Ahead of next month’s much-discussed Vatican summit on young people, a new organization targeted at forming the next generation of women leaders within the Church and the wider culture was launched on Wednesday.
The GIVEN Institute, which traces its roots to a June 2016 conference and has now developed into a year-round initiative, will focus on leadership development, faith formation, and the mentorship of women “to discover their unique gifts and pursue the lives God is calling them to lead.”
While founding executive director Elise Italiano told Crux that the timing of the launch was not planned to coincide with the Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment, she believes it to be “providential.”
“We’re definitely drafting behind the Holy Spirit here,” she added.
As part of its programming, GIVEN will run a track-based leadership initiative and one-on-one mentoring programs inspired by Pope Francis’s call for accompaniment that will match young women with established professionals from a variety of fields and ministries.
In addition, every two to three years, a national conference modeled after the 2016 one that inspired the now full-time ministry, will take place in hopes of building a national network of women leaders.
The 2016 program was conceived by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious and brought together 300 young women for a week-long conference at the Catholic University of America and included some of the major women leaders in the U.S. Church, including Carolyn Woo, former President and Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Relief Services; Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley; Helen Alvaré, professor of law at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University; and Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, Superior General of the Sisters of Life.
In a press release, Donovan said “GIVEN was conceived in the hearts of women religious and remains a significant response on the part of the Church to encourage, inspire, and mentor young women at a crucial moment in their lives. We want each of them to know they are loved, noticed, and necessary.”
Italiano, who is the former executive director of communications at the Catholic University of America, told Crux that she’s well aware that she faces an uphill battle by debuting a Catholic initiative at a time in which the Church is under fire from within and outside of the institution as it seeks to regain credibility over its handling of sex abuse.
Across the globe, the “#MeToo” movement has served as a force for women’s empowerment, and its effects have been felt inside the Church forcing an ongoing reckoning within Church leadership and calls for greater involvement of the laity.
For Italiano, that’s all the more reason why women are needed to help the Church right its way.
“In times like these it’s important to highlight where the Church is thriving and its credibility is strongest. One quick glance at the roster of women who spoke at the inaugural GIVEN Forum would be a place to start,” said Italiano.
“The Sisters of Life are expanding their presence across the country to serve pregnant women in need of help. Sister Norma Pimentel is on the front lines ministering to migrants at the border. And many of the lay women leaders work directly alongside of bishops and clergy and will contribute to the Church’s reform,” she continued.
While multiple studies have revealed that millennial women are disaffiliating from the Church in record numbers, GIVEN believes it can be part of the solution through building stronger ties that highlight women’s particular gifts in ministry, family life, and the professional realm.
Italiano added that she believes the institute is a direct response to Francis’s call for “an incisive feminine presence” at all levels of the Church’s ministry, though she said she’s eager to move beyond doctrinal debates about women’s leadership and focus on immediate solutions.
“I think that the Church gets stuck in the mud when it comes to discussing how to better integrate women’s gifts. The conversation is almost exclusively framed in terms of ordination, and then the response is almost always framed in terms that demarcate what can or cannot be done. But there is so much more to discuss and do,” she insisted.
“There are so many faithful, skilled women contributing to the life and mission of the Church already,” she continued. “GIVEN will pull back the curtain and showcase those contributions more widely.”