Catholic women urged to serve church, world as 'a common voice'

By Laura Dodson

Catholic News Service


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CNS) -- Catholic women must "join together in a common voice" and be "an instrument for unified action" in service to the Catholic Church and the world, said the president of the National Council of Catholic Women.

"There are 34 million Catholic women in the United States today," said Rebecca Woodhull in an address to the NCCW annual convention in Fort Lauderdale. "We are one by virtue of our baptism."

"We must 'Be the Voice of Catholic Women: Confidence, Hope and Joy' — the theme for this convention — and fulfill our mission to 'support, empower and educate women to better serve the church and the world,'" she said.

NCCW was founded by the U.S. bishops' conference in March 1920. There are currently more than 3,000 affiliated parish organizations representing hundreds of thousands of Catholic women responding with Gospel values at the local level; advocating for issues at the local, state and national levels; supporting one another, united in prayer.

Its Fort Lauderdale convention Sept. 25-28 drew 470 women and 44 priests. Also in attendance were Bishop James V. Johnston of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., who is NCCW's episcopal liaison, and Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, who celebrated the closing Mass.

"Who you are and what you do plays a great role for our Catholic Church," said Bishop Johnston. "You are the preservers and defenders of the tables -- the family table that is threatened by the currents of life today and the Lord's table — (and of) the life of the family of Christ especially when we gather together for Sunday Mass."

Recalling Pope Francis' challenge to the bishops at World Youth Day 2013, Bishop Johnston explained that the same applied to the women — that their "pastoral projects and programs would not be as fruitful as the creativity of love."

"It is only after an encounter with the love of God that everything else flows," Bishop Johnston said. "I challenge you to always have in mind the 'creativity of love.'"

The work of NCCW focuses on three major areas — spirituality, leadership and service — and a jam-packed convention program addressed those areas with keynote speeches and working sessions.

"My work is rooted in a deep love for Jesus and Our Lady," said Edward Sri, vice president of mission and outreach and professor of theology and scripture at Augustine Institute in Denver. "It is beautiful to see the women of NCCW living out their love across the nation."

Sri delivered the opening keynote address Sept. 26, focusing on the humanness of Mary, and also conducted a working session, "The Heart of a Woman: John Paul II's Insights on Women, Their Marriages and Their Relationships."

Using personal anecdotes and analogies, Sri made the theological practical.

"It's scary to step out," Sri said, "I remember my youngest daughter clinging to a chair while attempting to take her first steps. I was there encouraging her, but she had to let go and step out. The Lord often calls us to step out into the unknown. The first mention we have of Mary in Luke's Gospel is that she was 'greatly troubled at what was said.' Mary had a fundamental disposition to be in dialogue with God. She experienced fear, but was open and responded, 'I am the handmaid of the Lord.'"

Sri continued illustrating Mary's very human responses in Scripture from the Nativity through the wedding feast at Cana where she encouraged Jesus to begin his mission and finally the march to the cross.

"Mary saw her life as doing the will of God," Sri said. "She was so in love with God, she only wanted to do God's will and she remained faithful. She repeated her fiat over and over again. We have to keep saying yes."

Kirsten Mele, president of the Council of Catholic Women at St. Olaf Parish in Bountiful, Utah, said afterward: "When I think of Mary, I don't think of her as being human and having those emotions typical of human behavior, but how could she not?"

"It's good to know the different aspects, the perspectives of what Mary went through as a mother — there's so much more," added the married mother of three children ranging in age from 11-16. Mele is a part-time school psychologist.

Shirley Hermes also joined her local NCCW affiliate as a young mother immediately after a family relocation in 1971. She has served as president at the parish, deanery, vicariate and diocesan levels for the Archdiocese of Chicago and is now a widow with six children, 18 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

"We always put Mary on a pedestal," Hermes said, "but Dr. Sri brought to us her humanness. We have to make those same hard decisions and we watch our loved ones die. Especially in this group, when you listen to the women's stories, you realize that we're just thoroughly modern Marys!"

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Sri explained, "I don't know how devoted I am to Mary, but I know Mary has been very devoted to me. My mother prayed the rosary and I grew up in that environment. In recent years, I've been drawn to Mary's humanness - she's a woman we can relate to and learn a lot from. The same is true of Blessed John Paul II's 'theology of the body.' At the heart is love and relationship -- not just the theology of marriage, but how to live it."

Joan Galles, NCCW province director from Portland, Ore., concurred. "I thought his presentation was a kindly and enlightened guideline. NCCW is very much in favor of traditional marriage and his talk related to how women view marriage. I felt comfortable about what he had to say."

Copyright (c) 2013 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops  

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CNS) -- Catholic women must "join together in a common voice" and be "an instrument for unified action" in service to the Catholic Church and the world, said the president of the National Council of Catholic Women.