Catholics in the United States could be forgiven for an urge to keep a low profile in the light of the furious and sustained media onslaught over the scandal surrounding the failure of some bishops to deal effectively with known paedophile clergy.
However, at summer conferences held in Anaheim, California, and at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, thousands of Catholics gathered to hear some of the best Catholic speakers in America and to express their faith in Christ, their loyalty to the Pope and the Church and their hope for a new springtime of evangelisation.
Over 6,000 participants attended the 13th Annual National Catholic Family Conference sponsored by the Catholic Resource Centre and held at the Anaheim Convention Centre. The theme of this conference was "Faithfulness to Christ and His Church".
Many of the speakers were former Protestant ministers who have converted to Catholicism. These included Dr Scott Hahn, former Presbyterian minister, now Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville; and Alex Jones, former Pentecostal minister who brought 52 members of his congregation with him into the Church, now associate director of "Sign Me Up!" an evangelisation project for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Exposure to the Church Fathers and the nature of early Christianity was critical in the conversion of all these Protestants. As one said, "To become deep in history is to cease to be Protestant".
Several religious orders had information stands at the Conference, including the Fathers of Mercy. Founded in 1808 by Father Jean Baptiste Rauzan to re-evangelise France following the French Revolution, this Congregation had relocated entirely to the United States by the 1940s. Providentially the Congregation had closed its novitiate during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Numbers diminished drastically and the Congregation was expected to fold altogether.
Then the handful of remaining priests, who were orthodox and faithful, began recruiting a new generation of "solid Catholic men" who were interested in a religious and priestly vocation with "a strong emphasis on love for Jesus Christ in His Real Presence in The Most Holy Eucharist, true devotion to our Blessed Virgin Mother, missionary evangelisation as a response to our Holy Father's call for a New Evangelisation and bringing Divine Mercy to as many persons as possible through Parish Missions and Retreats". The Congregation is now flourishing and making a major contribution to the New Evangelisation, especially through its parish missions.
The Applied Biblical Studies Conference, held at the Franciscan University of Steubenville on the theme "A Living Sacrifice: Scripture and the Sacramental Life", attracted 260 participants. The Conference demonstrated the existence of a new and flourishing school of Catholic biblical scholarship in the United States which is committed to studying and teaching the Bible "from the heart of the Church".
Eschewing the historical critical method, which has proved to be so corrosive of religious faith, these scholars strongly hold the Catholic position on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures. They are paying renewed attention not just to the literal sense of Scripture but to the classical spiritual senses - the allegorical, tropological (or moral) and anagogical - and to the exegesis of the Scriptures by the Fathers of the Church.
Graduates of Franciscan University of Steubenville are holding positions in religious education in schools and parishes across the country where they are sharing the new scholarship with rank and file Catholics. Dr Hahn has launched a new St Paul's Centre for Biblical Theology which is aiming to promote "biblical literacy for the laity and biblical fluency for clergy and teachers". Many of their resources are available online at: www.salvationhistory.com
The Defending the Faith Conference, also held at Steubenville, on the theme "The Truth and Beauty of Holiness", attracted over 1,100 participants. Catholic apologists, Dr Alan Schreck, Dr Regis Martin and Patrick Madrid, presented workshops on aspects of defending the Catholic faith. Marcus Grodi from the "Coming Home Network" described how over the last ten years this ministry has brought 462 Protestant ministers to the Catholic faith.
Fr Benedict Groeschel, founder of the Franciscans of the Renewal, preached the homily at the concluding Mass of the Conference. He spoke of how even in the midst of a confused, post-modernist culture there is a yearning for the absolute, for certainty and for God.
University students provided logistics support for the conferences. The extraordinary nature of the university was apparent when conversations with the hospitality co-ordinator in the men's dorm or the desk clerk handling lost property turned quickly to the works of C.S Lewis, the comparative explanations of the Fall in John Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas, or the philosophy of the conjugal act in the teaching of John Paul II.
The University now educates more than 2,250 students each year who come from 50 states and 25 countries. It also reaches over 30,000 other Catholics through its 22 annual adult and youth conferences. (For information on the 2004 Summer Conferences and on Franciscan University see: www.franuniv.edu).
Vibrant Catholic colleges, new or renewed religious orders, publishing houses such as Ignatius Press, numerous lay led ministries of apologetics and evangelism, and the extraordinary work of Mother Angelica through the Eternal Word Television Network, are all contributing to a revival among Americans of all ages and backgrounds of fervent, solid, orthodox Catholicism that brings great hope that the 40 year decline of the Church in the West may be coming to an end.
Richard Egan attended three Catholic conferences in the USA during July 2003.