St. Dominic hosts second men’s conference

Those attending learn about true friendship, go to confession, and attend Mass with Bishop Stika   

By Dan McWilliams

For the 100 men who attended the second annual Catholic Men’s Conference at St. Dominic Church in Kingsport on March 11, the event offered them a chance to make new friends, participate in adoration and a rosary, experience the sacrament of reconciliation, and attend Mass with Bishop Richard F. Stika.

Gerald Stults of St. Mary Parish in Johnson City receives the zucchetto from Bishop Richard F. Stika after Mass at the Catholic Men’s Conference at St. Dominic Church in Kingsport.

The event’s theme was “building true friendship” and featured morning and afternoon talks by Jonathan Cardinal and Ben O’Neill. Gift bags at each table in the parish life center conference room included a printed program that offered the men a “how-to” guide to confession, a pamphlet with an examination of conscience, and a copy of the book Making Missionary Disciples: How to Live the Method Modeled by the Master by Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) founder Curtis Martin.

Both Mr. Cardinal and Mr. O’Neill have connections to FOCUS. Mr. Cardinal is a regional director of the organization living in Littleton, Colo., and Mr. O’Neill helped launch FOCUS at two universities in Alabama and served as a FOCUS team director at Cal State-Fullerton and as a regional director over all FOCUS programs in California. He is now with the Napa Institute.

Mr. Cardinal’s morning talk focused on the true-friendship theme.

“Part of the whole point of this morning was to say, OK, if I want to be a true friend, who is the first true friend to us, and that’s Jesus Christ,” said Mr. Cardinal, whose wife Kathleen’s home parish is St. Dominic.

“If we want true friendship, it needs to be founded on the truth, and Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. This morning was really just focused on being able to say, God, I realize that I’m yours, and that you invite me to trust in You more. The thought was, if we don’t know whose and who we are, then we’re not going to actually be able to give ourselves away in friendship. This reality of whose we are is that we are made sons of the Father because of the friendship that Jesus Christ gives us. Being able to walk through that, once we know whose we are, we can actually live in the reality of who we are, that we are created as sons and daughters of God, that through that sonship we can actually invite other people to experience that as well,” Mr. Cardinal continued.

The Catholic Men’s Conference planning committee members are (from left, front row) Jose Velasco, Jarred Hammonds, and Kevin Musser and (back row) Kelly Cliffords, Tom O’Neill, Kevin Roth, Chuck Murrell, Mark Pendley, and Paul Vachon. Not pictured are Deacon Humberto Collazo and Kelly Barnette. Mr. Vachon emceed the event.

“Part of when you’re friends with somebody, you start in some ways to become like the other,” he added. “The only way to actually be a true friend is if I first allow Jesus to form Himself in me, if I allow Jesus to invite me into me looking like Him and being like Him and acting like Him, and I’m forming those habits of a disciple, then I can therefore be a true friend to someone else—when I give myself to someone, I’m actually giving Jesus.”

Mr. Cardinal has been with FOCUS for four years.

“It’s something that I think has been not only extremely transformative in me and my family being able to do mission, but it’s actually transformed my own life. I’ve been married for about 10 years, and part of our response to ‘why FOCUS’ and ‘why joining’ is recognizing that me and my wife and my family are called to be a gift of ourselves to others. We really sell the opportunity of being in FOCUS and working with college students, and bringing the Gospel, especially to men and women who often come from broken homes and families and a lot of woundedness, to be able to speak truth in their lives, to be an example and witnesses, even though we’re not a perfect family, has been absolutely incredible, to be able to be on mission and to encounter and share the Gospel with them.”

Mr. O’Neill gave two talks, on virtuous friendship and on the call to be apostles.

“The presentation I gave focused on understanding our call as disciples to live out true friendship by intentionally investing in our community, particularly our parish, and one of the greatest ways to do that is to teach someone how to pray by praying with them,” he said.

Mr. O’Neill conducted two discussions with young people Kelly Cliffords and Christian Schmidt as part of his talks.

St. Dominic pastor Father Michael Cummins said “we are privileged to host” the men’s conference. He credited parishioner Kevin Musser, who helped plan men’s conferences at his former parish in Ohio, for starting the event at the Kingsport parish.

“When he came down here, he approached me I guess a couple of years ago now, saying this is a great experience for men to gather together just for a day to grow in faith, to share faith, and we decided this would be a wonderful thing for us to host,” Father Cummins said. “Even though it’s here at St. Dominic’s, it’s an invitation to men throughout our area. I think today we have men certainly from St. Dominic’s but also from St. Mary’s [in Johnson City], men from up in Virginia, men from St. Henry’s in Rogersville, and I think there are some men also from St. Michael’s in Erwin, and also some students from the Catholic Center at ETSU. It’s open to men, and also there are some high school students here—their fathers have brought their sons. That’s a wonderful experience, to see the father and son sharing faith.”

Jonathan Cardinal (seated, center) and Ben O’Neill (standing) gave talks during the Catholic Men’s Conference at St. Dominic.

Father Cummins said he was “very pleased” that the attendance swelled from about 70 to 80 men at last year’s conference to triple digits this year.

“The hope was to grow from last year, and I think we’ve reached that goal,” he said.

The St. Dominic pastor talked about the takeaway for each man attending the conference.

“Really the hope of this gathering is that they’re strengthened in their faith, and then they take that back to their parish, they take that back to their families, they take that back to their communities, and they’re better equipped to serve and to live their witness as Christian men in our world,” he said.

Father Cummins talked about the importance of adoration and the rosary at the event, as well as the time for confessions during the morning portion of the schedule.

“We had five priests who were here to hear confessions, and I believe we were all busy all the way through,” he said. “For the men to have that opportunity to encounter our Lord in the sacrament of confession and to receive His healing grace is a wonderful thing.”

Event planner Mr. Musser, also the deputy Grand Knight of St. Dominic’s Aldo J. Zazzi Council 6992 of the Knights of Columbus, oversaw 10 men’s conferences at his Ohio parish before moving south.

“We started one, the first year we had 35 attendees. Now it’s in its 13th year, and they’re closing in on about 300 men each year,” he said.

The decision to bring the conference to St. Dominic was an easy one, Mr. Musser said.

“I’ve known for many years that men are really hungry for the Gospel,” he said “They’re really hungry to fellowship together. They’re really hungry to say it’s great to pray and do things together like that. Being spiritual is normal.”

He agreed with Father Cummins about the importance of adoration, the rosary, and confession at the conference.

“Without the sacraments, what would we have?” he said.

Mr. Musser said he hopes to expand the conference at St. Dominic’s to a conference-room-filling capacity of 230 men.

“The other phase of this is we’re trying to get men to be spiritual leaders in their families and to engage in the Church, to make the Church grow,” he said. “By providing, if you will, the launch pad of the sacraments and encouragement and sitting with other men, that’s going to happen. That’s just a fruit of the whole experience.”

Mike Miller of St. Dominic attended the conference and called the experience “very profound.”

“I try to be active in my faith, but I think this has just really brought me together with a lot of other men and helped to share my faith with them,” he said. “Even the discussions around the table after these great talks we’ve already had I think has been very inspiring to me and I think also to them. It’s been good.”

Mr. Miller said he hopes the event leads him “to add even more to my prayer life.”

“That’s been brought out, and it’s made it even more aware to me what we’ve heard today and even in discussions with the other men here, about how important a consistent and good prayer life is,” he said.

Deacon Frank Fischer of St. Dominic also took part in the conference.

“I think this is great. It has good practical recommendations for spreading the faith and for growing spiritually,” he said.

He said the event will help him as a deacon.

“I think it’ll sharpen how I reach out to others,” he said.

Tom Kain of St. Dominic said the men’s conference dovetails with the parish’s That Man Is You ministry.

“It’s been a really good pickup on what we already do with That Man Is You in the parish,” he said. “A lot of the guys here have been through That Man Is You or are current members. It’s across the country. We’ve had a group here for about 10 years.”

Mr. Kain said he “liked the part” of the conference “about friendship and sharpening iron.”

“It’s one of the things we always say in That Man Is You. It’s always good to have somebody to be accountable to who’s going to say, ‘Hey, how’s your prayer life?’ It’s going to be very beneficial to furthering my faith life,” he said.

Bishop Stika celebrated the Mass at the end of the conference with Father Cummins and St. Dominic associate pastor Father Emmanuel Massawe, AJ. Deacon Fischer assisted.

“It’s a great joy for me to be here with you,” the bishop said in his opening greeting. “You’ve spent the whole day learning about your faith and your relationship with God and your relationship with the Church. What a great way to finish that off today with a celebration of the Eucharist.”

Bishop Stika began his homily by referring to the 2016 movie “Hacksaw Ridge,” which profiled World War II Army medic Desmond T. Doss, who received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his life-saving efforts despite refusing to use a firearm because of his religious beliefs. The movie also was discussed by the men attending the conference during the talks before Mass.

Mr. Doss constantly carried a Bible and was known for saying, ‘Please, Lord, help me get one more,’ the bishop recalled. Bishop Stika said Mr. Doss could be compared with Pope Benedict XVI in the respect that the late Holy Father’s last words, “Jesus, I love you,” reflected Mr. Doss’ outlook.

“We are all witnesses of Jesus Christ, aren’t we? That’s who we are. That’s what makes us different from non-Christian entities,” the bishop said. “But what makes us different from our Protestant brothers and sisters?” He pointed behind him: “This, the altar, the Eucharist, Jesus coming to us. The reason we genuflect when we enter a church with the Blessed Sacrament is to say, ‘Jesus, I love you.’ When we receive the Eucharist, we put out our hand or our tongue, and we say, ‘Amen, I believe.’ It’s another way of saying, ‘Jesus, I love you.’”

Bishop Stika said, “We receive strength from the Scriptures, the lessons of the Old Testament and the New Testament. We are given the Word of God, not His words on paper but words that enter our heart, so that we truly can say, ‘Jesus, I love you. Help me to witness to our faith.’ I think that’s what has been given to you today.”

The bishop said the men in the pews may deal with people who are angry with the Church or even “angry just to be alive.” There’s one statement the men can make to such people that is not just idle chatter, he added.

“The one word that you can say to them or a series of words or sentences is just stopping to say, ‘Hey, my friend, I will pray for you,’ and then you remember that contract you made with them,” Bishop Stika said. “When you say to another person, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ it’s not like saying good morning or good evening or how are you doing. When somebody asks you to pray for them, that’s a contract. You might go through the whole day, and you might forget who they are. You know what I do? At the end of the day, when I do my holy hour, when I finish, I say, ‘For all the people who I promised to pray for. I might forget their names, but Lord, I know you know who they are, and I pray for them.’ That simple prayer, that simple conversation, that simple moment when you think, ‘It was just a moment when I interacted with that person.’ But it could make such a profound difference in the life of another person, to witness to Jesus. To be like Benedict: ‘Jesus, I love you.’”

The bishop shared two answers to prayer that he witnessed, including an answer in the life of a couple he met during his St. Louis days who seemingly thought they could not have children. After praying to St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers, the couple went on to have 11 children. After becoming the Diocese of Knoxville’s shepherd, Bishop Stika met a couple at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus who were experiencing the same issue, including having miscarriages. The bishop asked them to pray to the same saint.

“Pray to St. Gerard, and then abandon yourself to the Lord because the Lord listens,” the bishop recalled telling the couple.

He met the husband and wife a few years later at the cathedral, and they had a baby in their arms.

“They asked for a blessing for their son, Gerard Richard,” Bishop Stika said. “I wasn’t a part of that miracle. They just abandoned themselves to God and trusted Him. So, when you’re tired and worn down, when God Himself is asking you to do ‘just one more,’ pray the prayer of Benedict, ‘Jesus, I love you,’ and then follow the words of Mother Teresa, ‘Every day, do something beautiful for God.’”

The bishop said that “I hope this day has been good for you. I hope maybe it’s bonded you with friendships with people who maybe you didn’t know. Father Michael and other men, the deacons need you, this parish needs you—to be men.”

Bishop Stika concluded his homily by telling of his devotion to St. Joseph.

“Of all the people in the history of the world, it was Joseph who was chosen to love the Blessed Mother and to teach Jesus how to be a man, to be a carpenter,” he said. “Make that be your motto: pray to St. Joseph in those moments when it is difficult, whether you’re a father or a brother, young or old. Pray to St. Joseph. May your prayer be ‘just one more,’ and sum it up with ‘Jesus, I love you.’”

The bishop also spoke at the end of Mass.

“I always take this opportunity when I travel to parishes, whether it’s a confirmation, a Sunday liturgy, or something like this, just to say thank you for all you do for the Church,” he said. “For all you do for your parish, and in fact what you do for God. Even being here today, whatever brought you here, it’s an invitation from God to enrich your spiritual life and to touch your families in a positive way and your friendships.”

Bishop Stika also gave thanks for the successful Bishop’s Appeal in 2022 as well as for Deacon Joseph Austin of St. Dominic, a diocesan seminarian who will be ordained to the priesthood in June.

Also, at the end of Mass, Bishop Stika engaged with teens and young men in the front pews about vocations to the priesthood. The conversation between the bishop and the young people continued in front of the altar steps after Mass.

One of the young men in the talk with the bishop, Gerald Stults of St. Mary Parish in Johnson City, said he actually is discerning a call to the priesthood. He enjoyed the opportunity to interact with Bishop Stika.

“I thought it was very cool how he took an interest in all of us as individuals and asked us all about what we were planning to do in our futures, what our vocations were. I thought it was a really great experience,” he said.

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