The nearly 800 participants of a virtual evangelism conference last weekend may have been keeping physical distances, but they were not distant in spirit.

In 11 parish halls and in homes across the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Catholics gathered to listen, talk about, and be empowered to a mission of sharing the Gospel in their communities at the virtual Upper Room Conference Sept. 19.

“The Holy Spirit is writing, right now, the next chapter of the Church in your life and mine,” guest speaker Father John Riccardo of Detroit told participants.

“This time in human history is particularly unique. Just a little over a year from now was the first time in the United States that the life expectancy in our country declined for a third consecutive year … The last time that happened was 1918,” he said.

“What’s happening now, in our age? We’re not living in a world war and we might be living through a pandemic, but it’s nothing like the Spanish Flu was.”

Instead, we’re facing what sociologists describe as “deaths of despair,” he said. Suicide rates in the U.S. have gone up 30 per cent since 1999 and suicide is the second leading cause of death among children 10-14, he said. Throughout North America, including Vancouver, opioid crises and increases in cirrhosis of the liver from alcoholism are battering populations, especially young people aged 25-34.

“The world in which you and I are living right now is crying,” said Father Riccardo.

“The world’s waiting, the people on the streets in all these cities are waiting for us to do something. To show a credible, compelling witness of the difference that God and God alone can make. That’s why if we will be the Church, if we will shine like a city on a hill, if we will take the time to share with people what Jesus has done in our own lives, if we do what we can do be agents of recreation in all the spheres of influence that we have, then we will be a means by which others will be attracted to the church because they will see it as a credible witness.”

Conference host Eric Chow on screen at St. Augustine’s Church. (Proclaim Instagram)
Dr. Mary Healey is seen speaking at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. (Proclaim Instagram)

Mary Healy, a professor of Scripture at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary, also zeroed in on the message Christians on mission can offer the world now.

“We’re living through a storm right now, aren’t we? A tiny particle, a virus, a microscopic particle has basically brought the world to its knees and has shown us how fragile we are, how mortal we are as human beings, just how little we’re in control.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic is a trial, it is also an “opportunity” for Catholics “to become who we really are: disciples of Jesus who are absolutely committed to him, who know the presence of his kingdom within us, who know that Jesus is alive, and who have something to say to the world: the announcement that the kingdom is here, that Jesus really is alive, and that he loves every human being and has a glorious plan for every person.”

The first Upper Room was held in 2019 at the Vancouver Convention Centre in response to Pope Francis’ call for a renewed evangelistic spirit during the Extraordinary Month of Mission. More than 1,000 people attended and about half signed a pledge to become missionaries in their communities. That letter was mailed to Pope Francis.

The conference also marked the launch of the Proclaim Movement, an Archdiocese of Vancouver initiative to train and empower Catholics to run small group faith studies in their parishes and homes.

This year, the Upper Room was offered virtually for the first time. It had nearly 800 registered viewers, including 488 watching from home and 285 tuning in from 11 parish sites in Coquitlam, Maple Ridge, Surrey, and Vancouver. Most participants were from B.C., but some tuned in live from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, and Washington State.

Conference participants smile and keep physical distances at the St. Anthony of Padua Parish host site. (Photo submitted)

“This year, we’re not a thousand-plus strong at the Convention Centre, but we are all ‘here’ virtually and trust that the good Lord is with us as he promised,” said Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, in his address.

“We are once again imploring a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on our archdiocese’s mission; that is, that we will be increasingly empowered by his grace to ‘make disciples of all nations’ through our proclamation and witness to Jesus Christ and his Gospel.”

Archbishop Miller said gone are the days when bringing people to Jesus is seen as a priest’s or religious sister’s or trained professional’s job.

“On the contrary, let’s agree that ‘making disciples’ is every Christian’s obligation,” he said.

“Indeed, we can readily affirm that ‘it is baptism that makes us missionaries,’” as Pope Francis has said. “At our baptism, whether as infants or adults, we each received the Great Commission, the mandate to make everyone disciples of the Lord Jesus.”

Special guests also included young adult outreach minister Pete Burak and award-winning Catholic musician Matt Maher.

Everyone involved in the conference this year was “socially distanced,” said Maher, “but the good news is as we sing and pray, God is not distant to us.”

More information about the Proclaim Movement is at