our family either.” He explained that a lot of macho behaviors widely accepted among men harm families and the culture, including ways of escaping through such things as too much time on video games or work.
“If God is our primary love, it helps to sort through the obstacles,” he said. There is a powerful dynamic at work through the conference, when men pray and sing together in the presence of God, according to Tom. “Many men come to understand that they need to be the spiritual leaders of their family,” he said. “There’s even been physical healings through praying together and healed marriages.”
Last year, 1,000 men attended. Tom said he hopes for around 3,000 this year.
In Bismarck, North Dakota, the diocese uses a three-year cycle for its Thirst Conferences. One year it is a three-day event for everyone of all ages, followed by a one-day men’s event and then one for women the next year.
“It occurred to me that men and women need that kind of ongoing faith formation of the practical, day-to-day understanding of what it means to be a Catholic man and woman,” Bishop David D. Kagan said.
For the main Thirst Conference in 2013, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan and many notable speakers drew around 7,000. In 2016, there were 5,000 attendees.
Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.