Grateful for the Steubenville Conferences

PHOTO: Fr. Chris Martin, Me, Megan Mastroianni, and Paul J. Kim 

In June I was doing music for a Steubenville Youth Conference that Paul J. Kim spoke at. If you haven’t heard of him, you should check out his website HERE. He’s an incredibly talented young man who is on fire for God and has a great message for young people. During his keynote, he talked about going to a Steubenville conference as a teenager and how the host of that conference said something that changed his life. It was a powerful story.

The next day, as we were all sitting together at lunch, he looked at me and said, “Hey, I think that was you!” Sure enough, it was. Then two other people on the speaking team that weekend, Megan Mastroianni and Fr. Chris Martin, both shared how I had also been at Steubenville conferences they were at when they were younger (2002 and 1996).

This became a theme throughout the summer. Katie Hartfiel shared a picture when she was a “fan girl” of mine in high school. Oscar Rivera told a story from the stage about how he had a conversion in 1995 (and still remembered the horse I rode in on). Kris Frank, hosting a conference for the first time, mentioned that I was the host at the conference he had a powerful conversation at.

image1

PHOTO: Me and Katie Hartfiel, 2001

I did the math and realized that last weekend was my 75th youth conference in 23 years. That number is a bit ridiculous. If you average about two thousand young people at each conference, that means the Steubenville conferences have given me the opportunity to share my gifts of speaking, music, and comedy in front of about 150,000 young people. There’s only one word that comes to mind as I let that sink in:

Grateful.

My first conference was in the summer of 1994. I was just out of college (Theater major from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL). I had met Jim Beckman (who was the host of that conference) a few months before at the first Catholic Heart Work Camp in Orlando (fun fact: I was the first Carpenter Commando). It was his idea to bring me to Steubenville, a place I had never heard of. At the time he said the weekend could use my gift of comedy (I was working at an improvisational comedy club at the time) to inject some fun into the weekend. But later he shared that he knew in his heart that I needed to experience the kind of Catholic ministry that Steubenville was offering. He was absolutely right.

So from the beginning there was a mutual blessing: the conferences blessed me by being a part of them, and I blessed the conferences by using my gifts in the weekend. It began with comedy but soon grew to songwriting (writing many of the theme songs of the 90s), speaking, hosting, and leading worship. In fact, over these past 23 years I’ve done everything you could do at a conference short of concentrating the Eucharist (yes, I’ve even spoken at a women’s session).

In 2005 I was asked to provide music for not just the youth but also the adult conferences as well. Since we’re counting, last weekend was my 67th young adult or adult conference. The fact that I’ve done over 140 Steubenville summer conferences really blows my mind. I still find them energizing, life giving, and powerful moments of God’s grace.

I am continually humbled and grateful for the opportunity to serve at the Steubenville Summer Conferences. I’m always excited when someone says, “I remember you from 1997!” Even if I didn’t say or do anything particularly profound that changed that person’s life back then, it is cool that God let me be a part of the team of people that blessed him or her.

This year the Steubenville summer conferences celebrated its 40th year. What an honor to have participated in 23 of those! While I don’t want to minimize the wonderful things God has done through me over these past decades at those conferences, I also realize that I have been more blessed by having the conferences in my life than vice versa. I could have said no to Jim’s invitation back in 1993, deciding instead to keep doing comedy and music in Orlando, and the conferences would have continued to grow and bless hundreds and thousands of teens. It would have been my loss!

Last weekend, just as I do at the end of every summer, I put my guitar down after the closing song of Mass and said a prayer of gratitude. There’s no sign of me stopping right now, but I also know I’m not the master of my own fate. I can’t believe it has gone on this long, so who knows?

All I know is that I’m so thankful for being a part of the ministry of the Steubenville summer conferences. I can’t imagine my life without them.

 

When the Internet isn’t Enough

Bob and Sunny

PHOTO: Me and Clayton Farris, who plays “Sonny”, on the “Ask J” set. 

There was a time when adolescence was considered to be a moment of asking the Great Questions in life: Why am I here? What is my purpose? Why is there suffering in the world? In previous generations they’d ask family members, a teacher, or a friend for the answer. But today, they ask Google.

The challenge with the Internet is that you can find any answer you want to any question you ask. Many people don’t realize that “information” is not the same as “wisdom”. Deluged by a variety of opinions, blogs, and posts, it is easy to see why this generation is so relativistic—how can there possibly be a right answer when there are so many possibilities?

At Franciscan University, we wanted to create a web series that, we hope, would make a young person realize that perhaps Google doesn’t have the answers to the “big” questions we ask. And that’s where we came up with the idea for “Ask J”.

“Ask J” is a five part video series that follows J, a new employee at the Internet, as he tries to answer questions like “Why is there suffering in the world?” and “YOLO, right?” The hope is that it could be used as a discussion starter in youth or young adult settings, or something that could be shared on the Internet with a friend to start up a discussion about the bigger things in life. I got to serve as the executive producer of this project and it was a real blessing to be involved in such a high-quality production.

When Jesus taught, sometimes He explained things directly; other times He used parables. I think a lot of Catholic media does the former but misses the latter. I can see why: it is cheaper and easier to film a talking head explaining this or that Church doctrine. It takes a lot more work and expense to tell a story. Yet young people respond far better to narratives than lectures, and so we tried to create a funny story with engaging characters that might draw the viewer into thinking about deeper issues.

The more these are watched and shared, the more likely we will get to keep doing projects like this at Franciscan. So please, link to these via your social media and share them with friends. We have a lot of other great ideas we’d like to bring to life!

A Doctor in the House

I’m flying high from a successful defense of my dissertation yesterday. Literally, I’m flying on a plane home from England as I’m writing this. And by the way, that is the proper use of the word “literally” because 1) it is not a metaphor or exaggeration and 2) I wrote it down.

I guess I have to be picky about my language now because, well, I have a PhD! Honestly, for most of my life I never thought this happen and some things that happened in the past few months really made me concerned that it wouldn’t. I knew the process of getting a doctorate would be a lot of work, but didn’t expect the emotional rollercoaster that it became.

The lowest point in the journey came just a few months ago, in January, when I thought I had submitted my final draft. I had mistakenly thought the dissertation was to be 60,000 to 100,000 words and that examiners preferred shorter dissertations over longer ones. My different supervisors read various chapters at a time but nobody saw the whole thing until I put it together and sent it out. It was a little shy of 60,000 words. I immediately got an email asking where was the rest of it, and did I know it was supposed to be between 90,000 and 100,000 words?

I was on a plane to Florida when I got that email. I began to cry. After working four years on this, how was I supposed to come up with 50% more content? Plus, I had some pressures at Franciscan (at the time) that meant I needed to be finished by MAY.

Though I tried to be prayerful throughout the whole process, that was a moment of true surrender. I thought of the young boy who gave his five loaves and two fish to Jesus. On its own it wasn’t much, but Jesus did something incredible with it.

Over the next six weeks, I lived in my office, working crazy hours. I often went to bed praying that angels would keep typing for me while I slept. I was blessed to have a number of speaking events that let me hide in a corner and continue to write. Numerous friends comforted me with words of encouragement and constant prayers—I can’t tell you what that support meant to me! By early March I felt like the dissertation was really strong, better than it had ever been. I checked the word count… 95,000 words. An incredible blessing from God!

My supervisors signed off on it, but warned they didn’t think it was quite ready enough. There are a number outcomes for the defense of a British PhD: the award is given right there, the need for minor modifications (three to six months), the need for major modifications (six months to a year), the need to resubmit and try again, the granting of a second Masters degree (with its own category of minor and major modifications), and complete fail. Obviously, the last three categories are the nightmare (I had that nightmare more than a few times). My supervisors suggested to expect certainly minor and likely major modifications. I wasn’t so concerned about potential minor revisions—we had been cautioned since the beginning that a very small percentage of students gets away with a direct award—but the major ones could keep me busy for up to another year!

Another different thing from the British PhD system is that, unlike PhDs in America or much of Europe, you defend in front of strangers, not the people who helped you write the dissertation. They think this makes the defense more rigorous, as there could be some bias with those who know you and have already given input on the thesis. (This is not at all to suggest that American and Europe PhD defenses aren’t extremely difficult! But I think the way England does it is far more terrifying—and my friends with PhDs from the US agree.)

So yesterday I found myself at a moment I had envisioned for the past five years—the defense of my dissertation. That morning I prayed in the Sacred Heart Chapel that Blessed John Henry Newman had built (pictured above). I offered Jesus my loaves and fishes, knowing it wasn’t much but it was all I could do, and prayed He would do something amazing with it. Then I prayed a rosary, not to ask for help, but in thanksgiving for what I knew God would accomplish. He didn’t bring me this far to leave me.

I was escorted into the meeting room, met my two examiners, and we talked about my dissertation. The time flew by. They pressed me on a number of issues, but overall seemed satisfied with my answers. It was a really amazing conversation with other scholars about my work. I actually enjoyed myself!

Then I was told to leave while they discussed. My supervisors were in the other room, with my wife, all eager to hear how it went. I said I thought it went well. Dare I hope for minor modifications?

I was asked back in and was told the incredible news: award directly given, no need for modifications. “Congratulations, Dr. Rice.” I was so stunned I had to ask him to repeat it. My supervisors were shouting for joy. It was an incredible moment I will never forget in my life.

Maryvale-PhD

One of the great blessings of that moment were I the people I knew were there with me in spirit. One of my closest friends sent me an email before my defense: “Know that as you sit and begin to present – the sudden calmness you will feel rushing over you – is the love and faith of so many people who hold you in prayer.” That is exactly what happened.

So know you can call me Dr. Bob Rice, an achievement that happened through a lot of hard work, the support of friends, but most of all through the providence of God. I pray (and have confidence) that God will use this to continue to further the Kingdom. To Jesus be all the glory!

Unanswered Questions from Theology on Tap

Last week I had a great time in Cleveland speaking at a Theology on Tap. I was asked to talk about, “Proclaiming Christ to a Pagan World”. There were so many questions I didn’t have time to answer them! So I said I’d put them in a blog, and behold, I am a man of my word.

What is a good way to talk about Jesus to a friend who has fallen away from the Catholic Church?

I think that would depend on why he or she fell away from the Catholic faith. A doctrinal issue? A moral disagreement? Apathy? All of those might require different approaches. But the one thing in common would be a witness of love and joy. I don’t think those kinds of situations are usually changed because you can argue a point effectively. If you are frequently sharing (and showing) how Jesus has given you an abundant life, that is the best “conversation starter” to get to the heart of why your friend might no longer be into the Catholic faith.

As a young mother or father with a quickly growing number of young children, your priority is to your family. However, to what extent and in what ways are you called to evangelize during that stage of life? 

Holy families are a powerful means of evangelization! I love sharing with strangers that I have seven kids. They always react in shock: “Did you say seven!?!” I immediately reply, “Yeah, it’s awesome!” That makes them even more in shock. So many of them expect me to joke about how I have no time or my life is crazy. Too many times in society we treat marriage or family like a punchline. Another example: I have a t-shirt that says, “I Love My Wife”. Someone came up to me, laughed, and looked at the back of my shirt, expecting some kind of joke… but there is nothing there. I just actually love my wife and I’m not afraid to wear a t-shirt that says so. I think one good way to evangelize is to not play into the negative, anti-life and anti-marriage stereotypes that are common in society (like “marriage is the end of freedom”, “kids ruin your lives”, etc.). Our priority is to our family, but there is not a conflict between family and evangelization when we realize that the witness of a holy family is a powerful way to share the Gospel.

How do we evangelize as Catholics? Isn’t a lot of what you discussed common b/w Christians without the “weird” stuff of Catholicism? (Mass, pope, priests, rosary, etc.)

I assume this question is because I talked a lot about sharing Jesus but didn’t mention things like Mass, pope, etc. It’s a great question! Since we all read the same Gospels, I think the initial proclamation of the Good News is very similar among all Christians, whether they be Catholics, Evangelicals, Baptists, etc. We proclaim Jesus Christ, Son of God, who became flesh and dwelt among us, died for our sins, rose for our salvation, seated in glory and calls us to be His disciples. I think it is important that we “claim” this message as Catholics and not avoid talking about Jesus because we fear it sounds too “Protestant”. The saints of the Church had been proclaiming this message for over a thousand years before our family became divided. A significant difference between Catholicism and many other Christians is how we encounter Jesus and what it means to follow him. Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters focus on the personal relationship—”me and Jesus”—the kind of faith community you join is optional. (BTW, there are thousands of different Christian denominations in the US, so forgive the generalization!) Catholics see the Church as an integral part of experiencing Christ, especially through the sacraments, intercession of saints, apostolic tradition and authority, etc. So as a Catholic I would share how Jesus Christ has changed my life and how I’ve been transformed by the sacrament of the Eucharist, or how my understanding of how to follow Jesus has been beautifully shaped by the writings of St. Theresa of Avila. The focus is still on Jesus, but my witness brings in the elements of my Catholic faith.

How do you get your “regular” Mass attendee to become more involved in parish life beyond the “minimum”. 

They have to fall in love with Jesus. We do the “minimum” when we think we are a part of an organization. We do more when we realize we are a part of a family. I think we need to do a better job of proclaiming the love and mercy of God and witness to the joy of following him—the kind of things Pope Francis so beautifully expressed in Evangelii Gaudium. One way of showing that love to the “regular” attendee is to change the attitude that is prevalent in many parishes: people are there for us. We sadly often rely on people coming to our faith communities because they are obliged to. What are we doing to help those who come to our Church? When we start serving others, just as Christ did, people will respond by getting more involved.

How do you recommend dealing with discouragement when efforts to evangelize make no perceived change?

Humility. Success or failure isn’t up to us—conversion is a work of the Holy Spirit. We need to be open to sharing our faith with others, but He is the one who is doing the “heavy lifting”. And remember that people turned away from Jesus. Seriously, if people wouldn’t listen to the Incarnate Word, why do you think they would all listen to you? When Jesus told the parable of the sower and the seed, it was the minority of those who heard the word that ended up bearing fruit. It’s more like playing baseball than taking the SAT. People who hit 1/3 end up in the Hall of Fame! So I might humbly lower your expectations, and don’t blame yourself if it doesn’t seem to work. (I mean, it might be your fault, but I’m assuming your not a jerk that tells everyone they are going to hell.)

How do you continue to get back up in times of weakness? 

Cling to His mercy! I think this is so important and one of the great examples of Pope Francis. He often talks about being a sinner and forgiven by God. Though this is tough to admit, it is a great way to evangelize. If people see us as “super Christians” then we become untouchable, and they wonder why God loves us but not them. St. Paul said, “His power is made perfect in weakness”. The difference between a saint and a sinner is that the saint got up after he or she fell. It is all about clinging to His love and mercy that never comes to an end.

I hope that helps! If you have more questions, or if I didn’t understand what your question was actually about (I had a hard time with some of the handwriting), feel free to ask in the comment section and I’ll try my best to respond.