'A vacation for the soul'

For most Catholic families, just getting to Sunday Mass on time and fully dressed is a challenge of the highest spiritual order. In a world where Little League games and science fair projects, high-tech gadgets and long work hours clamor for everyone’s attention, spending any serious time together as a family can be hard enough. Add a faith-focused element to it, and it can become nearly impossible.

With kids and parents running in all directions, it can be tough to sit everyone down for an impromptu catechesis session or even an in-depth conversation about a current event or issue in light of our faith. We may want those things — desperately, even — but finding the resources and the time and the motivation to pull it off can make already overwhelmed parents throw their hands up in frustration.

But what if all you had to do was show up? What if someone else had all the resources and did all the planning? Now it’s sounding a little more reasonable, isn’t it? It might even sound like a mini-vacation.

In places like California, Kansas and Indiana, weekend conferences for Catholic families — and about Catholic families — are drawing people in droves. For many, these conferences become an annual family tradition, planned for months in advance, anticipated by both parents and kids.

Although particular programs and elements vary from one conference to another, they provide certain things across the board: Mass, music and break-out sessions so parents and kids of all ages can learn about things affecting their lives from a Catholic perspective in a safe, age-appropriate and entertaining environment. Adoration, confession, Eucharistic processions are coupled with skits and storytelling, meals and family activities to give parents and children time together and apart in a relaxed and fun setting.

adoration
Children pray at Eucharistic adoration at the Midwest Catholic Family Conference. Courtesy photo

“For many of our families, this is their summer planned vacation,” said Kevin Regan, director of the Midwest Catholic Family Conference held annually in Wichita, Kansas, since 2000. “We’re always the first full weekend of August. Some of these families have been coming many years. They say it’s like a family reunion — meeting new families, getting energized.” This year’s event will be Aug. 1-3 at Century II Convention Center.

“You see these families walking out with a smile. It’s such a peaceful, great experience. It’s not going to the amusement park. This is the real deal,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.

Getting started

The Catholic Family Conference held in Southern California helped spark the movement. Ruben Quezada, director of operations for the event, told OSV that the conference started back in 1989 in St. Cyprian’s Parish in Long Beach. From there it began to grow and move, first to the Long Beach Convention Center, then to Anaheim at the height of its popularity, when 7,000 people would attend, and now to the Ontario Convention Center, with an expected 3,000-plus participants this year for the July 25-26 conference.

“Our goal is to educate Catholics, to teach the Faith and help families apply it to their daily life. That has been the focus, based on St. John Paul II’s vision of the New Evangelization,” Quezada said. “We want to tell people it’s OK to be Catholic, it’s OK to apply it to family life and our daily lives. We must evangelize society, not let society evangelize us.”

The late Barbara and Frank Kelly, founders of the Wichita-based conference, used to travel around to various conferences. After attending the family conference in California, they put together a team of 10 people and started a conference in the Midwest with the blessing of their local bishop.

The Midwest conference draws about 4,000 participants, including more than 1,100 children, ages newborn to teen, from the Wichita diocese, the surrounding region and a total of 14 states. The conference is also open to single people, empty nesters, grandparents and anyone else who would like to attend with or without children. In addition, there is a one-day rate for those who cannot attend the entire weekend.

“We give everybody an opportunity to attend. ... We try to make it affordable for families and individuals. We never turn anybody away,” Regan said.

Knights of Columbus
The Knights of Columbus process into the arena at the Midwest Catholic Family Conference in Wichita, Kan. Courtesy photo

Kelli Conlon, coordinator of the Indiana Holy Family Catholic Conference, held annually in March in Kokomo, stressed that the conference focuses on learning and growing and experiencing the Faith as a family, as outlined by Pope St. John Paul II.

“In his Familiaris Consortio, he talks about the family as the future of the world, how the Church passes through the family. We have to be making sure that our families know the Faith and love the Faith and know what we’re created for and who created us and what is our call in life,” said Conlon, who is also the family life director for St. Patrick Church in Kokomo.

The Holy Family conference, which will be held March 14-15, 2015, was founded by the former pastor of St. Patrick’s and current vicar general of the Lafayette Diocese, Father Ted Dudzinski. In 2005, he had the vision to develop a family conference, explained Conlon.

It took a couple of years to get things rolling, but in 2007, St. Patrick’s teamed up with St. Joan of Arc, the other Catholic parish in Kokomo, and held its first conference. Every year since — even when the theme changes — the heart of the conference reflects one goal: “Building up of the domestic Church in God, family and love,” Conlon said.

“With society and our world pulling us away from what’s good and true and beautiful, our theme was to defend your marriage, your family and your faith,” Conlon. “We can’t just passively drift away into how the world is telling us to live and allow ourselves to be overstimulated and distracted. We want to tell people to come back to what is good and true and ask God, ‘What is your plan for our life?’ His plan is for life to be a gift itself.”

Many hands

“Families are the domestic church where Jesus grows in the love of a married couple, in the lives of their children. This is why the devil attacks the family so much. The devil doesn’t want it and tries to destroy it. The devil tries to make love disappear from there.”

Pope Francis, during a June 1 charismatic renewal gathering in Rome.

Setting up a conference, especially one that draws thousands of people, is no easy task. All the experts stress that one of the most important things — perhaps the first thing — a coordinator must do is get the approval of their local bishop so the event can proceed with the support of its diocese.

“When you have the support of your local bishop that’s a huge blessing,” Quezada said, suggesting that groups start small — at a parish, for example, to cut overhead costs and provide a location. “When you have the support of a parish, a priest, a diocese, that can speak volumes because they can get the word out.”

After that, the rest of the work is coordination, he explained, stressing again the importance of volunteers in pulling off such an endeavor. “Our staff is small. We have hundreds of volunteers and parents. They’re teachers, they’re catechists. Other people just want to be part of it — set up, tear down, unload,” Quezada said.

For those coming from out of town, for example, and trying to juggle conference fees plus hotels and food, the Wichita conference offers volunteer opportunities to help underwrite some of a family’s costs. And, with any conference operating on such a large scale, volunteers are key. Wichita has 300 volunteers who do everything from loading and unloading supplies, to handling registration, to teaching children’s workshops, to baby-sitting infants.

Speakers key

The success of any conference often depends on the strength of its speakers. Conlon says her team begins with prayer. Then they gather feedback, do some research, make a list of potential speakers and put out phone calls.

singing
Children celebrate through song at the Midwest Catholic Family Conference, held annually since 2000. Courtesy photo

“But in the end, it is the Holy Spirit who directs everything,” she said, noting that almost every year something unexpected happens, like a speaker cancels late in the game and somehow it works out even better than originally planned. “We have an idea or a plan, but God steps in and takes over.”

Regan, director of the Midwest Family Conference, said keeping a focus on families is critical.

“Everything that speakers talk about at this conference all boils back down to our inner selves and our family. ... The key is that it’s a family conference. There are a lot of wonderful conferences out there — adult conferences, men’s conferences — the family conference was the key for us,” Regan said.

When choosing speakers and topics, Conlon said her team looks at what’s going on in the world and what the pope is communicating. They choose speakers based on their message, their energy and their example of “love lived in faith.”

Greg and Lisa Popcak, popular Catholic authors, speakers and radio hosts, have been regulars on the Catholic family conference circuit for 15 years. Their topics focus on living a more joyful and grace-filled marriage, what makes Catholic parents and families unique, how to raise moral kids and Catholic sexuality.

“The idea that there really is a different way Catholics think about and are called to live marriage and family life. There is a tendency to think that all Christians think the same sorts of things about marriage and family. That’s just not true,” Greg Popcak told OSV. “We try to empower the faithful to live the Catholic difference not only in their prayer life, but in the way that they interact with each other, organize their priorities, parent and love one another.”

Popcak, author of more than a dozen books including “For Better ... Forever: A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage” (OSV, $14.95), said that the family conferences are not just a getaway but provide “a vacation for the soul.”

“Families often feel recharged by the experience and get the wisdom, insight and grace they need to respond more effectively to God’s call in the coming year,” he explained. “It’s a great opportunity to meet like-minded families, to feel less isolated and alone in living out their faith, to thank God for the blessings of the past year and to discern his call for them in the coming year as well.”

Kidding around

Conlon and other conference coordinators know that the formula must be working because families return year after year, adding new families to the mix through word of mouth.

California
A family checks out the vendors at the Catholic Family Conference in Ontario, Calif. Courtesy photo

“Families look forward to coming. Their kids are asking ‘When do we get to go back?” Conlon said. “I love that they’re excited about learning about their faith and seeing their friends. It’s wonderful to watch.”

Once families get a taste of the experience, they want to return again and again because at these conferences they find something that can be hard to come by in their day-to-day lives in the world.

“These are very active Catholic families. There are lots of children,” Quezada said. “They’re just amazed at how exciting it is, that a family can spend a weekend at a Catholic event. It’s vibrant and inspiring — seeing their kids enjoying stories and music, teenagers getting re-energized about their faith and what their role is in society once they leave high school, while parents are being evangelized on raising Catholic families.”

The Midwest conference has religious sisters teaching 3- to 10-year-olds through interactive classes and exposing them to adoration, confession (if they are of age) and other experiences of Catholic prayer. The middle school and high school curriculums are solidly focused on themes appropriate to children of those ages — chastity, for example, or peer pressure. Those children also participate in liturgy, adoration and confession.

The adults, meanwhile, get sessions focused on issues important to their lives, such as marriage, evangelization, suffering, forgiveness, and more.

“We try to make it fun for the kids. We don’t want to just stick them in rooms and have someone talking,” Regan said.

‘True blessing’

Tyler and Ann Moore and their five children have been attending the Indiana Holy Family Catholic Conference either as participants or volunteers since its inception, and last year stepped up their involvement by teaching the fourth- and fifth-grade breakout session in the Children’s Corner.

“Being parishioners at St. Patrick Church, we not only were excited about the idea of attending a Catholic family conference in our hometown but also felt blessed with the opportunity to help host one. In fact, we were honored to have been asked to emcee the conference in its second year, which proved to be a tremendous blessing in disguise for us as a couple,” Tyler Moore told OSV.

“We had experienced a personal tragedy in our family just a week or so prior to that year’s HFCC, so we weren’t sure if we would be able to fulfill our obligation.

“However, through God’s grace and with the help of the Holy Spirit, that year’s HFCC and our experience as emcee proved to be an incredible weekend of healing that we as a couple — and thus as a family — truly needed and could not have even imagined,” he explained.

Moore said his children have had “wonderful experiences” year after year as well. Even when they enter the conference with some reservations, the kids always leave “with strengthened friendships and faith.”

“Some of the best memories they have from the HFCC weekends has been helping us with Children’s Corner or spending time with Christ in adoration,” Moore said. “It never ceases to amaze us how they continue to get drawn to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament that weekend, because it then carries over to a desire to join mom or dad at our own adoration chapel at St. Patrick or to our First Friday Family Holy Hours. The HFCC weekends have been a true blessing for them, and they probably don’t even realize it.”

Mary DeTurris Poust, author of “Everyday Divine: A Catholic Guide to Active Spirituality” (ALPHA, $14.95), writes from New York.

Upcoming Conferences
Catholic Family Conference
If You Build It …
If you’d like to plan a Catholic family conference in your parish or diocese, don’t be overwhelmed by the size and scope of the larger conferences featured here. Here’s some advice from the experts on how to get started:

Alternative Options
If you can’t find a Catholic family conference close to home, there are plenty of other options. Perhaps you can go on a family retreat.