Hosted by the dCEC, the 2019 Fall Conference provided an environment of fellowship for attendees from across the nation
The theme of this year’s dCEC Fall Conference was friendship: what it means to be a friend, the way influential thinkers have addressed this very topic over the centuries, and how to recognize the inherent dignity of all people. But while this is the first time in the Conference’s history that it has officially chosen to explore such concepts, this annual gathering has exemplified ideals of community and relationships since its conception.
The Fall Conference, first organized in 1999 by the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, has since become “the most important academic forum for fruitful discourse and exchange among the world’s leading Catholic leaders and those from other traditions.” This year’s conference took place from Nov. 7-9. Its jam-packed schedule boasted numerous paper presentations with topics ranging from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” to the virtue of chastity to digital media (all approached through the lens of friendship). There was even a movie screening!
Speakers and attendees—over 850 of whom registered in advance—flocked to Notre Dame to engage in what Carter Snead, the Center’s director, deemed “three days of meaningful engagement and rich dialogue across the disciplines.”
This dialogue was facilitated by the event’s many speakers, some of whom were invited, but many of whom applied for an opportunity to present their ideas to an audience of fellow truth-seekers. This year’s keynote address was given by the Most Rev. Borys Gudziak, the Ukranian Archeparchy of Philadelphia. Other notable speakers included Alasdair MacIntyre, philosopher and Notre Dame professor emeritus, and Margaret Hogan, former chair of the philosophy department at the University of Portland. Both presented papers at the very first Fall Conference.
MacIntyre and Hogan were not the Conference’s only repeat attendees. According to Ken Hallenius, communications specialist for the dCEC, the Conference has become a yearly highlight for people of all ages. Hallenius believes that individuals return faithfully, in part, because they see old friends and have the opportunity to form new relationships. The event itself, he says, has become a “community,” in which everyone prays together, participates in Mass, and share meals.
Community, along with fruitful dialogue and mutual learning, has always been one of the conference’s primary goals. When asked about relationships that had been formed during past years’ events, Hallenius was bursting with examples: he mentioned groups of undergraduate students who come from other schools and have the chance to connect with their peers through specific receptions for young adults, along with older adults who are able to interact with the next generation of academics. The conference is also a chance for members of the online Catholic community to finally meet people “from the internet for the first time in person,” as well as for students to make connections with speakers. Although many are “giants in (their) field(s),” he says, they are equally excited to interact with younger attendees. Hallenius even knows of a married couple who met for the first time at a Fall Conference.
Friendship and hospitality also helped to ensure that this year’s conference would be possible. Because McKenna Hall is under construction this year, the conference lacked a single location (a ‘home base,’ so to speak). The weekend certainly would not have run as smoothly if Martijn Cremers, Dean of the Mendoza College of Business, had not offered Mendoza buildings as the main location for Conference events, providing a solution to what Hallenius considered one of the year’s biggest logistical challenges.
Conference organizers, led by Margaret Cabaniss (now in her sixth year as manager), have always extended the same sort of “radical hospitality”—the very ideal which was celebrated this weekend—to all of the event’s participants. They make sure to invite speakers whose beliefs may not align perfectly with those of the dCEC in the hope of discovering wisdom wherever it may be. There is also a focus, according to Hallenius, on facilitating dialogue with “people who aren’t already with (them)” on certain questions, avoiding the insularity that usually follows when groups only speak to people with whom they agree.
While fellowship and community may have permeated every facet of this weekend, this has been equally true of every other year’s conference, if not as explicitly. “This year’s theme,” Hallenius says, “is recognizing what we’ve been doing all along.”
What exactly have they been doing since 1999? Hallenius described the weekend as an “opportunity to interact with people across the disciplines,” facilitating encounters between individuals of all ages, backgrounds, and belief systems, all of whom are interested in “exploring the richness of an idea.” Typical conference dialogue concerns itself with the “whys” associated with important issues, not just what those issues are.
In order to promote dialogue between fields which may not often interact, organizers send postcards to thinkers from all different disciplines, inviting them to apply as speakers. They are equally intentional when accepting paper submissions, doing so with an interdisciplinary end product in mind.
This approach, which ensures that conference discussion transcends traditional boundaries, seems to have resonated: this year, the dCEC received over 250 paper submissions from potential speakers around the world, which Hallenius says is the most he’s seen in his three and a half years with the Center. “Word keeps getting spread,” he said, and speakers “want to learn from other speakers.”
The Fall Conference community may be growing, but its emphasis on community-building and fellowship is nothing new. As Hallenius put it, “The only thing that’s changed (about the Conference) is the size.”
Nia Sylva is a sophomore from Summit, NJ studying PLS, history and journalism (i.e., she has no idea what she wants to do with her life). When she’s not reading or writing, she can probably be found either running or making pasta. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org