By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

SPRINGFIELD – The 1,200 programs printed for the archdiocesan men’s spirituality conference, “Strengthen One Another,” held at Cardinal O’Hara High School on Saturday, March 7, were gone by noon.

Not bad, considering that just a few weeks earlier there were only a couple hundred registrations and the organizers were worried about turnout for this – the first such archdiocesan-wide conference.

It didn’t hurt a bit that there was a stellar list of speakers, including keynoters Marcus Grodi from EWTN and Rich Gannon, a hometown boy and former NFL star, with Cardinal Justin Rigali as principal celebrant and homilist at the closing liturgy.

“During this conference, you have reflected on the transforming power of faith,” Cardinal Rigali said. “In sharing your faith with each other, you have grown closer to our Lord Himself. Truly, it is good to be here, to be strengthened by God, and to strengthen one another. However, the lessons which we learn today urge us to go and meet our responsibilities, and to do so empowered by the love of God.”

Gannon, a graduate of St. Cecilia School in Philadelphia and St. Joseph’s Prep, spoke of his own faith journey, which was grounded in his Catholic education, and which blossomed during his athletic career. Gannon achieved college and professional football stardom, receiving both NFL and Pro Bowl MVP awards during his years with the Oakland Raiders. He retired in 2004.

“I don’t claim to be a preacher of any sort or even an expert in the faith,” he said. “I am really one of you, with faults, worries and handicaps but one who is constantly growing and learning about God’s extraordinary love for us.”
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God, he said, “has a plan for each and every one of us. He is interested in making you holy and happy in life. Your goal is to grow in character and become Christ-like. Let go and let God manage your life as He sees fit.”

Grodi, a former Presbyterian minister who became Catholic in 1992, is the founder and president of the Coming Home Network International and host of the “Journey Home” program on EWTN, which focuses on conversion stories. A dynamic speaker, he not only was the morning keynote on the topic of conversion but spoke at an afternoon conference on spiritual leadership in the home.

Of the conference, he remarked, “for a first-time event this is wonderful. I travel the country and I see these down in numbers. It can’t be anything but good for the diocese and for every man who came here.”

Planning for the conference began all the way back in September, according to Bishop Robert P. Maginnis, who at the request of Cardinal Rigali, oversaw the process. There were two committees, one of priests and one of laymen which met every two or three weeks.

“It is a magnificent turnout and we are very, very pleased,” Bishop Maginnis said. “We are starting to see a trend of men hungry for a closer relationship with Our Lord, Jesus Christ and our Church.”

As part of the conference more than 40 priests were enlisted to hear confessions and a number of lay organizations participated. Two of those represented at the conference have a long history in men’s spirituality – the Knights of Columbus, founded in 1882, and Men of Malvern, tracing back to 1913.

“This fits in with our mission for the Church,” said James McCarthy, Pennsylvania state treasurer of the Knights. “This has wonderful spiritual value, and we are already planning for next year.”

“Men feel the power of prayer with other men who have similar values and similar faith experiences,” said James Fitzsimmons, president of Malvern Retreat House. “This can only help in their faith journey.”

Deacon David Schaffer, administrative director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Evangelization, was especially pleased by the wide range of ages represented.

“This is a marvelous opportunity for men to come together to really give witness to their spirituality and their love of the Lord,” he said. “This is a marvelous beginning.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.