A couple of months after my wife and I first began dating, we attended a young adult retreat together. I had gone to other retreats in the past, but admittedly, this was a step outside my comfort zone.
What’s more, it meant giving up a weekend — and not just any weekend — the opening weekend of the NFL playoffs. For a sports fan, the only more difficult sacrifice might be missing the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament.
But those 36 hours or so introduced me to the active young adult community in our area and helped me realize I wanted to become more committed in my faith life. The time we shared praying together at adoration helped me grow in my relationship with God, as well as with my new girlfriend.
During that weekend, I learned about another upcoming event that was also unfamiliar, but caught my attention.
Our diocese was hosting its annual men’s conference, Rekindle the Fire, a few weeks later. I had never attended such an event, but at the encouragement of our director of young adult ministry, I decided to register.
A couple weeks later, I met up early on a Saturday morning with two other guys who had also attended the retreat and we made the hour-and-a-half drive across the diocese to arrive in time for the 9:00 a.m. start.
I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into the huge convention center that morning, but looking back on it today, it was an important moment in my faith life.
Faith in shared community
One of the best aspects of our Catholic faith is the community that we share. There is almost nothing about church that I find more comforting and inspiring than a packed congregation when everyone is singing and sharing in the celebration of Mass. As Bishop Robert Barron, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, noted in a recent talk at the University of Notre Dame, “Friendship is the atmosphere in which religion thrives.”
The Rekindle The Fire men’s conference featured more than 1,200 men, spanning multiple generations, ethnicities, and occupations. The crowd included everyone from the most devout and prayerful barefoot Franciscan brothers to the teenagers who looked like they had been unwillingly dragged out of bed by their father or grandfather.
Not everyone was at the same place in their relationship with God, but we all shared a common faith.
What I learned
Over the course of the day, we heard moving presentations from a number of nationally recognized Catholic lay evangelists. Included among them were Matt Fradd, Marcellino D’Ambrosio, and Jesse Romero. The theme of the conference was “Battle Your Goliath,” and the talks focused on how men can be better husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers in today’s world.
Matt Fradd spoke about chastity, the theology of the body, and the problems with and dangers of pornography — both from religious and non-religious perspectives. His self-deprecating humor and thick Australian accent were a big hit with the audience, as he shared his personal story and exposed myths about an industry that has become far too mainstream in our culture.
Marcellino D’Ambrosio spoke about the importance of “spiritual exercise.” Just as we have to exercise our muscles physically, we have to strengthen our virtues spiritually as we strive to holiness.
He reminded all of us that the family is a domestic church, and we are all called as men to be spiritual leaders and examples for others, whether or not we currently are married or have children. Studies have shown that the likelihood of children attending Mass as adults is far greater when their parents, and fathers in particular, are active in practicing their faith.
Jesse Romero, a former Los Angeles deputy sheriff and World Police Olympics boxing champion, used an analogy explaining there are three types of people — sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Most people are sheep, kind and gentle, but passive. Some are wolves, evil and feeding on the flock. We have to be sheepdogs, protecting others, standing up for the faith, and fighting for what is right.
Each speaker brought a different story and style, but all three resonated deeply with the men gathered and made me contemplate how I could live as a better follower of Christ.
The afternoon culminated with confession and Mass celebrated by our bishop. When I left the conference, never had I felt more called and inspired to live the faith. The speakers were practical and engaging and made me feel rejuvenated and motivated to grow closer to God. The intergenerational roundtable discussions helped me see the perspectives of others walking a similar life path. The conference couldn’t have come at a better time. For the first few years of my young adult life after college, I had felt a bit disconnected and had only been going through the motions in practicing my faith, but this day, I felt God’s presence and a call to something more.
How it helped me grow
Like most of us, I still have a long way to go in my journey to be a true disciple of Christ, but I know that Saturday was a meaningful moment in my spiritual life. Being surrounded by other men, who shared the faith and who have experienced the same triumphs and trials of life, was encouraging and helped me in my effort and desire to grow closer to God.
The men’s conference reminded me that no matter where you are on your journey, it’s worth it to remain open to possibilities that might allow you to grow or experience the faith in a different way — even if they might be a stretch from your normal habits or routine. I had initially been skeptical, not knowing what the day would hold, but it proved to be a beautiful experience and a turning point for me.
Faith is different for everyone — and getting out of your comfort zone can help deepen your relationship with God. Whether it’s a retreat, conference, or pilgrimage, surround yourself with other believers and do not be afraid to try something new. It might be tough to give up a Saturday or a whole weekend, but more than likely, in the end you’ll be glad you did.