I recently attended the annual Men’s Conference for the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis where I live.  It was a well attended event with well over a 1,000 men and teenage boys showing up to hear various speakers talk on subjects ranging from virtue, conversion, porn addiction, and becoming a better father.  The conference had usually been held at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, but this year it was moved to, appropriately enough, St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, Minnesota’s only all-boys Catholic preparatory school.

The event was part of the Catholic Watchmen movement which was developed by the Archdiocese’s director of evangelization and catechesis, Jeff Cavins, and Matthew James Christoff, the founder of the New Emangelization Project.  Seeking to address Pope Francis’s call for men to be protectors, providers, and leaders of their families, the movement’s aim was to work with pre-existing men’s groups at local parishes to form “vanguards” of 10-12 men to develop ways to get men to be more fully engaged in their faith.  The movement’s name comes from the prophet Ezekiel (22:30), “Thus I have searched among them for someone who would build a wall or stand in the breach before me to keep me from destroying the land, but I found no one.”  This is of course the same passage that Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix used in his now famous “Enter the Breach” apostolic exhortation, which made the same call to men that the Catholic Watchmen movement is carrying down to the local level.

The event began with a mass celebrated by Archbishop Bernard Hebda, with the gospel reading being the account of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple.  During his homily, Archbishop Hebda commented on how we as men must be like the tax collector, humble ourselves before God, and be open to the love that our Father has for us.  We must be willing to not only accept that love, but also model and pass it on to our families.

What follows are active summaries of two of the talks I attended which I cobbled together from some of the notes I took.

Be Merciful as Your Father is Merciful

The keynote address was given by Monsignor Thomas Richter who is the rector-elect of the St. Paul Seminary and School of Divinity.

Because Christ is the “Bridegroom”, i.e. the one who generates and sustains life, he is the ultimate model for all fathers even though some of us do not or may not, like Christ, have kids of our own. All of us are thus called to fatherhood whether physically or spiritually (or both), not for the purpose of building something of our own, but to restore an order that God built and which mankind has deconstructed.

In Genesis we read how God says that it was not good for man to be alone, and so He made Adam a suitable partner not as a kind of add-on but as a complementary person to complete him.  Thus Eve represented someone to whom Adam could give himself fully too and love with his whole being, which according the St. John Paul the Great’s Theology of the Body, is the same thing.  However, as we all know, Adam sinned and the bond which God had made between the two was broken, and they went from being “naked and unashamed” to hiding from one another and God out of fear and shame.  So even though the two of them remained together, they were alone and isolated.

It is this same isolation that now resides in the hearts of so many men today.  We may be surrounded by our loved ones, including our own wives, children, and even close friends but our fallen nature can lead us to be what St. Augustine of Hippo said was the nature of original sin and evil in general, Incurvatus In Se, “Curved in on itself.”  Thus, what we end up doing is expending all of our efforts on ourselves, by indulging in the kind of pity parties that so many men never seem to grow out of.  We end up acting willful and close ourselves off to the graces God has for us to help restore the bonds of love we were all made for.

So what to do?  In the Bible, we see the saga of salvation as an active pulling away from the “curved” and crooked ways of the world, and towards the straight paths back towards God.  One image that comes to mind is the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into a covenant with God, which from that point on in the Bible, Egypt is always referred to as “that place of sin.”  Thus our goal as men and fathers is to relinquish our pride and, like the Prodigal Son, come out of that place of sin and slavery and head back to our own heavenly Father to ask for his forgiveness.  This is not something that is an intellectual exercise, and it is certainly not something that is based on the “Feels”, but which is a solemn act of faith where we humble ourselves before God.  However, we must also avoid being like the son who remained at home with the father, for when we look at the story closely, we can see that not only was he resentful of his wayward brother but also of his father who he felt never gave him anything either.  Nevertheless, the father reassures him, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

Thus whether we are a prodigal or resentful son, our Father loves us immensely and all we need to do is to “come out” of our own place of sin and slavery and “come in” to our Father’s house where we will always be with him and everything he has is ours for the asking.

Reclaiming the Lord’s Day

Dr. Michael Naughton is a professor and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.  His talk was about how one of the more egregious roadblocks to leading a life of holiness in today’s climate, is lack of respect too many of us have for the one day we are supposed to dedicate to the Lord.

In today’s culture, too many of us have become “Sunday neurotics”, whereby we get the whole “day of rest thing” backwards.  We are so exhausted from our work week that we veg out on Saturday during the day and maybe go out at night.  However, what happens then is that by the time we squeeze in mass and lunch on Sunday, we spend the rest of the day frantically trying to get everything done we should have done on Saturday.  In fact, we now have two words or acronyms that encapsulate this mood, YOLO (You Only Live Once) and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), both of which are perfect descriptions of the truncated and harried manner is which so many of us live our lives.  We tend to view the passage of time with a mix of fear and desperation, where we want to relax and savor our time off, but at the same time are anxious about all the things we feel we need to get done.  And yet rather than being more discriminating about how we spend our time, we allow ourselves to become prisoners of the “Havings”, which are all of the various amusements, entertainments, and the general mood of escapism that permeates our modern age.

The solution to this state of affairs can be found in the opening words of St. John Paul the Great’s pontificate, “Be not afraid.”  We must stop worrying about the “havings”, the “doings”, or the “goings-on” and turn our hearts and minds back to our Lord, and to do that we need to radically rethink how we spend our Sundays.

As St. John Paul the Great wrote is his apostolic letter Dies Domini (which we would all do well to read), Sunday cannot be seen as just another day of the week which marks the passage of time. Instead we must look at it as the one day that gives time its ultimate meaning by revealing the power of God’s saving power.  Hence, Sunday should not be seen as an imposition on us, but as a chance for God to reveal more about ourselves to us.  In other words, it is not a day of rest from something, but a day of rest in something.

This is why St. Thomas Aquinas said that Acedia is a mortal sin, which is not, as some mistakenly believe, mere laziness or shiftlessness.  It is spiritual laziness and inactivity where we refuse to allow our souls to rest in God’s love, and we can only do this if we are willing to set aside time to free ourselves of the worries and affairs of the rest of the week.  We must learn to cultivate the habit of stillness not for its own sake, but in order to grow closer to God.  As Josef Pieper wrote in his 1947 book Leisure the Basis of Culture, “Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for non-activity, unless we substitute real leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture- and ourselves.”

Interestingly enough, when Pieper wrote these words, Germany was still trying to put itself back together after the destruction caused by World War 2.  And while talking about leisure might have seen out of place in a country that was in shambles, Pieper saw it as crucial to the country’s regrowth.  It was Pieper’s contention that the reason Germany had gotten into the whole totalitarian mess in the first place, was because it had forgotten how to rest in God.  Instead of building the country up out of gratitude, it did so out of resentment, and in doing so it became so obsessed with building a super-state that it lost track of why they were doing it in the first place. What was the purpose of it all?  To give glory to God or the State?  This is something that we would all do well to keep in mind as our own nation rushed headlong in to a new century, with massive technological innovations on the horizon.

So what are some things we can do to reclaim the Lord’s Day for ourselves and our families?

Prepare for it. Plan it. Protect it. Anticipate its joy.

1. Plan out what you are going to do on Sunday during the week.

2. Plan your meals in advance, something easy to make.

3. Rearrange your schedule so that everyone gets their chores done during the rest of the week.

4. Children should learn the habit and discipline of doing their homework on Friday nights or on Saturday.

5. Prepare for the day spiritually by going to confession or a vesper service on Saturday, so that you are ready to receive the graces of the Lord’s day.

Ritualize it

1. Spend time of Saturday evening to prepare the house to be “set aside” for the Lord’s day, by creating a home altar, or by placing crucifixes, candles, lamps, or icons around the house.  Or even using a special table cloth or runner, with colors that correspond with the liturgical season.

2. Begin the day with a special prayer and light a candle or lamp which can burn all day to symbolize God’s presence and the hope for eternity.

3. Read the day’s gospel and engage with it through Lectio Divina.

4. Consciously and deliberately let go of the past week and trust in God’s care for the upcoming one.

Worship on it

1. When you travel to church, be conscious of how we, along with people all over the world, as well as all the angels and saints, are gathering as one universal family where we are all equal before the Lord.

2. Be attentive at mass and an active participant in it, as well as with your praying, singing, and all your other actions.

Be Intentional with Your Activities

1. Purposely rest your mind and body. Let go of work cares and anxieties, and let the Lord’s day be about your relationship with God, others, and even all of his creation.

2.  Have a tech fast, where you put away any and all devices that do not add to the day, and thus leave more room for stillness and silence during the day.

3.  Spend some time with you family doing activities that build bonds with each other, such as crafts like drawing or painting, reading poetry or the life of some saint, or other inspirational stories.  Try playing board games, or go outside and play. Go for a small hike, have a picnic, light a bonfire, or some other outdoor activity.

4.  Make an effort to invite over or go visit relatives or friends.  Consider visiting elderly neighbors or shut-ins.

5.  When it comes to meal time, we must all learn to dine and not just eat, where we take our time! Consider visiting websites such as Catholic Cuisine or Catholic Cuture to discover new ideas for meals from around the world and ones which are appropriate to the liturgical season.

Bring It to Closure and Carry it Over into Monday

1. Consider having a Sunday journal where the family can record the events of the day and the things that they were grateful for.

2. Recite a special prayer at the end of the day and extinguish any candles or lights.

3. Put away all the decor and items that had been specifically set up for the Lord’s Day and think about how you are going to carry your experiences and insights from Sunday on into Monday and the rest of the week.