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A battalion’s worth of ‘marked men’ heed call to greatness at Men’s Conference

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Under the theme, “Marked Men: Made for Greatness,” more than 700 participants of the diocesan-sponsored 2018 men’s conference filled the parish hall of St. Joseph Church in Herndon to capacity March 3.

“I just think of all the scenes of D-Day,” said keynote speaker Father Mike Schmitz shortly after the 9 a.m. start. “And the question just keeps coming up: ‘What’s the difference between those men who served at Normandy and these men in front of me?’” 

Father Schmitz used his comparison between the young fighting men of World War II and the 18- to 24-year-olds that he ministers to at the University of Minnesota Duluth as a springboard to address the four indispensable virtues of a Christian man: he takes responsibility, strives to be competent, lives with integrity and serves others with charity.

 "I don't think the difference is these men back in the day, they were facing battle, they were facing conflict, they were really thrown into it,” Father Schmitz said, in answer to his own question. “I think the difference is our forefathers took responsibility.”

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge — who was present from start to finish — along with his chief of communications, Billy Atwell, were the other two principal speakers. All three men fostered reflection among the attendees, including through a question and answer panel at the end.

“As baptized men — as Catholic men — we are marked with the seal of God and marked for greatness,” said Nico Panlican, the master of ceremonies for the sold-out event, who also acknowledged the significance of Bishop Burbidge’s presence.

“The men gathered here know that they have their shepherd’s support,” Panlican added.

Father Schmitz also warned that men have to be especially on guard against passivity.

“Some people say sloth, but it reminds me of that three-toed thing. The sin of sloth or the sin of acedia, sometimes people think that’s a sin of just laziness, it’s not. The sin of sloth ultimately comes down to this, it comes down to I’d rather be somewhere else doing something else, rather than embracing this moment and embracing the responsibility that’s been given to me in this moment.”

Father Schmitz’s YouTube channel — with more than 1 million views — serves as a digital platform for his dynamic and direct video talks on issues facing millennial Catholics with headlines including, “Why should I confess my sins to a priest?”

Terry Cassell, a vendor with Christians in Commerce, came away from Father Schmitz’s talk “with an understanding that as men of God, we must take responsibility for who we are in building God’s kingdom and striving to be competent as well as to show love to our brothers and sisters in the community and where we work.”

Atwell, a cancer survivor, followed Father Schmitz with his witness to the power of faith. 

“So they think it’s cancer and they want to do surgery,” said Atwell, paraphrasing the delivery of the news from the doctor. At 16, Atwell was diagnosed with and then survived testicular cancer after a physically exhausting and expedited chemotherapy regimen. Then in college he got another surprise.

“When I was putting on my gym shorts I felt this lump,” Atwell said. “And right on my hip was an egg-sized lump that I had not seen before.”

This time around, he was extremely angry at God and was determined to go it alone. By the end, the doctors said that he would not be able to have children. But after a year “of intensely rejecting God” his mother asked him if he was still praying.

“I was so hurt by that,” Atwell said. But that suggestion is what brought him back to God.

“I prayed for the first time,” Atwell said. “Please don’t let me die tonight otherwise I will be going to hell.”

Today, Atwell is married and has three children.

“I encourage each of you to find your ‘thank goodness’ moment,” Atwell said, referencing Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.”

Bishop Burbidge celebrated Mass with several other priests and delivered a homily to a packed church. 

“Now I bet some of you are thinking, ‘How long will it be in this homily today before he mentions his NFL dream team the Philadelphia Eagles?’” asked Bishop Burbidge, a Philadelphia native. “Well, actually, now is a good point.”

After the laughter from the congregation died down, Bishop Burbidge described a YouTube video of the Super Bowl MVP — Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, outlining one of the key ingredients to his success: failure.

“It’s really powerful for your sons and daughters and grandchildren to see or listen to — or really for all of us,” Bishop Burbidge said, reflecting on the Gospel for the day, the parable of the Prodigal Son. “He (Foles) realized that failure can help to build character and to make us stronger than ever before.  In our holy faith, we call that conversion.”

And driving home Father Schmitz’s fourth mark of a true Christian man — charity — Bishop Burbidge encouraged those gathered to be instruments of God’s mercy in a special way.

“Isn’t it sad when you hear a young person — or any person — say, ‘I just feel lost ... just lost in life,’” Bishop Burbidge said. “And that’s the person to whom God is sending you. Never underestimate how your heartfelt words, your faithful example, and sincere goodness can help someone to find the way back home.”

After Mass and lunch, the afternoon was composed of an informal talk by Father Schmitz and a panel discussion with all three speakers. The diocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Respect Life sponsored the event.

Bishop Burbidge closed the conference with a prayer.

“The Bishop’s mere presence at the conference, it tells a lot about how important it is for us men to feel encouraged by our shepherd,” said Ian Masson, 30, from Precious Blood Church in Culpeper. “And that itself is memorable — that will keep you going in your spiritual life knowing that your spiritual leader is here with you.” 

Jason Sparks, parishioner of St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal, echoed the sentiments.

“Coming to this event, where 700 men came together and shared fellowship and looked for answers is super inspiring to me,” he said. “The energy in the room — from our speakers, from the attendees — is just contagious, and I hope to carry it with me the rest of the year.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018