Young women and religious sisters from around the country are gathering in Washington, D.C. to discover and share their unique talents, training them to use those gifts for the good of the Church and of the world.
“There are a lot of leadership initiatives for high school and college women, but we’ve never seen one in the Church that brings forth consecrated women working together, speaking to young women regardless of vocation,” said Sister Mary Gabriel of the Sisters of Life.
“We had a sense that if young women are encouraged and believed in, they’ll fly,” the committee chair for the GIVEN conference told CNA.
GIVEN is bringing together more than 300 women between the ages of 20 and 30 from every state in the country to Washington, D.C. in order to focus on each young woman recognizing, cultivating, and using the unique gifts she has received.
Throughout the June 7-12 conference, the young women will listen to talks on a range of topics from prayer to reclaiming one’s place in the world, as well as pray, talk, and plan their own projects for when they return home. GIVEN is put together by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, or the CMSWR, one of the two major councils of women religious in the United State.
Attendees were given a full scholarship to attend the conference, after completing an application process detailing why they wanted to attend the conference and what they would bring back from the conference to put into action in their communities. The conference was sponsored by a grant from the Hilton Foundation and the GHR Foundation for the Year of Consecrated Life.
Sister Marie Bernadette, OP, of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, serves as the Council Coordinator for the CMSWR and told CNA that GIVEN’s focus on making use of women’s gifts was very important, both for the sisters as they planned the event, as well as to have as one of the conference’s themes.
“Truly it’s our joy and privilege to support the local Churches, to support bishops, and to support the dioceses these women will go back to. As women religious, that’s really why we’re here: we’re here to serve the Church and to uphold and build the Body of Christ,” she said.
The sisters’ work supporting young women through GIVEN is already a source of excitement and gratefulness from bishops across the country.
“I personally have been receiving letters daily from bishops who are so grateful that someone is coming back to be light in their diocese, that will be spreading the Gospel, that will be truly living for the Church and spreading their gifts,” Sister Marie Bernadette said. “They’re so excited.”
The conference started to come together nearly a year ago when around 15 communities of religious sisters started planning and shaping what GIVEN would look like. By the start of the conference, communities had sent more than 100 sisters to help run and serve GIVEN. “You have a tremendous powerhouse of prayer and also of service here,” Sister Marie Bernadette commented. “Each community brings its own special charism, their own special gifts, and then each individual sister, her own special gifts.”
The sisters also reached out to communities of cloistered nuns around the United States to ask for their prayers and support.
Conference organizers also reached out to lay women to speak and offer their perspectives on work, prayer, womanhood, and motherhood. “Every one of these speakers has opened their heart in a vulnerable way,” Sister Mary Gabriel said. The talks have sparked conversation and collaboration between the women- including the religious sisters present. “It is really tremendous hope,” she commented.
When planning the conference, organizers also sought to link together Catholic women, and speak to the loneliness facing so many young adults today. “This is a culture where it’s very easy to be alone, even when you’re surrounded by people,” Sister Mary Gabriel said. From the response so far, the experiment seems to be getting positive feedback from the attendees. “So many have said, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve been waiting for something like this.’”
That is the message that has resonated with Chanelle Leonhardt, who is attending the conference from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. She told CNA she was impressed by “being surrounded by so many young women — just knowing that you’re not alone,” as well as the communal feel of the conference.
Applying after hearing about the conference from the Sisters of Life, Leonhard said she was particularly inspired to put the conference’s mission into action by a talk by Sr. Norma Pimentel, MJ, who works with migrant families on the US- Mexico border. “I really want to get a group of friends and drive down to see the hands-on work and help,” she explained.
Long-term, Leonhardt also hopes the conference will help her to “own my gifts consistently,” and can help drive the work she is doing writing several books. “I want to carry this conviction I have.”
Ali Hoffman from the Archdiocese of Dallas also has plans to take what she has learned from the conference and apply it to her calligraphy and other artwork, as well as to her work with youth ministry. What has been most impactful for her have been the lectures on the concept of the “Feminine Genius” and the special role of women in the world.
That special role of women is especially evident in the “calibre of the women speaking,” and the other attendees present, Hoffman said. “I’m realizing here how the gifts of 300 other women are all here for building up the Church,” she told CNA.
“I’m so excited to see what’s going to happen 20 years from now from this conference.”