WISCONSIN DELLS — If you walked by the entrance of St. Cecilia Parish in Wisconsin Dells on Saturday, Nov. 13, you might have heard it.
It was a sound I’d never heard before that day: The sound of over 500 men praying in unison at the 2021 Men of Christ Conference.
We’ve all heard the sound of a congregation praying together.
But this was different. And there was no preparing for the resulting boom.
While each man might not think much of himself, when we were all there together praying a prayer of consecration to St. Joseph, it was impossible not to be impressed.
It was a dangerous sound. An intimidating sound. The sound of an army.
That chorus of voices represented a theme that ran throughout the conference, which organizers presented as a collective effort by the men of the Diocese of Madison to become “St. Joseph Strong” — a phrase adapted from the famous U.S. Military slogan: “Army Strong.”
Model of St. Joseph
Fr. Donald Calloway, author of the book Consecration to St. Joseph, gave two rousing speeches from the pulpit. He was by no means cruel or belittling. But he wasn’t easygoing either.
Father Calloway spoke plainly about what’s at stake in the world and called on us to be fathers and husbands after the model of St. Joseph. Joseph was the most “ordinary” member of the Holy Family, Calloway explained, but he was also chosen by God to be its Head.
What happens when men don’t take their place as leaders and heads of their households?
It’s not a hypothetical question any longer, Father Calloway said.
After decades of the diminishment of men in society, even the most secular sociologist could tell you the results: Criminality, homelessness, substance abuse, and even suicide all correlate exactly with fatherlessness.
Every speaker at the Men of Christ Conference was plain-spoken about the state of the world today. Almost startlingly so, because they made undeniably true observations and reasserted unquestionably Catholic teachings which today are usually only whispered.
Father Calloway was no exception. He pointed out, for example, that mass shooters are almost invariably fatherless, and products of a public school education that denigrates and discourages traditional conceptions of masculine virtue.
He referred to popular leftist critical theories and social justice movements as “garbage,” characterized by a hatred of the family and of the family and of manhood. He not only spoke of the “crazy times” we live in, but more pointedly referred to our age as an “evil time.” If we don’t mend our ways, he added, “God has His own ‘great reset’” in store for the world.
Speaker Steve Karlen was just as matter-of-fact and spoke of the practicalities of leading a family at this point in history.
He told the men to be on the lookout for the ideological influences in their children’s lives.
“Find out what they’re learning in school,” Karlen said at one point, and if they’re being taught sexually progressive ideas that fly in the face of what we believe, “pull them out of their school. Period.”
Bishop Donald J. Hying of Madison was more elevated in his speech. But by that, I don’t mean to say he was more tame.
Several men told me after the event that they got “chills” during the bishop’s presentation, and I would say his speech was hands-down the high point of the whole event. I won’t relate much of what he said, but when he said “We will not burn one pinch of incense to the gods of our time,” every man in the pews sprang to his feet for a standing ovation, some of them shouting “Amen!”
When Fr. Richard Heilman of St. Mary of Pine Bluff took to the pulpit, he spoke for many of us. “Am I dead?” he asked. “Is this Heaven?” The event was a manifestation of much of what Father Heilman works so hard to bring about in the diocese.
For us attendees, the event was a great gift. For Father Heilman and the Men of Christ organizers, it was “mission accomplished.”
As we arrived, Father Heilman handed out St. Joseph Strong “challenge coins,” beautifully designed by Father Heilman and weighty in the hand.
They’re a perfect token and reminder of the conference and feel as if the accumulated grace from the 160-plus relics the coins were touched to ahead of the event gave them additional heft and texture.
St. Joseph strong
Like the booming sound of the men consecrating themselves to St. Joseph, these coins are also a fitting expression of the Men of Christ Conference theme: St. Joseph Strong.
And like the coins, the men who attended also picked up a certain new gravitas from the graces that flowed there.
I couldn’t tell you all that the speakers said that day. In a way, it would seem inappropriate — like repeating in mixed company what a group of trusted men said to one another at the bar the other night.
But that brings me to a final observation about the conference: I was stunned to find that nearly every Mass-going man I’ve ever met in the diocese was there! The turnout was immense — 515 men altogether.
So if you ask around at your parish, you’re bound to find a man who attended the Men of Christ Conference of 2021. And I feel confident he’ll attest to its value in his own life. How it empowered and inspired him to take his rightful place as a Catholic man in his community.
And when he shows you his challenge coin and invites you to come along next year, please don’t pass him up.
Pledge to come along in 2022.
According to the latest polling, most people are aware that America is not heading in a good direction. The social ills we worried about 20 years ago have only gotten worse, and women and children often suffer the worst as a result.
As a Catholic, you believe in good and evil. With Men of Christ, you can follow through on that belief and enlist, so to speak, in the Heavenly Army.
You may be the most ordinary man in your community. But that doesn’t mean you’re not called, like St. Joseph, to be strong.