Sister mentors provide faith formation for 120 women at leadership event

  • Novices of the Sisters of Life chat with young Given Forum participants over lunch as the 2019 forum concluded on June 16, 2019, on the campus of the Catholic University of America. (GSR file photo)

Religious sisters and a diverse group of laywomen gathered to bond in faith and forge new paths in church leadership during the 2019 Given Institute's Catholic Young Women's Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C. The forum brought together 120 participants from 30 states with members of 13 religious orders on the scenic grounds of the Catholic University of America for a five-day formation journey that emphasized both prayer and professionalism.

"We came here in response to the great need to form young women spiritually and personally to be great leaders in our church," said Sister Sanguinis of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, who participated in the forum for the first time. "It was a great success. It was beautiful. There were many opportunities for the girls to form their intellectual foundation and their faith and to seek the will of God, which is ultimately most important."

The June 12-16 forum brought together diverse people with the common goal of empowering young women to invest their talents in leading initiatives in the Catholic Church. The participants, ranging from ages 21 to 30, developed individual mission plans as they worked together with a group of 25 laywomen mentors and 50 religious sisters.

Some of the action plans for this year included creating young adult and parish ministries, doing pro-life work, sharing resources for homeless women, forming women's groups and organizing retreats and Bible studies. Past action plans have resulted in the creation of organizations including Behold, a contemplative women's art group, and The Catholic Woman storytelling platform.

Religious orders represented included the Little Sisters of the Poor; the Sisters of Life; Religious Sisters of Mercy; the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist; the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT); the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles; the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence; the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia; the Franciscan Sisters Third Order Regular of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother; the Marian Sisters; the School Sisters of Christ the King; the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará; the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity; and the Society of Our Mother of Peace.

"I thought it was amazing. The young women who participated are all incredible," said Rosemarie Banich, director of evangelization for the Miami Archdiocese, who responded to an invitation to be a Given mentor and attended the forum for the first time. "It gave me great hope for the future."

To encourage their professional development, the women heard from speakers including John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America, and Stephen Giordano of Day One Group consulting firm, who discussed a wide range of topics, including interpersonal communication skills, vision, motivation and personal development.

"Find your talents and your God-given aptitudes and work as hard as you can to develop them," Garvey said, outlining main points of advice for the young women to remember. "Be useful and think big."

Despite the emphasis on hands-on skills including listening, body language and time management, faith remained the central focus of the event. The spiritual aspect of the forum was brought to life by the many sisters who attended and addressed participants. The sisters shared guidance about faith, prayer and interior life that lent the Given forum the calm atmosphere of a spiritual retreat.

One of the key spiritual addresses was given by Mercy Sr. Anna Marie McGuan, who invited participants to deepen their interior life with lectio divina meditation centering on readings from Scripture. McGuan reminded the young women of their common journey of discipleship and advised them to follow the footsteps of the apostles by developing inner spiritual formation.

"St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that you cannot love what you do not know," McGuan said. "In order to love our Lord, then, we must know him. And we come to know him through prayer, through meditation and contemplation."

McGuan said lectio divina is one way to reflect on the mysteries of Christ's life so as to deepen one's spiritual foundation and understanding of faith. She advised participants wishing to pursue it to set aside a special reading nook in their home where they can regularly focus on scriptural passages and turn their minds toward God.

"Contemplate the mysteries of Jesus. Let the Holy Spirit lead you to the love that is their source," McGuan said of the interior life. "And then live deeply rooted in faith, hope and love. If you do that, your life will be that of a disciple."

Accompanied by the sisters, the young women also participated in daily Masses, a holy hour, confession, and spiritual direction. Attendees left the forum with the renewed purpose of carrying forward a unique mission in the Catholic Church.

One of young mission leaders is Sarah Carlstrom of Wyoming, a missionary at COR Expeditions. The project of the Catholic University of Wyoming seeks to share Catholic spirituality through dynamic wilderness adventures, including rock climbing, hiking and mountaineering.

"The conference offerings of dynamic talks, small group and mentoring sessions, social and networking time, all underwritten with beautiful opportunities for prayer, Mass, and Adoration were just what I needed and far more than I expected," Carlstrom wrote in an email after the conference. 

Carlstrom said the community and support she received through Given would be a blessing as she continues her mission to share the faith with others amid the beauty of nature.

"For people who would be interested in coming, I'd say that for all the amount of knowledge, advice, and real-life skills you gain here, you gain an equal amount of inspiration," Banich said. "You gain everything across the board."

The Given forum debuted in 2016. Intended as a one-time-only event, it was met with such a positive reception that organizers came together to ensure the forum would continue. Organizers told Global Sisters Report that the 2019 Given forum was the second installment in what will now be an annual tradition, and that young women with an interest in Catholic leadership are welcome to apply.

"You saw this invitation," emcee Sr. Bethany Madonna Burwell announced to participants during the forum. "You were moved, and you said, 'Yes.' "

[Zita Ballinger Fletcher is a journalist and the author of more than 10 fiction and nonfiction books.]