STEUBENVILLE, OH — "The fruit we are to bear is other disciples arising around us," Sherry Weddell told more than 300 directors of religious education, catechists, youth ministers, and other religious instructors, who came to Franciscan University of Steubenville July 14-17 for the St. John Bosco Conference.
The conference is "for those engaged in the work of making disciples—in parishes, schools, on the streets—to gather for renewal, prayer, fellowship, and formation," said Ron Bolster, the director of Catechetics at Franciscan University.
The speakers centered their talks around the themes of stirring up an active relationship with Jesus, of Pope Francis' encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, and of putting Jesus' sacrifice at the center of evangelization.
"We, as Catholics, can talk around Jesus. We use 'God,' 'the Lord.' I don't know why we're so uncomfortable with the name Jesus," said Bob Rice, Franciscan University professor of catechetics, in his talk, "Proclaiming Christ Crucified." "We should be going in with a victor's mentality, because Jesus Christ has won the battle, and we just get to proclaim that."
His words would be expanded upon by Weddell, whose topic proved quite popular with the participants. She called on them to temporarily set aside the facts and curriculums they were familiar with to ask an often-forgotten question—What is your lived relationship with Jesus?
"The Church distinguishes between the virtue of faith, the capacity given at baptism, and actual faith, the personal yes to a personal Lord. Our children and teens have received the first. How many have acted on or even know about the second?"
Weddell is co-founder of the Catherine of Siena Institute and the author of Forming Intentional Disciples (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012). She described her discovery that many Catholics—even those in positions of leadership in their parish—do not even consider the possibility of a personal relationship with God, and some parishes balk at talking about it, even considering it a Protestant notion.
"We're not jettisoning tradition," she said in an interview. "We're going back to the riches of the tradition that calls us to this. Catholics were the great evangelizers for the first 18 centuries of the Church's life. We have a rich evangelical heritage that we don't know about. In fact, Protestant evangelicals are studying our history for their work."
She said the positive response she received at the conference shows the change in the American Catholic Church's way of thinking about faith formation. "We're aware that something has to change at a fundamental level to respond to this very new cultural climate."
In her general session talk, "God Has No Grandchildren," Weddell said, "We have a shortage of discerners, not a shortage of vocations. If you evangelize, everything changes. And it has huge implications in stewardship, Mass attendance, creativity, vocations. It is that encounter that sets a fire and changes peoples' priorities and makes them hungry."
Her language of "thresholds," "bridges," "seekers," and "disciples" reappeared in the talks of other speakers, including André Regnier, co-founder of Catholic Christian Outreach. He spoke on Pope Francis' call to focus the Church on missionary discipleship in his talk "The Evangelii Gaudium Paradigm."
"Two years ago we could not imagine what we are witnessing today, a world that is captured by the vicar of Christ," he said. "We need to rejoice when those wanderers come back. Jesus referred to joy the most in the parables of the lost sheep, the coin, the Prodigal Son. If we want to be missionary disciples, we need to recognize when someone becomes a disciple and celebrate that, then help them grow and mature."
Regnier ended by inviting the participants to call upon the Holy Spirit to help them usher in the new evangelization. The prayer was led by Rice's band, which held Praise and Worship every night.
The example of Pope Francis was examined by returning Bosco Conference speaker Dr. Petroc Willey of the Centre for the New Evangelization at the School of the Annunciation in England. His workshop, "Introducing Evangelii Gaudium" showed how Pope Francis' work built from the Second Vatican Council and the work of prior popes, including St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
"Pope Francis has made an impact in unusual places and outside of the Church," Willey said. "Because of that there is a tendency to see him almost in isolation. One of the things we must do is place him in tradition. What is he saying that is reinforcing what has gone before, and what is he saying that is distinctive, his new contribution?"
Willey gave the final general session, "Families: Centers for the New Evangelization," where he explained why religious educators should place an emphasis on strengthening the family.
"Every single one of the definitions of the family—one man and one woman, for life, faithfully, open to procreation—is being challenged as never before," he said. The root of the word evangelization—good news—was used in the Greco-Roman world to refer to the birth of the next emperor or king, he explained.
"The good news here obviously is Jesus Christ, the Christ Child. But every child who is born, made in God's image, shares in the good news of that birth. When we speak of the good news, we can help families see the good news of every child born. What a message that is for our culture today! They are incarnating the good news with their very life."
"I agree that the challenge has been engaging with people who don't know our Lord," said conference attendee Sister Paschalina Marie, SMMC, of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, reflecting on her teaching experience at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Spokane, Washington, "but I see in that challenge a great opportunity for evangelization."
This was Sister Paschalina's first conference at Franciscan University. She was inspired to come take the DRE track after experiencing the annual Franciscan University youth conference held in Spokane.
"I've been gifted by God with spiritual children and seen them grow in his love. I love what I'm doing and I'm seeing the first shoots of life, particularly in our diocese."
Matt Sutton came for his third Bosco Conference from Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada, where he is a pastoral minister at St. John the Baptist Church. "Looking at the whole aspect of educating our young people and adults, this helps me deepen my faith to bring it back to the parish."
This is the seventh Bosco Conference for Robert Frank, who teaches seventh grade catechism at St. Paul Catholic Church in Salem, Ohio. He has already completed the catechist track and returned this year for the open track for participants who do not want to focus their workshops on one particular form of religious instruction. Frank said Franciscan University is like home to him, especially since one of his daughters and sons-in-law graduated from the University.
"I come here for the wonderful people and the knowledge. Coming back here always helps me more with my students. This is a refreshing place for me."
The St. John Bosco Conference is one of five adult conferences sponsored by Franciscan University of Steubenville. This year there were also 20 youth conferences held around the country and in Canada, as well as 2 new young adult conferences. Information on future adult and youth conferences, as well as talks from past events, can be found at the Steubenville Conferences website.