by Joe Bollig
LENEXA — The message was strong and the style was what the speaker, Richard Lane Jr., called “Batholic” — Baptist African-American preaching style with Catholic substance.
“We have to stand up for what we believe in,” he thundered. “We have to stand up for what God has given us!”
Lane, a convert and an evangelist from St. Alphonsus Liguori Parish in St. Louis, was one of two main speakers at the 14th annual Men Under Construction men’s conference on Feb. 27 at St. James Academy in Lenexa.
Society is experiencing many evils because the devil is attacking humanity at the core of the family — the fathers, he said.
“Well, who is the head of the household?” he shouted as he swept his arm dramatically over the men. “It is you, brothers! It is you! And the devil is kicking our behinds each and every day.”
“Ouch!” someone called out from the more than 650 men seated before Lane.
“Amen! Ouch,” Lane replied. “But we don’t know how to fight back, brothers. A lot of us continue to live in fear! Every day!”
Too many men are finding solace in sin: alcohol abuse, fornication, and pornography.
“It’s killing us, brothers!” he shouted. “It’s killing you! And it’s killing your families!”
Few of the men in the chapel and commons of St. James Academy had ever personally experienced someone like Lane before, and they sat in rapt attention.
The second speaker of the day, former mobster Michael Franzese followed Lane with his own story of how he became a key man in the Colombo crime family of New York, and gave it all up when he converted to Christ — the ideal man.
“I grew up in that life,” said Franzese. “I was always told, ‘You’ve got to be a man’s man, Michael; you’ve got to emulate a man.’”
And so Franzese began to emulate some of the most ruthless and dangerous men in organized crime, until he found a new model of manliness.
“But then, when I started to read about Jesus — sometimes we forget that he was a man, but I didn’t,” he continued. “I was so in tune with the manliness, the manhood of Jesus, I was blown away by him. I said, ‘My gosh, this is the man I want to emulate in my life.’ …The way he stood in front of Pilate, knowing that he was innocent. Kept his mouth shut. Knew he had a job to do and was going to take it on the chin for everyone. There isn’t a mob guy in the world who’s going to do that.”
Lane and Franzese set the tone for what was a very successful event, said Dan Spencer, chairman of Men Under Construction.
“It was very good,” he said. “Our speakers were both very passionate and connected well with the attendees. And our breakout sessions did pretty well.”
This year’s event had a few firsts, said Phil Hernandez, a breakout session leader and Men Under Construction board member.
This was the first year the event was held at St. James Academy in Lenexa, and the first time the event was promoted on secular radio stations. It was also the first time the organizers planned eight breakout sessions instead of a large workshop, and it was the first time “parish captains” were used to promote the event.
“I thought it was phenomenal,” said Hernandez. “I really felt that the new venue, the speakers, the new format for the actual event itself — with speakers in the morning and breakouts that addressed real topics that men have to face every day — was a combination that touched hearts. [Richard] Lane said, ‘I’m trying to reach and save souls,’ and I think we saved a soul or two, or at least energized a few. It was a pretty special day.”
The crowd was larger than what the organizers expected — the total boosted by walk-in attendees — so a moveable wall was opened between the chapel and a commons area, and more food had to be hurriedly prepared for lunch.
Tim Ruoff, a member of Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Topeka, arrived in a chartered bus with 30 other parishioners. He also brought his son Josh, age 15.
“I think he was really moved by some of the stories shared, especially by Michael Franzese,” said Ruoff. “Michael did a breakout session with the young people. I don’t know exactly what he said, but Josh said it really moved him.”
Rich Bartlett, a member of the Church of the Ascension in Overland Park, made the day a multigenerational affair. He attended with his 16-year-old son Alec and his 75-year-old father Dick — the first time for each of them.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to spend some quality time together,” said Bartlett. “It was sold as a really well put-together venue to have fellowship with other men, and for fathers and sons. That was the expectation I came in with and, man, did I come out with a great experience.”
The speakers couldn’t have been better, he said, because their message resonated at all age levels. Also, the variety of activities gave the Bartletts several opportunities to share special experiences together.
“The beauty was that there wasn’t just one moment,” he said. “I felt very comfortable opening up in a multitude of ways. It seemed to open up dialogue between a dad, a grandfather, and a 16-year-old boy. So, it just wasn’t one moment. It was the whole day.”
The day began with the two speakers and was followed by opportunities to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. The lines were long even though several priests were available.
After lunch, the attendees went to two of eight breakout sessions, where speakers addressed particular topics. Afterward, the men returned to the chapel for eucharistic procession and adoration led by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. The event closed with a final blessing by the archbishop.
The organizers of Men Under Construction are planning for next year’s event to be even better to celebrate its 15th anniversary.
They already have allies in attendees like Bartlett.
“I will be their biggest advocate,” he said. “I’ve sent e-mails to several of my Catholic buddies who stayed on the sidelines, saying, ‘You’ve go to go next year.’ Several are kicking themselves for not going. We’ll be rallying for a lot of folks to go next year.”