In many ways, in most places, things are starting to get “back to normal”. While the threat of further shutdowns and restrictions hangs over our heads like the Sword of Damocles, when the opportunity arises to do something the way it was done before, many people jump at the opportunity. People are traveling again, they are getting on airplanes, going to restaurants, going to the movies, having parties. And some of us are attending conferences. Recently, for example, I was at the St. John Bosco Conference for Evangelization and Catechesis, held at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
For attendees at such conferences, why is it one of the activities/events that they are in a hurry to return to? Hundreds of people travelled from all over the country (and even from as far as Nigeria) to gather in Steubenville, Ohio, to discuss how best to teach the Catholic faith. The event, ultimately, was about the salvation of souls, which should be the primary concern for any catechist—or, indeed, any Catholic, any Christian.
Catechetical conferences are helpful tools for catechists, directors of religious education, and other faith formation leaders in the Church. They provide opportunities for catechetical leaders and religious education instructors to come together in order to improve the way catechesis is conducted. There are lectures given by experts in the field of catechetics, as well as breakout sessions in which attendees can share their own ideas and observations regarding best practices for the vital craft of catechesis.
Many dioceses hold their own conferences each year, and in some regions many dioceses collaborate on a larger conference (such as the Gulf Coast Faith Formation Conference). There are also some larger, national conferences that draw attendees and vendors from all around the country (and even internationally), most famously the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress.
Last summer, when the Steubenville Conferences had to be cancelled, they held a one-night livestreamed event called Night of Hope that featured worship music, adoration, a keynote address by Scott Hahn, and more, which drew tens of thousands of viewers from all over the world. But this was a compromise due to the circumstances.
“The virtual experience cannot adequately replace the dynamic in-person gathering, no more than it could for Mass,” said Mark Joseph, Vice President of Outreach & Evangelization at Franciscan University. While livestreaming can be a useful tool for those who are not able to attend in person, “the optimal experience is still being able to come together in person as people of faith. Mission is interpersonal, not virtual,” he said.
This has been the experience of conference attendees and organizers around the country. With restrictions and lockdowns forcing the cancellation—or, at least, the virtualizing—of conferences, they recognize what an imperfect imitation that was, and are eager to get back into the swing of in-person conferences in the coming months.
“Gathering physically with others is an important ingredient in the formation of leaders,” said Ken Ogorek, Director of Catechesis for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The St. John Bosco Conference was a great way to return to in-person gatherings, because it “is the best catechetical conference in North America,” he said. “Gatherings like this conference provide opportunities for more effective interaction, spontaneous conversations and—of course—celebrating the sacraments.”
While the St. John Bosco Conference, along with all the other Steubenville summer conferences, was cancelled in 2020, this summer they have been able to proceed. However, because capacity restrictions were not lifted until the spring, right before the conferences were to be held, attendance has been lower than normal. Across the board, attendance was about 50% of normal. Certain changes were made to the structure of the conference to allow for appropriate distancing, but “everyone was upbeat and understanding of the temporary changes, and really happy to be back together in person,” said Colleen Rainone, Director of Sales, Engagement, and Publications for the Office of Outreach and Evangelization at the university.
There is so much about the fabric of conferences like this that simply cannot be adequately recreated or experienced in a virtual setting, says Dr. William Keimig, Assistant Director of the Catechetical Institute at Franciscan University. “People need not just the teachings and professional development alone but the whole context of a conference—liturgies, confession, celebratory and consoling praise and worship and adoration time—all working together to create more the feel of a retreat than a training event,” he said.
That feeling of a retreat experience is important to the St. John Bosco Conference organizers, and aspects of that are present at many other catechetical conferences. Daily Mass, opportunities for the sacrament of reconciliation, adoration, and more, have become staples of the experience of many conference attendees. And this goes a long way in explaining why it is so necessary to return to in-person gatherings. This is about so much more than attending talks, and buying books from vendors. It is about engaging with catechesis intentionally and corporately. That corporate—the unified and in-person reality—and social element makes a huge difference.
“The social quality of the four days is increasingly an intentional mission of the conference, particularly for leadership, but also for those in any ministry role who want to be in a place where they can relax among like-hearted individuals,” Dr. Keimig said. This is true not just for catechists and directors of religious education at parishes, but increasingly so for bishops, diocesan officials, and international attendees, as well, who see conferences such as this as a point of connection and building of relationships.
“As Catholics, we are people of the Real Presence and being present in community is the way we experience and encounter not only God but also one another,” said José Amaya, Director of Faith Formation for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. Because of the nature of his global archdiocese, Amaya often has to rely on virtual meetings and digital connectivity. Even still, whenever there is an opportunity to meet in person with those in the archdiocese, he takes advantage of it. But there is a different kind of presence that cannot be achieved virtually, and the St. John Bosco Conference was an opportunity to get back to that.
“Like all participants, I was hungry to wholly embrace colleagues, share a meal together, hear each other laugh and dialogue, and network not only with other participants but also with the presenters,” he said.
“We encounter the joy of one another in-person and accompany each other during the Conference and beyond,” he added. “The difference is the ‘Real Presence.’”
“It’s important for lay ecclesial ministers—and clergy—to connect with peers and counterparts regularly for support and mutual enrichment (learning, prayer, fellowship, etc.),” Ogorek said. “Along with virtual experiences, gatherings like conferences, in-services, and workshops feed us as human persons in ways that bear good fruit in our service to God’s people.”
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