By Peter G. Sánchez
Closing in on hour one of the Man Up South Jersey Men’s Spirituality Conference, Alex Diagosta had gotten his money’s worth.
The man from Our Lady of Peace Parish, Williamstown, had just heard the inspiring life story of Kevin Reilly, a former Special Teams captain for the Philadelphia Eagles whose career was cut short after being diagnosed with cancer and the subsequent removal of his left arm, shoulder and five ribs.
Reilly is now a successful author, broadcaster and motivational speaker.
“The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it. The man who wins, is the man who thinks he can,” Reilly told those packing the conference auditorium at Paul VI High School here on Nov. 9.
Reilly affirmed that his Catholic faith has played no small part in helping him get through his battles, and he called on his fellow men to “be faithful to Jesus and persist in prayer.”
Diagosta was one of the first to leave his seat to give the speaker a standing ovation once Reilly’s talk concluded.
“If the conference ended now, I’d be satisfied,” Diagosta said.
The all-day event, though, was just beginning. By its close, the almost 500 gathered sons, fathers, brothers, friends and husbands had been refreshed and renewed, courtesy of witnesses, workshops, opportunities for adoration and confession, and a concluding liturgy with Bishop Dennis Sullivan.
“This has been a fantastic day for men to support each other and the Catholic Church, to get out of the noise of their everyday lives, clear their minds,” and find Christ in the silence, remarked Lou Esola, from Saint Peter Parish, Merchantville.
Friends came with friends. Knights of Columbus members came with brother Knights. And fathers came with sons, just as Deacon Aaron Smith, from Glassboro’s Saint Bridget Parish, and his 14-year-old, Aidan, joined the fellowship.
“This is even better than last year,” Deacon Smith said, adding that the great time he had last year encouraged his son to join him this year.
“It’s been nice bonding with my son, seeing him experiencing it, and building our faith together,” he said.
In addition to Reilly, the influential voices included Eustace Mita, chairman and CEO of Icona Resorts; Damon Clarke Owens, founder and executive director of Joy To Be, which encourages and educates couples in marriage and family life; and Mark Forrest, whose passionate singing led all hearts to Jesus during Eucharistic Adoration.
Diocesan speakers at the conference included Father Robert Hughes, Vicar General; Father Adam Cichoski, director of Vocations; Deacon Joseph Seaman; deacon candidate David Harkins; and seminarians Carlo Santa Teresa and Steven Bertonazzi.
The six-piece rock band Paging Samuel had all on their feet when they played between sessions. The group also provided music for the liturgy.
One of the most effective voice was that of Msgr. Roger McGrath, a retired priest of the Camden Diocese who led a breakout workshop on “Remaining Catholic: Anchored in Christ Through Tough Times.”
Acknowledging the “abuse of power, sexual depravity, greed, and failure of leadership” that has characterized the child sex abuse crisis, Msgr. McGrath said the scandal can “make us want to throw up and throw in the towel” on the Catholic faith.
“We need to acknowledge the ugliness, and not deny, discount or diminish it,” he said. In this midst of this sobering time, he called on all to “fight for the truth” of the faith, echoing the words of Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, author of “Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis.”
“In this pursuit of truth, we find Jesus — the way, the truth and the life,” Msgr. McGrath said, before playing a video message from Bishop Barron.
Afterward, Msgr. McGrath quoted Saint Paul, reminding men not to “abdicate your role as a baptized Catholic,” but continue to spread Jesus’ loving message.
“Because we possess this ministry through God’s mercy, we do not give in to discouragement,” he concluded.
Other workshops included those led by Father James Bartoloma, diocesan chancellor, “Enriching your Life with Marian Prayer and Devotion,” and Anthony Scafidi, Man Up committee member, “Connecting with God Through Technology.”
“On-fire” after the event, and ready for next year’s Man Up, was Deacon Anthony Cioe, master of ceremonies for the event.
“I’m excited with the energy” of the entire conference, he said.
He was grateful for the support of Bishop Sullivan, who “understands the spiritual needs of the men of South Jersey; we are blessed.”
Planning is already underway for next year’s conference, he said.
Until then, “men, alive and on the move in South Jersey,” will go back to their respective communities and help their friends, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and wives “know the joy that comes from a Christ-centered life.”