GIVEN forum creates space for young Catholic women to embrace 'feminine genius'

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Sister of Life Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, chair of CMSWR, and Sister of Life Mary Gabriel Devlin, the event's committee chair, talk about the inspiration and goals for GIVEN.

Regina Karluah, left, a college student from Philadelphia, walks to Mass on June 9. (GSR photo / Dawn Araujo-Hawkins)

Washington, D.C. — On the first night of GIVEN, Matt Maher's "Hold Us Together" played softly over the speakers as women ambled into the great room at The Catholic University of America's Pryzbyla Center. A few days later, two GIVEN attendees would have an impromptu dance party in this same room, twirling to this same song.

But on the first night, there was no dancing, only laughter and hugs as old friends reconnected and new friends met for the first time.

The inaugural GIVEN forum, which took place June 7-12, was the brainchild of the Council of Major Superiors of Women. As Sister of Life Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, chair of the CMSWR board, told Global Sisters Report the sisters were inspired to create a leadership forum for young Catholic women when the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation encouraged the organization to find a creative way to celebrate the Year of Consecrated Life. (The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation also funds Global Sisters Report.)

The end result was GIVEN, a weeklong, full-scholarship program that brought more than 300 women between the ages of 20 and 30 to Washington, D.C., to learn about what Pope John Paul II called "feminine genius" and how to channel that genius into "authentic leadership."

CMSWR's GIVEN committee chair, Sister of Life Mary Gabriel Devlin, told GSR the vision had been to create a conference that was encouragement-based rather than issue-based, to create a space where women would "know that they are loved and encouraged" by the Catholic church.

To that end, in addition to attending daily Mass and participating in both a eucharistic and a Marian procession, attendees heard from more than 30 speakers during the week, including: Catholic Relief Services president and CEO Carolyn Woo, who spoke about her journey to servant leadership; George Mason University law professor Helen Alvaré, who spoke on the feminine genius; and Sister of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin Matará Sr. Maria Theotókos Adams, who spoke on the Blessed Mother as the model for the new evangelization.

While each of the 30 speakers presented on a specific topic — delivering either a reflection on Catholic womanhood or teaching a practical leadership skill — the overall purpose of their messages was to a provide a counternarrative to what they called a secular feminism that teaches women to deny their God-given femininity.

By design, women have a particular openness to being merciful, said Kim Daniels, co-founder of Catholic Voices USA, in one of the most enthusiastically received talks of the week. That feminine inclination to mercy, she added, gives women a unique role to play both in the world and in the church.

"If the feminine genius is real, it follows that women should have a robust place in the church, within church governance and decision-making," she said. "We should bring our lived understanding of mercy . . . to the church."

Daniels added that leadership does not require ordination and, contrary to a lot of anti-Catholic rhetoric, the Catholic church has a long history of supporting women in their uniquely feminine leadership roles.

Gloria Purvis, an EWTN radio and television host, echoed the latter point in her talk on evangelizing in the public square. Secular feminism, she said, teaches women that the biological capacity to bear children makes them weak and is something to keep at bay with contraception. The church, on the other hand, accepts women in the fullness of their femininity.

"The Catholic church doesn't ask me to check my fertility at the door to be a full member. That's No. 1," Purvis said to loud applause. "What we've heard is that what women need is access to artificial contraception, abortion, sterilization, yadda yadda yadda, so that we can achieve. And that's a lie from the pit of hell."

Gabriella Rizzi from Kansas City, Missouri, snaps a photo of her friends Alyssa Scotti, left, of New York City and Dani Bell of Kansas City before a morning keynote. (GSR photo / Dawn Araujo-Hawkins)

Although the forum was not a vocations recruitment event, women religious played an integral role throughout the week. About 100 sisters from 29 CMSWR congregations were in attendance, teaching prayer workshops, staffing tables, and facilitating the nightly meetings when GIVEN attendees worked on their apostolic action plans — proposals of mission or service for their home dioceses — that they were required to bring to D.C.

On the last day of the conference, Sister of Life Bethany Madonna, the week's emcee, revealed that the sisters had also written letters to each GIVEN attendee's bishop — 116 bishops in all — to inform them of the women's action plans and their zeal for the church. Bethany Madonna said many of the bishops responded enthusiastically and wanted to meet the young women in their dioceses.

"Religious women have always — for centuries — accompanied young women," Devlin said, adding that as times have changed, the ways sisters support women have also changed. "The idea was that at GIVEN, the sisters would walk with the women and say, 'We believe you can fly.'"

"The laywomen have always supported sisters, and we wanted to support them," said Daughter of Our Mother of Peace Sr. Dina Marie, one of the week's sister shepherds. "Even if they're not discerning a vocation to religious life, we wanted to support them and confirm them in their journey in the work of the church."

The sisters' efforts weren't lost on GIVEN attendees. During the closing breakfast, the women gave the sisters a standing ovation and presented them with a thank-you video they had filmed throughout the week.

An action-plan working group waits for their sister-facilitator to return. Action plans are expected to be implemented by April 2017, and each GIVEN attendee will be assigned an "accountability sister" to help them get their plans off the ground. (GSR photo / Dawn Araujo-Hawkins)
A GIVEN attendee, right, chats with Emily Sullivan from Endow, a study program about the theology of woman. (GSR photo / Dawn Araujo-Hawkins)

"If anything, this week, I've learned to be fearless in the way that we approach our action plans and the way that we approach God," said Mary Beth Scott, a GIVEN attendee from Long Island, New York. With her action plan, she would like to start a youth group in her parish.

Attendee Kathryn Claahsen said she also will take back with her a fearlessness when it comes to tackling her action plan, which involves improving the foster care system in her hometown of Chicago.

"What's really inspired me is seeing the witness of the sisters and seeing how they're on the forefront of all the issues that we value," she said. "I will take with me a very deep pride in what the church has accomplished and how it has stood up for women and for human rights.

"So often, we feel like we have to be ashamed of what the church has done when, in fact, in the church, we see the answers to the deep cry of the human condition."

Eucharistic adoration the evening of June 9. (GSR photo / Dawn Araujo-Hawkins)

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is a Global Sisters Report staff writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter: @dawn_cherie.]