By Jeff Grant, The Catholic Sun
PHOENIX — Andres Martin gazed out at his audience.
Onstage at the Virginia G. Piper Performing Arts Center at Xavier College Prep, Martin asked the 500 or so men before him to stand.
After asking only those with more than one brother to remain standing, he pointed out a group of men in one of the front rows.
“These are my brothers,” he smiled proudly. “They’re all here today, which is truly a blessing.”
But while the five, who included one from Wisconsin, represent Martin’s physical kin, they were but a small slice of the collection of spiritual brethren gathered at the 16th Men of Christ Phoenix Men’s Conference Feb. 4. The daylong collection of inspirational speakers, was capped by a vigil Mass celebrated by Bishop John P. Dolan.
As in years past, the lineup also featured prominent Catholic speakers.
Fr. Larry Richards, author of “Be a Man! Becoming the Man God Created You to Be” – a No. 1 bestseller from Ignatius Press opened the roster.
Author and NBC Vatican analyst George Weigel, who penned the New York Times bestseller “Witness to Hope,” the first of a two-part biography of St. John Paul II, also spoke.
And the men heard from Tim Gray, president of the Colorado-based Augustine Institute, one of the country’s foremost Catholic graduate schools of theology.
But it was Martin’s story, the shortest of the four, that offered the most personal, and perhaps the most relational reflections.
“We can all resonate with an honest man’s story, even if we didn’t have the same experience,” said Diocese of Phoenix Office of Marriage and Respect Life Director Mike Phelan, a conference organizer.
“When they reflect honestly on that experience and tie into Christ, we can all relate to that.” Phelan said.
While many regular churchgoers and a number of deacons from some of the 94 diocesan parishes attended, others included lapsed Catholics or perhaps even nonbelievers. The event has served as a turning point for some, and a part of that is the life stories of speakers such as Martin.
“It’s been a gamechanger for men’s faith,” explained Phelan. “It’s why we keep doing it. Often, it’s the beginning of their true conversion.”
Martin’s own story began at an early age.
His father left the family, and the years leading up the split gave Martin and his brothers a poor example of manhood.
“By the time I was 8, I knew what alcoholism was, I knew what infidelity was, I knew what womanizing was; pornography; domestic abuse,” he said.
As his father got ready to leave, Martin told his dad it was “a good thing,” because of the hurt leveled on his mother
“But I never realized how those words would hurt him,” Martin said.
His mother eventually met someone else, much the opposite of his dad.
“For the first time in my life, I started to see what a man should be like. He genuinely cared for us and showed us the importance of being a good spiritual leader. He made sure we went to Mass every Sunday.”
The change, however, was short-lived.
A serious accident left their new family leader with injuries he never got over, and he eventually killed himself.
Andres later enrolled in college, met someone and became more involved in Church life. He learned to live for Christ, build a godly marriage and serve others. He was becoming the man he always hoped to.
“I started to connect my identity, my mission and my purpose: to know, love and serve God, serve my wife and children, and go out into the world and to serve others.”
One of his biggest takeaways was the importance of praying the Rosary.
“If there’s one thing I can impress upon you,” he said, “it’s this: Pray your daily Rosary. There are so many blessings I have received as a result of that.”
Martin’s message was like a spoke in the wheel of Christian living articulated by Fr. Richards, the day’s opening speaker.
“You have to sit at the feet of the Master, develop the attitude of the Master, and you have to be transformed into the Master,” his voice boomed. “But what does that look like?
“It’s not just praying or attending Mass. You can say prayers and still be an atheist.
“The first question I’ve got to ask you, gentlemen, is, Do you know Jesus Christ? Not about Jesus Christ. Do you know Him?”
He urged getting alone daily and carving out a time and place that belongs to no one else, and spending time not just in prayer but earnestly, with an open and willing heart, listening to God’s voice.
“In our prayer life, there’s always going to be more listening than talking,” he continued.
“Be willing to have God change your plans for the day.”
Have the attitude of the Master, he said, citing St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2, verses 5-8:
“…have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage; rather, He made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!”
He also cited Galatians 2:20, reminding the audience the life we live is not our own, but that of a vessel of the living Christ.
“Could your spouses say, ‘Honey, if Jesus Christ is anything like you, I can’t wait to meet Him.’ Can your children, employees say that about you?” he asked.
While Fr. Richards pointed to the scriptural examples of Christ-like living, Weigel singled out the life of one man.
Cardinal George Pell “was indeed a man – a man among men whose robust, courageous, unwavering Christian manliness reflected his total dedication to Christ and to the cause of Christ in the world,” he said.
The Australian prelate, who served most recently on the international Council of Cardinals to advise the pope on reform of the Roman Curia and as prefect of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy, is perhaps most known for spending 13 months in jail – including time in solitary confinement – for a sex-abuse conviction later overturned by Australia’s highest court over insufficient evidence. He was freed in 2020.
Cardinal Pell died Jan. 10 at age 81 of heart complications following hip surgery, taught believers to “stand fast for Catholicism in full” through his efforts to thwart doctrinal and disciplinary decline in the Australian Church.
He also was the “driving force of the revision and the vast improvement of the English translations of the Prayers of the Mass, which are now more accurate, more elegant, more prayerful and more thankful than the Latin versions,” Weigel said.
Cardinal Pell chaired Vox Clara, the international committee that assists the Congregation for Divine Worship with English-language liturgical translations. Then Phoenix Diocese bishop, Thomas J. Olmsted, was also a member of the panel.
The cardinal also stood up to the Australian media, called out financial corruption in the Holy See, and was a “vigorous opponent of the culture of death,” Weigel continued.
As archbishop of Sydney, Pell would sometimes eat with the homeless on the streets, and try to give them encouragement.
From that, Weigel said, “We learn to live in solidarity with the weak and the defenseless.”
But it was the Cardinal’s “courageous” example in prison, on strict rations, with an hour of daily exercise, where he evangelized other prisoners, that Weigel said stands out.
“We are going to meet the Lord, and He is going to ask us how we did with those talents we were given. To recognize that enables us to live with courage,” Weigel said, “the courage demanded of all of us as Catholic men.”
The stories resonated with conference-goers.
“I had no idea who Cardinal Pell was,” said Dcn. Chris Georges of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Glendale. “That has to be a great story to read. Any of the lives of the saints, those are going to motivate you to be a better man.”
The conference “has been really encouraging and motivating,” he added.
“Father Larry is very direct and just what men need to hear,” offered Thomas Castellanos of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish in Tempe.
Dcn. Dave Knebelsberger, also of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, said he hoped to take from the conference seeing himself and others “grow closer to the Lord and get fired up to serve Him any way I can. That more men are touched by the Lord to be the men, husbands, and fathers that God wants them to be. To step up, into the breach and not be ashamed of the Gospel or the Catholic faith. That’s what we’re called to do.”