Empowering women to evangelize

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Three hundred young women gathered last week on the Catholic University campus in Washington full of dreams to evangelize.

One young woman hoped to walk with the homeless in their struggles with mental illness. One hoped to establish a retreat focused on dating to discern marriage. Another hoped to establish an after-school exercise program for children of recent immigrants.

The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) hosted the GIVEN Catholic Young Women's Leadership Forum - a conference designed to give the tools to implement some aspect of the new evangelization close to each woman's heart.

The university's Pryzbyla Center buzzed with young women in floral dresses and bright cardigans alongside dozens of women religious from several orders. Along with the lay women speakers such as law professor Helen Alvare, journalist Kathryn Jean Lopez and Catholic Relief Services President and CEO Carolyn Woo, the sisters aimed to give practical advice during a week of prayer and reflection.

"So much of this is just stepping in as the voice of the church and saying, 'We believe in you, we love you and we want to give you the tools to fly,' " said Sister of Life Mary Gabriel Devlin.

"Women across the spectrum in the church want to be an encouraging voice to women who are rising," she said. "Not to tell them what their role is, but to say, 'God's going to tell you where to give your love.' "

Gloria Purvis, an Eternal Word Television Network host, spoke about witnessing to a culture that doesn't understand the church's vision of authentic femininity. "The very notion of being a woman is being dismantled right in front of us," she said. "The message of abortion and artificial contraception is that we are broken because we can bear children. … They're using the model of maleness as perfection rather than examining what is uniquely female."

During her years working in financial services, she had many opportunities to explain her beliefs. But sometimes, she told the young women, "the best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut and pray and fast for them."

She told the girls they are capable of fulfilling God's plan for their lives, but they have to be willing. At first, Purvis turned down an offer to host a morning radio show because she didn't want to get up early. "My husband was like, 'You can do this, you're just being lazy,' " she said. She realized God was calling her to overcome her reluctance. "I didn't have a background in broadcast journalism. But what I did do was say 'Yes.' "

Margaret Laracy, a clinical psychologist, spoke on the emotional power of maternal love that enables children to explore their world while knowing they have a haven to return to. Sister Norma Pimentel of the Missionaries of Jesus, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, spoke about the resilience, power and self-sacrificing nature of the refugee women she ministers to.

Mother of seven Hallie Lord spoke about overcoming fear in motherhood, from financial struggles to the fear of giving birth. She asked each of them to tell a friend about a fear. "They're either going to tell you this is a silly fear and to give it to God, or they're going to help you carry your cross. … Spiritual growth is synonymous with spiritual surrender," she said.

Rosemary Harris traveled from the Diocese of Spokane, Wash., to attend the conference. "I wanted to come together with a lot of like-minded women to gather ideas, inspiration and make connections," she said.

The rising senior at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio hopes to establish a network of professional women to take the foundation of daily prayer and growing in virtue they've learned at Franciscan into the secular workplace. "I'm a business and marketing major, so specifically for business, education, nursing - how we can prepare ourselves … to be a witness," she said.

On the way to Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Harris said she felt encouraged by what she had learned thus far. "I wasn't expecting to feel as empowered and inspired to carry this forth into the world," she said.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016