Leadership Convocation offers family, faith focus

By Sam Lucero

GREEN BAY — Family was the overall focus of this year’s Leadership Convocation held Oct. 29 at the KI Convention Center. From Bishop David Ricken’s homily at the opening Mass, to the morning and afternoon keynote addresses and the breakout sessions, speakers gave the estimated 425 attendees ideas and inspiration on ways to welcome and minister to families.

James Healy, director of the Center for Family Ministry in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., discusses the challenges of marriage and family in his morning keynote address. Scroll to the bottom for a slideshow of photos.  (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

The convocation’s theme, “Households of Faith,” also complemented the vision in Bishop David Ricken’s pastoral reflection, “Teach My People to Pray,” part of his six-year pastoral plan for the diocese issued in 2014. As the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome suggested, families face many challenges and the convocation’s breakout sessions offered parish leaders a taste of these challenges and suggestions to help address them.

Sessions such as “Families in Poverty,” a panel discussion facilitated by Tony Pichler, co-director of the Norbertine Center for Spiritual Life in De Pere: “Creating Hope: The Power of Faith Communities in Mental Health Recovery,” led by Doug Bisbee and Ann Jadin, counseling professionals from the Fox Valley, and “Bringing the Compassion and Care of Jesus to our Military Families and Elderly Brothers and Sisters” led by Ted Phernetton, diocesan director of Catholic Charities, helped attendees open their eyes to a wide assortment of family struggles on which church ministers need to focus.

In addition to the 14 morning and afternoon sessions and two keynote addresses, convocation participants had opportunities to network and discover ministry resources available from nearly 50 vendors in attendance.

Among the vendors was Tom Wall, whose table included small cutouts of saints, books on saints and prayer cards. Attending his first convocation, Wall said he was surprised by the large turnout and believes the emphasis on family catechesis is important. “It’s like the old adage, ‘The family that prays together stays together,’” said Wall. “That’s where it all starts. That’s where we all learn the faith. If we can help parents teach their faith better, that’s what we are here to do.”

Bishop Ricken describes discipleship

Bishop Ricken opened his homily by describing another event taking place that morning. He said that more than 300 men were attending a conference with keynote speaker Joe Gibbs, a former professional football coach.

“Joe Gibbs even has one book called, ‘Game Plan for Life: Your Personal Playbook for Success,’” said Bishop Ricken. “Isn’t that interesting how all of Christianity is searching for ways to share the good news and form people into discipleship?”

He said discipleship is what the Diocese of Green Bay is proposing through “Disciples on the Way,” the bishop’s pastoral letter, which he called “our roadmap for sharing and forming and becoming deeper disciples ourselves.”

Quoting Pope Francis, Bishop Ricken said one of the greatest challenges facing the church in this generation “is to foster in all of the faithful a sense of responsibility for the church’s mission and enable them to fulfill that responsibility as missionary disciples.”

Referring to “Disciples on the Way,” Bishop Ricken said that the diocese has already been engaged in helping Catholics “deepen our personal relationship with Christ.”

Focus on family prayer

The focus for the diocese now moves to family prayer. “On Dec. 27, I will be sending a letter to all 100,000 households in our diocese to invite them to dedicate themselves to the Holy Family,” he said.

Families will receive an image of the Holy Family in the mail and parishes will be asked to dedicate themselves to the Holy Family.

“What that means is that we are going to learn from the love between Joseph and Mary and Jesus,” he said. “We will have other opportunities to focus on the key theme of the family and the family as a home of discipleship.”

Bishop Ricken also said that in the past, the church’s approach to reaching families “has been a little flawed.”

“We would say, ‘Jesus loves you’ and then beat somebody over the head with a baseball bat,” he said. “You know, that really is not too effective.”

People today have been deceived by “the promises of the world,” he said, and need a compassionate hand.

“There are a lot of people broken and hurting. We have an obligation to share the love and healing of Jesus,” Bishop Ricken said.

Welcome gifts of others

As people of faith, it’s also important to welcome the gifts others bring, he said.

“Up here in the north, it’s not our nature to be exuding warmth and hugging,” he said. “And I thank God for the Hispanic people that are coming into our diocese because they show us how to bring those cultural ideas of welcome and warmth. They are going to make this garden so much more beautiful. Are we hospitable to them?

“And in our parishes, are we really welcoming to the younger people?” he asked. “We are only worth our salt if we are able to pass on the legacy of what we learned to the next generation. We haven’t been very discipleship oriented, we haven’t been real new evangelization agents and the church is supposed to be.”

Bishop Ricken said his pastoral letter, Disciples on the Way, is his way of saying, “Let’s get a road map to learn to enable one another. … To learn together to become disciples as families and as communities within our parishes. … That’s why we are gathered here today.”

Marriage and family challenges

In his keynote address, James Healy, director of the Center for Family Ministry in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., discussed the challenges of marriage and family.

“There is an enormous amount of anxiety about family life today,” Healy said. He cited a study about high school seniors. While 94 percent of them said they wanted a lifelong marriage, only one-third said they believed it was possible to achieve.

“The difference in life between what you are hoping for and what you’re afraid you’re going to end up with is called anxiety,” said Healy. “There is an enormous anxiety gap regarding family life, in terms of relationships, in terms of parents.”

As a result, he said, it is the job of parents and church ministers “to have a clear vision of the Catholic vision of family life.” That means having a “non-anxious presence” that tells young people “you can do it. You don’t have to be perfect, but you can do it.”

Healy, who holds a Ph.D. in counseling and counsels married couples, said couples often give him the same response about what makes an upbeat marriage. These include a sense of security, children, sex, planning for the future and remembering the past.

“Then I ask one other question:  What is the most challenging, painful, most wrenching parts of marriage,” he said. “Guess what answers I get? The same things.”

He said this indicates that marriages are living sacraments. “Not just because the church teaches it, but because it’s in my bones that there is no resurrection without dying. The same things that just crucify me bring me hope and raise me up again.”

Marriages have three stages, said Healy: transfiguration, dying and rising and widowhood.

The first stage, which happens during courting, is falling in love.

“It’s a little taste on the tongue of what God’s got in store for us forever,” he said. “It shows us what divine love is all about.”

Dying and rising happens throughout a marriage, said Healy. Issues like health, work and children “feel like death sometimes. But then it feels like rising.”

Unless a marriage ends in divorce, the last stage is widowhood, said Healy. “That might last a year or it might last the rest of life. That’s why we know it’s a sacrament: because it teaches us not to be afraid to die.”

Understanding the sacramental view of marriage facilitates ministry to couples,  families and children, explained Healy.

“The paschal mystery is a hard model of family life,” he said, adding that it doesn’t call people to perfection, but to dying and rising.

Healy, whose address was titled “Blessing the Family as it Encounters the Paschal Mystery,” concluded by offering four parts to blessing family and community members. They include:

  • Touch: Appropriate physical contact.
  • Words of high value: Verbalizing the qualities a person possesses.
  • Predicting a glorious future: A follow-up to words of high value, Healy said it could be words to a child such as: “I can’t wait to see what’s kind of a (man or woman) you will turn out to be.”
  • A promise to help them get there.

Alice Heinzen, director of the Office for Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of La Crosse, spoke about the Synod of Bishops on the family during her afternoon keynote address. She and her husband, Jeff, were the only American couple attending the 2014 extraordinary synod as auditors.