A steady downpour could not dampen the spirits of thousands of Catholic families.
For fathers, mothers, children and relatives, the annual Catholic Family Life Conference at the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage site is a shelter amid a storm of criticism — a place where they can unapologetically share and express their faith.
For 19-year-old Natalie Godin, who has been attending the event since she was a toddler, the Catholic Family Life Conference affirms the strength and fellowship of Alberta’s Catholic Community.
“When you’re in a small town and it feels like you’re the only Catholic family around, it’s easy to get lost in questions of ‘Where is the Church really going? Am I alone in all of this?” said Godin, who lives in Westlock, about 90 kilometres north of Edmonton.
“And then coming here every year, seeing so many of us and so many young people here that know Christ’s love and want to share that – I realize we can change the world with this many people.”
And the number of those people is only growing. Attendance at the June 28-July 1 Catholic Family Life Conference broke a new record. More than 2,300 people gathered for the opening Mass on June 28, and more than 3,000 people made their way to Lac St. Anne for the annual weekend of lectures, Mass, music and camping.
The Catholic Family Life Conference has been so successful that organizer Maurice Beier said they plan to make it a five-day event next year for their 25th anniversary.
Surrounded by Catholic families, the conference is a place where Olivia Fischer always feels at home.
“As I was bringing my children around the camp, I was joking to my husband that this is the one place where I feel I belong,” said Fischer, 25-year-old mother of three with another child on the way.
“I don’t look very old, so having so many children I do get strange looks sometimes and feel like I’m sticking out like a sore thumb. But here there’s babies and pregnant bellies everywhere. There’s no more welcoming place for big families.”
As a Catholic parent, Fischer said there are serious challenges to raising her children within the faith in a world that increasingly pushes aside religion of any kind.
“No matter what, you can’t shelter your children from the world entirely. That’s impractical and that’s not what we’re meant to do,” she said. “But if we as parents devoutly live out that faith and we build that foundation at home, our children can meet whatever is out there in the world and not be swayed.”
Paul Penney, a father of three daughters, says the strength of a faithful home can overcome any outside influences. For his family, the Catholic Family Life Conference is a reminder that they are not alone in their hope to see the faith continue for the next generation.
“Having our children see that there are so many people out there that share our beliefs, that’s really impactful for them I think – to know we are not isolated,” said Penney, who attends the Catholic Family Life Conference each year. “With what our own government is pushing, whether that’s abortion, gender ideology, our children are at risk of being susceptible to that, there’s no doubt.”
“But the talks here definitely give us a better education for our kids. We can only bring our faith to them if we ourselves get a deeper understanding of why our Church teaches what it does.”
The speakers at this year’s conference pulled no punches.
In his homily at the opening Mass, Archbishop Richard Smith discussed the self-centered attitudes — what he called “religion of the autonomous self” — that now dominate the culture.
The Archbishop also emphasized that Catholic teaching should not remain solely within church walls. Instead, it should challenge the status quo.
Sister Helena Burns, a frequent guest speaker at the Catholic Family Life Conference, said Catholics must have the courage to speak out against challenges to Church’s teachings, including controversial topics like gender ideology.
Burns sees Theology of the Body as the answer to many of the issues of today. Theology of the Body is St. John Paul II’s vision of the human person. It’s a series of 129 lectures given at the Vatican between September 5, 1979, and November 28, 1984. It constitutes an analysis on human sexuality, and is considered the first major teaching of his pontificate.
“No matter how much they call us bigots, haters, people deep down want to hear the truth,” said Sister Helena, a pop culture critic and a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, a congregation founded on spreading God’s Word through the media.
“We have to be courageous and speak out on these issues calmly, gently, and in charity — because throughout our Church’s history we know that the sinners of today can become the saints of tomorrow.”
Dr. Tim Gray, Catholic author and president of the Augustine Institute, delivered an in-depth discussion on the biblical parables and why Catholics must remain hopeful for the Church’s future.
And Dr. Ryan Topping, the academic vice-president of Newman Theological College in Edmonton, discussed the important role of philosophy in the Catholic faith and the challenges of teaching the Catholic faith in his family of nine children. His books include The Gift of the Church, Rebuilding Catholic Culture and The Elements of Rhetoric.
Brian Krammer was inspired that the speakers were unafraid to bluntly reaffirm Church teaching.
“I think one of the biggest challenges to young Catholics today is the amount of confusion and misinformation out there,” said Krammer, 21, who attended the conference for the first time.
“We need the real facts of our faith taught to us properly, and the speeches here did that.
“It gives me a lot confidence just to see how openly and strongly Catholic we are here, and we’re not shying away from it.”
For Krammer, it was a two-day journey from his home in Langley, B.C. to Lac St. Anne. As a young Catholic, the Catholic Family Life Conference was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I knew it was going to be a long, tough drive and I had to make the funds for it, but I also knew God was calling me to be here,” he said. “It’s times like this that reaffirm that we’re not alone on this journey. Especially for youth, we need that fellowship and to know we have a community that is upholding the truth.”
Despite the challenges, the conference above all showcased the joys and companionship of a Catholic community joined together in faith.
Walking from the shrine to her campsite, Natalie Godin was greeted by friends and acquaintances she’s met over the years. She said the Catholic Family Life Conference is more rewarding with each passing summer.
“This kind of event shows how strong our faith is and how much good it brings,” she said. “Obviously, it can be hard to be a Catholic. But there’s so much beauty and so much goodness in holding on to this faith, and that’s affirmed here. There’s a bond and love for one another because we share this faith.
“It makes me realize that God wants us to have joy in this world, not just in heaven.”