Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Re-grounding Catholic school teachers and religious educators in their disciple-making mission – while offering encouragement in stressful times and an opportunity for spiritual growth – is the aim of the Diocese of Superior’s 2021 Fall Conference.

Initially scheduled to take place at St. Joseph, Rice Lake, on Oct. 29, the conference was changed to a virtual format as COVID-19 infection rates surged in parts of the diocese.

Chris Hurtubise, whose Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship is sponsoring the online event in partnership with the Office of Catholic Formation and its director, school superintendent Peggy Schoenfuss, said the pandemic’s impact on parishes and schools varies widely.

Some schools are operating almost normally, he said, while others have high infection rates and large numbers of quarantined students.

“The 16 counties in our diocese, and the parishes and schools all around our diocese, are in a lot of different places right now, coming out of the pandemic,” he explained.

Strategically, it made sense to let individual parishes and schools make their own decisions about whether, where and how to hold gatherings, he added.

In non-pandemic years – when the event isn’t held virtually – more than 300 Catholic schools and religious education teachers, clergy members and parish staffers typically attend the conference, which begins with Mass celebrated by Bishop James P. Powers. A keynote speaker offers morning and afternoon talks, and attendees choose breakout sessions corresponding to their professional interests.

This year, Bishop Powers will give a short talk that sets the tone for the day, which will be provided to attendees via email link to Youtube, and keynote speaker Ryan O’Hara, a popular retreat leader from the Twin Cities who has given many talks around the diocese, will offer a longer, 40-minute presentation.

Hurtubise complimented O’Hara, commenting on “How amazing he is … he and his wife and family live the Catholic faith, I would say, in the richest way of anyone I know. He is just incredibly humble and peace-filled.”

After one of O’Hara’s talks, Hurtubise said he always leaves feeling both challenged and called to be a saint. Some speakers excel at making listeners feel good, while others are better at motivating their audiences; for Hurtubise, O’Hara does both: “He empowers his audience.”

The topic this year is close to Hurtubise’s heart and professional specialization – the church’s “disciple-making business,” and the role of religious education teachers, Catholic school educators and parish staffers in carrying out that mission.

O’Hara will talk about making disciples and offer “an opportunity to refocus on that mission,” Hurtubise said. In his second point, O’Hara will acknowledge that it is humanly impossible to achieve that mission, and he’ll discuss the tendency to try to do things alone, and then to feel burdened by the responsibility.

“It’s God’s grace that we can carry out this mission,” Hurtubise added.

Finally, O’Hara will discuss what it looks and feels like for disciples to be in the disciple-making business, Hurtubise said.

The pandemic has been stressful – particularly this latest phase, Hurtubise acknowledged, when everyone is waiting for COVID-19 to just go away – so diocesan officials are hoping schools and parishes will be able to create a retreat-like environment for attendees. They are asking priests to begin with a morning Mass – with a focus on making it liturgically beautiful and inspiring – and then to show Bishop Powers’ talk afterward.

The diocese will provide reflection questions for the bishop’s address, as well as for O’Hara’s talk, which will be shown following the first discussion. More time for reflection will be provided after O’Hara concludes.

Some staff members may be in quarantine, Hurtubise added, so they will be able to watch the videos from home, and perhaps discussion can be facilitated via Zoom or some other platform.

This is the first Fall Conference since the establishment of Hurtubise’s department, the Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship, was announced by the bishop in March. That the disciple-making mission is reflected in the theme of the 2021 conference is “in no way a departure,” Hurtubise commented.

“One of the hopes in creating the new office was to give more clarity to that trajectory … a little more name recognition to the sense that this is where the bishop is leading us … (that’s) kind of the way we’ve been going for the last couple of years,” he said.

O’Hara will provide “really rich and beautiful” guidance but also practical direction, he added, “to re-ground us in that foundational mission that we all have.”

Ryan O’hara