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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Sydney

Secret men’s business begins with the heart

Darren Ally
Darren Ally
Darren Ally is the Manager for Communications and News Media at the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.
More than 250 men gathered at St Mary’s Cathedral Hall for the very first Catholic men’s conference, organised by the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Centre for Evangelisation. Photo: Patrick J Lee
More than 250 men gathered at St Mary’s Cathedral Hall for the very first Catholic men’s conference, organised by the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Centre for Evangelisation. Photo: Patrick J Lee

In the 150-year-old crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral, 250 men gather in silence to do the unthinkable: they’re “switching off” on a Saturday morning.

“I’ve left the kids with mum, and I’ve come here hoping to find other men who are trying to strengthen their faith,” says Anthony Roncevic, a 47-year-old father from Casula.

Mr Roncevic clearly isn’t alone. He’s one of many attending the very first Catholic men’s conference organised by the Archdiocese of Sydney’s Centre for Evangelisation.

“The Be Not Afraid conference is in essence the first Catholic Men’s Conference and our men need this,” says organiser Ivica Kovac, Life Marriage and Family Officer with the archdiocese.

Since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the archdiocese’s men’s ministry has gone from strength to strength.

Viral videos of men praying the rosary in the rain have been seen around the world. The Camino of St Joseph sees a growing band of men take to Sydney’s streets each year.

But this year’s conference is the first of its kind in Sydney, and for Mr Kovac, it’s about drilling down further, to meet Catholic men where they are hurting most, and encouraging them to commune with God on a deeper level.

“They feel isolated. They don’t feel understood by their kids, their wives, their workplace, or their church,” he says.

“This is a way to reconnect and know they are not alone.”

Today, attendees have arrived for a one-day conference to hear from prominent Catholic voices, take part in discussions, receive the sacrament of reconciliation, and find connection in a society that increasingly isolates them—all in the exclusive company of men.

“The number one killer in Australia for men aged 15 to 44 is suicide,” says Mr Kovac.

“Why? All the data and studies point to the same thing: isolation. There’s a reason Jesus chose 12—not one.

“Because what were they? They were his mates. They could do more together. That’s what this is.”

The theme of the conference is Be Not Afraid. Fr Greg Morgan, parish priest of St Catherine’s in Gymea, is one of several keynote speakers and challenges the men to find their voice, because “the reality is, we will not survive if we speak up alone.”

For young Catholic men like 29-year-old Josip Crepjula, it’s a challenge he welcomes: to find his voice and to ask for help in a society that frowns on men who do.
“Society expects you to be a lone wolf,” says Mr Crepjula.

“That’s the perception of men now. It’s not the manly thing to ask for help—you’re expected to tough it out. But being like this together, we can bring each other up.”

“Be Not Afraid is about telling dads that they’re not alone and they can’t do it all themselves. Stop being Stoic,” says Mr Kovac.

“As the day progresses, I’m seeing men’s fears dissipate, because they know they are not alone,” he adds.

As a young Catholic in Sydney’s inner west, 29-year-old Francois Fajilan often feels alone. He’s come to the conference for that very reason.

“My circle of friends are very secular and so I feel over the last few years I’ve become a bit detached,” says Mr Fajilan.

He is in a line of 50 other men waiting to confess. The archdiocese’s men’s ministry always includes ready access to the sacraments. The emotion overtakes him, and tears well in his eyes.

“I think it’s incredibly important, especially in this day and age, as we become more secular in our society, you feel a bit silenced,” he says.

“Like in my case I don’t willingly talk about [my faith] even though, I always wanted to, and here I get to openly and honestly,” he says, wiping away tears.

But make no mistake. This is no sensitive new age “gab-fest.” This is “real chat”—hard, straight and to the point.

Fr Lewi Barakat, an Assistant Priest at St Mary's Cathedral, raises the Blessed Sacrament during adoration in the crypt of St Mary's Cathedral. Photo: Patrick J Lee
Fr Lewi Barakat, an Assistant Priest at St Mary’s Cathedral, raises the Blessed Sacrament during adoration in the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral. Photo: Patrick J Lee

Throughout the morning, these men are being sharpened and inspired by the experiences of other Catholic men.

Men like Danny Abdallah, the father who lost three of his children Antony, 13, Angelina, 12, and Sienna, eight, when they were hit by a car driven by Samuel Davidson in 2020.

Mr Abdallah doesn’t speak about retribution. This morning, he tells the assembled men of forgiving the driver and of his first encounter with Samuel Davidson in jail.

“I walk up to him to greet him. He falls on his knees in front me and starts saying I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you,” Mr Abdallah tells the hushed crowd.

“I pick him up, I give him a hug and we both cry together. I tell him God gives everyone the perfect cross but it’s up us to accept it and embrace it. My cross is heavier than yours but you have a cross to carry as well.”

Mr Abdallah has forgiven him; tears fall freely from the men in attendance. They feel that are watching the grace of God in action.

Then he delivers the ultimate revelation: the drunk and drugged driver, serving a 20-year sentence, has been so moved by forgiveness that he hopes to become a Maronite Catholic himself.

Mr Davidson is even leading the rosary on his cell block.

For Francois Fajilan, who is expecting his first child in a few months, being in the presence of the true power of forgiveness, is like witnessing a miracle.

“Obviously on the national news you heard about the incident, but these stories continue and unfold in these men’s lives. To see that change, for us to see the grace of forgiveness—its miraculous,” he says.

Another man in line, 54-year-old Nathan Horsfield from Ingleburn adds, says the testimony gets him “to stop thinking and start feeling.”

“You start sensing the grace of God and feeling the mercy of him in your heart—your mind is better for it.”

Fr Daniele Russo, the archdiocese’s vocations director, pitctured with one of the attendees, gave a keynote on the importance of keeping the Sabbath holy. Photo: Patrick J Lee
Fr Daniele Russo, the archdiocese’s vocations director, pitctured with one of the attendees, gave a keynote on the importance of keeping the Sabbath holy. Photo: Patrick J Lee

The men also hear from Fr Daniele Russo, the archdiocese’s vocations director, who speaks of the importance of keeping the Sabbath holy.

“God insists we pray and rest for just one day. Our obligation as Christian men is not just to keep busy. But to keep our peace amidst the busyness,“ he says.

For young law student Daniel Casanova, this is the focussed spiritual guidance he has been craving.

“I’m about to become a lawyer. And I will be expected to work on Sundays,” he says.

“I’m wrestling with that, but that talk really helped guide how I will conduct myself as a better Christian.”

Andrew Kozah, a young father from Strathfield believes he will return to his family a different man.

“It’s brought me back down to Earth to realise what’s important. I need to have my spiritual life in order to lead my family to Christ.”

But for attending priests, like Fr Benjamin Saliba from Bonnyrigg, the nourishment has gone both ways: “I’ve been empowered just as much as the men today have been.”

Fr Saliba believes the success of today’s conference will be felt in the days and months to come.

“Not only have these men woken up, but they’re also able to go back home, to their families refreshed, energised and with that spiritual shot of adrenaline, they can carry into their respective communities.”

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