Immediately adjacent to Little Rock’s Christ the King Church rises the steel skeleton of an imposing parish life center which even in the early morning cool of February, crawls with activity. Construction workers in hard hats and reflective vests, orange barrels, yellow caution tape and heavy machinery hammer out an unmistakable daily reminder that here, men are at work.
Next door, during the sixth Arkansas Catholic Men’s Conference, that message reverberated even louder as men from across Arkansas set about manly tasks of a different sort, the results of which they would take back to homes and families and parishes throughout the diocese.
“Our feeling is that Christ was a servant leader and he calls us all to be servant leaders,” said Deacon Don Greenway, who founded Christ the King’s Men of Faith group, which sponsors the annual conference. “So when we talk about being spiritual leaders, we mean it in the terms of as Christ led the Church, willing to sacrifice and give to the Church. We feel like a strong men’s group makes the Church stronger.”
The crowd included a wide variety of ages and parishes, rumbling in unison through an opening rosary or rich baritone hymns during the opening Mass celebrated by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor. The youngest in the crowd, a pair of 14-year-olds, perched next to men with six or seven popes to their credit, surrounded by all ages in between. Nearly 500 in all, they came in pairs and parish herds, family units three generations deep and una persona on a mission to explore and reconnect with what it means to be Catholic man in today’s world.
“We live in a world that is secular and that promotes values that are contrary to the faith that undermine everything that we stand for,” Bishop Taylor told Arkansas Catholic. “We live in a world that is increasingly a non-Christian world. But with that comes also a benefit in that it becomes clearer to us just exactly what we do stand for and what Jesus does ask for us which is to become ever more countercultural.”
As in past years, the 2016 event, titled “Be Courageous, Be Strong, Be a Catholic Man,” offered speakers, adoration, Mass and reconciliation for attendees. Chris Fray, one of the event’s organizers, said these elements combined with peer-to-peer interaction on breaks and during lunch, contribute to the event’s growing appeal.
“We hand out a survey every year and we get very good participation with it,” he said. “(Respondents) are just thrilled with the fact that it is men coming together; the atmosphere is electric and it’s very, very powerful. Over and over again there are comments along the lines of the Holy Spirit being present with everybody.”
Attendance numbers are also stoked on the strength of the speakers in any given year. The 2016 slate was no exception featuring nationally known Catholic author and radio host Dr. Allen Hunt and headlined by Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who was for six years bishop of the Diocese of Little Rock.
Archbishop Sartain told Arkansas Catholic the growth of events like the Arkansas Catholic Men’s Conference nationwide demonstrates an emergent understanding that leadership among laity is required to carry out the Church’s mission in any given parish, one household at a time.
“Every diocese I’ve served, they have a men’s conference or several men’s conferences and just like here, they’re growing every year,” he said. “It’s an important return to the fact that our first vocation is to be a disciple of Jesus. That’s what these kinds of conferences reinforce in the men no matter what particular vocation they’re called to, that first is to be a disciple of Jesus.”
Greenway emphasized the conference as a statewide ministry and not simply a parish event. He said he not only wanted to see the conference continue to grow, but for men’s groups such as Christ the King’s become the norm in parishes across Arkansas, something that is already starting to come to fruition.
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