From February 15-17, in the midst of a mid-winter thaw, I participated in the Mid-Atlantic Congress (MAC) 2018 in downtown Baltimore. The warming temperatures were an appropriate backdrop for this annual event. With its theme this year – “Hope in the Lord will not disappoint!” (based on Romans 5:5) – the MAC demonstrated development in key areas that made it substantially stronger than previous years’ offerings, highlighting how hope, like the springtime, is something that can rejuvenate. The promise of spiritual spring was in evidence as the MAC gathered this year on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday after Ash Wednesday.

The MAC is an annual gathering drawing together thousands of lay and ordained professionals in ministry, religious educators, theologians, pastors and even bishops and representatives from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is a leadership conference that helps provide those involved in ministry in the Catholic church access to resources, workshops, plenary speakers and more which help them continue to improve in their service to the People of God. The Association of Catholic Publishers (ACP) is the largest stakeholder, so one is guaranteed to find the latest books on ministry, liturgy, evangelization, theology and more in the exhibit hall, which was ceremonially, if unnecessarily, re-named the “Learning Resource Center” at this year’s event. (We get it MAC – there were short breakouts held there and all, but its still a place where you buy and sell stuff; no need to give in to the ecclesiastical tendency to name things to sound more important than they are!) There are plenaries and workshops galore at the event so there is no way to provide an overall impression of everything, so I will instead focus on the events in which I participated.

The event (as I experienced it) was truly one of the strongest in years, especially due to the stronger focus on intercultural realities of ministry, and a depth of workshops focused on ministry professionalization. The celebrations of Morning and Evening Prayer, along with the Eucharistic liturgies, were a significant improvement over previous years’ because of the attention given to ensuring that culturally diverse music was incorporated. This is not surprising since none other than renowned liturgical musician David Haas led the music & choral ministers. David’s expansive liturgical repertoire, already replete with liturgical music which includes masterful and theologically and pastorally appropriate music, has further expanded to include a variety of cultural styles in recent years. I made particular note of his leading his own music as a cantor for the psalm at one liturgy – an example that music ministers across the church should follow! One never knows the strength (or lack) of a singing assembly until one has had the opportunity – as I have – to have them respond to your direct, unmediated leadership of song in front of them! Regrettably, one thing the liturgies here continue to lack is silence in between movements and moments. This issue is not unique to Mass when celebrated in most places today, but at a regional conference like MAC, planners should go the extra mile to better model important reflective practice. 

Cardinal Tagale of the Philippines presided at the Opening Eucharist, offering reflections on the origins of hope, threw down early with a not-so-glancing blow at current political leaders making grandiose promises: “Hope comes from outside of us. Hope in God. Don’t hope in power, or money or ‘a businessman’.” The Cardinal came across as pastorally confident and actively engaged in ministry with people not only in his home country, but across the globe as a worker with CARITAS, the Catholic global lay ministry focused on care for the needs of children. Recounting a story of his visit to a refugee camp in Greece, the Cardinal got visibly emotional when relaying how, when searching for the exit to the camp – which was obscured – he was pointed to a sign, which read, in Greek “Ex-hodos” – Exodus, that is “the way out.” Recalling the biblical narrative of the same name, he remarked that upon seeing it a friend of his who was with him said “God must be here.”

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was also very prominent at the event, providing a great deal of useful ministry-related information to support those in immigrant, migrant and refugee communities throughout the country, particularly in this time when the U.S. government is engaged in a wantonly destructive deportation wave gashing through families and communities. In addition to highlighting legal aide for these groups, many resources were available to raise the plight of those affected by violence, climate change and other factors that force them into refugee status. Each public prayer event included the testimony of a refugee who is being or has been relocated to the U.S. through the work of CRS. Bringing these important justice issues to the fore in public prayer space was a bold step for the MAC, and it drew strong support from those present. CRS also presented a solid breakout workshops on human trafficking which was well attended. (Click here to view a CRS video on the issue.)

An evening session led by Fr. Ray East of the Archdiocese of Washington (pictured above on the main stage) focused on evangelization and mission through the unique experiences he brought back from a recent trip to Haiti where, several years after devastating earthquakes, the land is just now recovering its fertility to produce food – something which he witnessed while there and which was a source of great celebration. His testimony drove home the altered reality in which the poor of the world live and how the connections forged in ministry relationships through parish twinning, mission trips, etc. provide valuable connections to these harsh realities. Hope returns. Hope prevails, but the need to sustain it is real.

In addition I was able to hear Peter Denio of the Leadership Roundtable, speak to the challenge of negotiating change in ministry with valuable insights on how to avoid falling into the trap of becoming so focused on ‘maintenance’ that our parishes and communities lose sight of ‘mission.’ As someone who reflects on this theologically on many occasions, this was a valuable perspective. The Catholic Apostolate Center, one of MAC’s major sponsors, offered a very solid and compact presentation on Collaborative Pastoral Planning. Finally, it was standing room only for Dr. Bob McCarty’s presentation of research done in conjunction with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) providing detailed analysis of the reality of disaffiliation of young Catholics from the church. While difficult to hear the reality of the numbers and the challenges presented by the large disaffiliation that is happening, it is valuable to see what are the reasons behind the frequently thoughtful decisions of young children – often by the age of 13 – making decisions about departing from the participation in the life of the church. Bob’s valuable contribution is to help find new ways to discuss the reality and help avoid applying incorrect solutions to the problem due to faulty diagnosis. The work is entitled Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, published by St. Mary’s Press, and worthy of focused attention.

For all of the above, problems remain. The MAC remains unable to secure regular and free wi-fi access for participants in the hotel meeting space, something that has become a non-negotiable for conferences of this sort, especially one which makes use of a (generally strong) event app as a supplement / replacement of the traditional program. Some of the music at the evening programs reflects some of the worst tendencies of contemporary (white) Christian worship music – which is to say it is banal at best and theologically problematic at worst. An event of this sort should really strive to avoid presenting ‘pious piffle’ – well-meaning presentations of nice-sounding but ultimately simplistic forms of piety divorced from a substantial theological context. Nevertheless, the MAC in 2018 had a lot of hope to go around, and those who worked tirelessly to make it happen deserve their accolades!