Prayer, song and talks inspire at Catholic Conferences

CHESTNUT HILL -- Thousands of women from across the archdiocese and New England assembled April 19 for a day of faith and inspiration at the 2009 Boston Catholic Women’s Conference.

The day-long conference, “Trust in the Lord with All Your Heart,” drew 2,500 women to Boston College’s Conte Forum for a program that included four keynote addresses as well as liturgical celebrations for Divine Mercy Sunday.

The women’s conference began in 2006, following the success of the first Boston Catholic Men’s conference the year prior, as a way to strengthen the Catholic women’s community by providing an arena for them to gather together and discuss how to live their faith in today’s world.

Scot Landry, the co-founder and co-coordinator of both conferences, said one of the most important aspects of the conference is the opportunity it gives participants to connect with other Catholic women.

“The speakers are important to the program, but it’s the total experience of [experiencing] it with thousands of other women, and then praying with thousands of other women,” that makes the program so effective, he said.

The first keynote address came from Sister Nancy Keller, a Sister of Charity and a founding member of the Saint Elizabeth Seton House of Prayer in New York. In her address, “Put Your Life in His Hands, Surrender Leads to Hope,” Sister Nancy analogized a Catholic’s faith in God to an anchor that “grasps the ground of our hearts” and gives us hope.

Hope, she said, carries us through times of purification, moments in the desert and events of suffering and pain in our lives.

“Embracing the Cross and finding our place in the Passion is an integral part of finding peace and faith and trusting our hearts to God,” said Sister Nancy.

In the day’s second address, Kerri Caviezel, wife of actor Jim Caviezel who portrayed Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ,” spoke to the women on “Defending the Faith in Tough Environments.” Caviezel centered her discussion on how the pillars of the Catholic Church shape family and married life and are essential to protecting the faith in today’s “hostile environment.”

“God did not call us to be successful, as the world wants us,” said Caviezel. “He called us to be faithful women of Christ.”

She exhorted the women to pray to the “huge multitude of saints” when they are in need of prayer and guidance.

“The community of saints is active, ladies,” she said. “They are here with us today, walking prayer-partners in our life.”

Following Caviezel’s address, three women were presented with Catholic of the Year Awards, which were established three years ago to acknowledge the women in the community who have lived the message being relayed by the conference, said Landry. The Culture of Life Award went to Nellie Gray for her 36 years of work leading the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. The Laywoman of the Year Award was presented to Loretta Gallagher from Newburyport for her leadership of various archdiocesan initiatives and in her own community. The last award, for Religious Sister of the Year, was given to Sister Marian Batho, the archdiocesan Delegate for Religious who serves as the liaison between the cardinal and the 2,800 men and women religious in the archdiocese.

Prior to the afternoon speaker program, attendants had time for lunch, confession, Eucharistic Adoration and opportunities to visit exhibitors from a spectrum of archdiocesan offices and organizations.

The mid-day program also included four breakout sessions: “Building Faith and Character in Families;” “Receive an Ocean of Graces on Divine Mercy Sunday;” “Where you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16)--Being led by the transforming power of faithful friendship;” and “ARISE Together in Christ: Renewing One’s Faith through Small Christian Communities.”

One breakout speaker, Dr. Karen Bohlin, head of Montrose School in Medfield, spoke on the significance of fostering faith and Catholic values in the family. In her address, Bohlin emphasized the importance of teaching children by example in today’s culture, especially.

“What really matters is how we portray ourselves in our daily lives, day in and day out,” she said.

Following the mid-day program, Dr. Mary Healy, an author and associate professor of Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, gave a talk on “Becoming Women of Peace” amidst, what she called, the “tremendous turmoil in the world today.”

“It is women, in particular, who God calls to be bearers of peace,” said Healey.

Amidst a state of war, economic crisis, breakdown of the family, and a society that is drifting away from and at times actively hostile to religion, Healey cautioned the women: “Do not fear,” she said. Instead, “Stress your faith deeper than ever before.”

“Withdraw into that place of intimacy with the Lord and allow him to renew and remind you of how much he loves you,” she said. “Pitch a tent in the heart of Jesus. Do what he tells you (and) listen to him--that is the way to peace.”

Johnette Benkovic, the founder of Living His Life Abundantly--a Catholic evangelization communications apostolate--gave the final address of the afternoon, entitled “God’s Mercy is for All.”

Benkovic gave a personal testimony on her return to Catholicism in 1981 after having been “enticed, totally entranced and bewitched by the voices of the (1970s).”

She spoke of her time at Pennsylvania State University where she paid heed to the voices of the students around her and forgot the truths that had been so carefully indoctrinated into her as a child. “I bought the lie,” she said.

On “emerging from the darkness” and her return to the Church, Benkovic said it was scripture and faith in God that brought her hope, healing, solace and direction in life.

“We end up in sin by beginning to make small sacrifices,” she said; ‘If we’re not careful and not examining ourselves, we begin to make excuses for the way we adopt those sacrifices and we begin to get comfortable with habitual sin.”

“Nothing you can do can eradicate his blessings from you. No sin can take it away from you. He is incapable of loving one of us more than the other; He loves us totally,” she said.

At 3 p.m. conference participants celebrated a Divine Mercy Holy Hour with Exposition and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Veneration of the Divine Mercy Image with a procession and the praying of the Divine Mercy Chaplet and Apostle’s Creed. The time of prayer and worship ended with Benediction and a communal singing of “Tantum Ergo.”

To conclude the conference, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley celebrated Mass in honor of Divine Mercy Sunday. In his homily, the cardinal spoke of the events of Holy Week as a love story, and of the tragedy of Judas’ suicide and Thomas’ unbelief.

He spoke on what constitutes discipleship and the responsibility of all Catholics to bear witness to Christ’s resurrection as granting them the opportunity for “a new life, a second chance.”

“True happiness is believing in Jesus and being his disciple,” he said. “It means being free of enslavement to money, power and pleasure” and being “in genuine solidarity, of one heart and one mind,” he said.

In an interview after the conference, a parishioner from Saint Joseph in Kingston and four-year conference attendee, Marie Barry, said the speaker line-up was “fabulous”, particularly citing Caviezel’s talk.

“She is a very real person and she is speaking the way that we feel,” she said of Caviezel.

“I think it is such an inspiration and a joy to see that many Catholic women in one area,” said Barry. “Every year you think it can’t get any better and it does.”

Another conference attendee, Patricia Costello, from Holy Family parish in Duxbury, said that it is so important to get Catholic women together to hear the messages relayed by the day’s speakers.

“We need to hear that and get more people to spread the Church’s message,” she said. “To give resilience, hope and courage to young people.”