If attendance at last month’s Fairbanks Catholic Family Conference is any indication, Alaskans are hungry for ideas to strengthen and pass on their faith amid a culture that no longer supports the family.
More than 600 people braved snowy roads and sub-zero temperatures to attend the Feb. 9-11 conference sponsored by the Fairbanks Diocese. Nearly 100 attendees came from the Anchorage Archdiocese, many driving 700 miles round trip.
For three days participants attended daily Mass, went to confession, spent time in prayer and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and listened to talks by nationally recognized speakers. The gathering took place at Monroe Catholic High School.
Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski and Juneau Bishop Andrew Bellisario were present as were priests and clergy from all three Alaska dioceses.
Between talks bishops, priests, deacons, religious sisters and seminarians strolled the hallways and interacted with families.
The all-ages conference included a weekend-long vacation Bible school for children as well as tracks for middle school and high school.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who hosted the 2015 World Meeting of Families with Pope Francis, celebrated Masses, delivered several presentations.
Youth talks featured evangelist Meg Hunter-Kilmer who encouraged attendees take personal ownership of their faith. Additionally, two members of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal came from New York to speak to youth about their vocation to religious life and serving God with abandon.
Priests, seminarians and religious brothers hosted a breakout session with about 30 boys to talk about the joys and challenges of embracing a call to religious life or the priesthood.
Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski said that if the boys are thinking about the priesthood, Christ “will reveal that to you…he will give you a sense of joy, a sense of peace.”
While dozens of speakers participated in the conference, key themes emerged over the weekend.
Father Leo Patalinghug, an EWTN television chef, served up a mixture of cooking ideas, comedic stories and hard-hitting truths. He urged couples to embrace the church’s teaching on openness to children and to celebrate as families the church’s holy days and feast days by cooking gourmet meals.
Speakers Craig and Amy Dyke, who regularly address marriage and family issues, spoke about the trend in young adults who no longer identify with any religion. Younger generations, they said, are increasingly suspicious of authority and uncomfortable with moral truths.
Catholics must respond by inviting non-believers to share in their lives. They called on attendees to find common ground with non-Catholics and to be equipped to share the faith.
“We need to hone our skills in philosophy, theology, apologetics,” Craig Dyke said, adding that Catholics must explore questions with their friends.
Stephen Ray, a prominent Holy Land guide, described first-century Palestine and what life might have looked like for Mary, Joseph and Jesus.
He described the Blessed Virgin as a flesh and blood 14-year-old who was “tough as nails,” walking miles across rough trails to draw water from the community well and eating the common fair of grasshoppers, fish and barely loaves.
As for Jesus and Saint Joseph, they likely spent long days in manual labor, he said. “It makes me love the Holy Family more when I know the rough and rustic life they lived.”
Dr. Ray Guarendi, a clinical psychologist and EWTN radio host, regaled the audience with humorous tales of parenting. Woven through were challenges for parents to establish clear authority with children.
“We discipline because we love,” he said. “We can’t instill morals and character without it.”
The culture, he noted, looks for all sorts of reasons for why children are disobedient, blaming diet, birth order or personality. While these have some merit, they are not the cause of the large-scale drop in discipline and manners among the youth, he added. Love without discipline leaves children with little ability to control themselves later on in life, he said, and this ultimately affects their spiritual life.
Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., addressed a large audience on the topic of modern gender ideology, which claims that male and female are mere social constructs.
Once sexuality is separated from biology, the door opens to viewing human sexuality however one desires, Hasson reasoned. She noted that modern gender ideology breaks the person up into various expressions, attractions and feelings with no recognition that people are created male or female.
She warned parents that this ideology has seeped into public schools and curriculum, television, sports, politics and corporate America.
While Christian families have a duty to protect children from this ideology, she urged attendees to always recognize the humanity of those who do not identify with their biological sex.
“It is a real thing, people really experience this,” she said. “What has changed is how we respond to it.”
Rather than try to help people who suffer with this, the culture is increasingly willing to encourage them to express themselves as the opposite sex, she said. In recent years the medical profession has accepted the notion that children should be given puberty blockers and high-powered hormones to appear as whatever sex they identify with.
“No one is focusing on why the child suffers from gender dysphoria,” she said, noting that for political reasons, medical professionals are pressured to stop asking questions.
In a separate talk, Hasson presented ideas for how to raise a Catholic family in culture that is often at odds with core Catholic beliefs. She urged parents to model the faith and to never avoid hard questions.
Hasson encouraged parents to infuse the faith into everyday life by regularly setting aside time for confession, prayer and service to others.
“Create a Catholic culture,” she said. “Live the sacraments. Go to adoration. These are the tools God has given us.”