Women's Conference encouraged suffering with joy

"As Catholic women - single, married, widowed and consecrated, mothers both spiritual and natural - you all know the meaning of suffering," said Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde during the Mass at the diocesan Women's Conference March 28. "We have all been saddened by loss, and we have all been hurt by sin. We recognize that we truly are sinners as well, and there are times when our own sins bring about division in our relationships with our husband and children, with our family and friends, within a religious community, and, most importantly, with our God."

This year's Women's Conference, entitled "Suffering endured with Joy will Transform the World," took place at Foxchase Manor, a Jeffersonian-style events space in Manassas - the same location where the Men's Conference took place March 7. The conference was a joint venture between the Arlington Diocesan Council of Catholic Women and the Office for Family Life.

"The missionary goal (of the conference) is always to bring faithful women together to celebrate the unique gifts they bring to the church, the family and the culture," said Thérèse Bermpohl, director of the diocesan Office for Family Life. "It seems that many Catholics today have lost sight of the fact that our crosses present us with opportunities for growth. Imagine if we saw every cross as a path to heaven for ourselves and for each member of the body of Christ.  It could alter the way we view suffering." 

Bermpohl chose the conference speakers with Liz Schiavone, ADCCN president, with these thoughts in mind.

The conference began at 7 a.m. with the opportunity for confession. Christians and non-Christians, who were welcome at the event, instead started with check-in and continental breakfast. More than 800 women attended the Women's Conference.

After a welcome and opening prayer, the bishop celebrated Mass, focusing his homily on the theme of suffering.

"Inspired by the Holy Spirit, let us unite our suffering and sacrifice with the Lord, offering it to Him as a means for our conversation and the conversion of our families," said Bishop Loverde.

Father Thomas P. Ferguson, episcopal vicar for faith formation, served as the concelebrant, with Father Robert J. Wagner, the bishop's secretary, as the master of ceremonies, Anna O'Neill as lector and Jeanne Mancini as cantor.

Following a brief break, Kathleen Wilson, founder and director of Mary's Shelter, a Fredericksburg-based nonprofit that secures housing for women and children in need, addressed the group. Her talk, "My Journey Back to the Faith," concentrated on how she changed from a non-observant Catholic to a wife and mother of 12 biological and adopted children actively living the faith.

The pro-life talk traced her "crazy awakening": how she experienced a "Catholic 'aha' moment" in realizing she wanted her marriage to "be open to life"; how she feared being called a "fraud" when she started going to church again; how she wondered if her husband would think she was becoming a "Jesus freak"; and how she began volunteering at Birthright, a Fredericksburg nonprofit for women in crisis pregnancy.

"We took our kids to church," said Wilson. "We got married in the church. We received the sacraments. It felt right." Soon homeschooling her children became part of Wilson's self-proclaimed awakening.

"When my daughter went to school with a Nativity book and was not allowed to open it for show and tell, I knew that I was not strong enough in my faith to defend the faith to her teacher," said Wilson.

She joked that between Mass, prayer group and homeschooling, "it was easier not to be Catholic," but she continues to "embrace all that's happening (in my journey)."

"We are struggling financially, but we are not starving," she said.

When Wilson's husband, a drug enforcement agent, was transferred to Thailand in 1996, the oldest of the couple's five children was 7 years old. They moved to the Thai countryside, calling an American compound home and 13 other families their neighbors.

"There was a nice small Catholic church with English Mass," Wilson said. "and an orphanage nearby."

She credited The Agape Home for children with AIDs for putting her on the path to adoption and establishing Mary's Shelter. She "fell instantly in love" with child after child, each one trapped in a different heartbreaking situation.

"Any mother knows that we would carry the cross for our children," said Wilson.

When she returned to the United States six years later, her family had grown to include 10 children. Her extended family was "proud" of Wilson and her family but thought them "extreme," and, from time to time, "our family values have clashed."

"I pray that all of my family members will come in full communion with the church," she said. "God gave each of us our unique children for a unique purpose. I care more about the salvation of our children than anything."

Since founding Mary's Shelter, Wilson and her husband have adopted two more children.

"We are all His hands and feet," said Wilson. "You have more to give and more to experience than you will ever know." After lunch, Kerri Caviezel - a former teacher, basketball coach, pregnancy coach and wife to actor Jim Caviezel - gave the second talk, entitled, "Defining Moments of a Lifetime: Solitude, Sacrifice and Solace." Her talk was less narrative and more thematic, using different figures (such as her father, her adopted children and St. Gianna Beretta Molla) and life events (dating, coaching basketball, the death of her father) to illustrate her points on the concepts of solitude, sacrifice, solace and, to quote St. Gianna, the "unfathomable designs of God."

"You have a choice whether you pick up your cross or not," Caviezel said. "Most of us are not extraordinary, but you don't have to be extraordinary to do extraordinary things … If we knew everything, we wouldn't handle it … but God has been preparing us all along for these moments."

Caviezel cited the wise words of her son, a high school freshman, who told her, "Mom, sometimes it's lonely to do the right thing."

She likened God to "the ultimate basketball coach," one whose word you follow with "blind obedience" as a wife does her husband. She cited an example from her own life: having to leave her job as a teacher and move each time her husband booked a role that required it.

"When I say yes, I'm happier than when I say no," she said. "We're programmed to look for what's next, but we have to recognize the small voices when they come."

Caviezel saved her most powerful anecdote for the end, explaining that when she had the choice to amputate her son's leg because of the growing tumor there, she did not. The tumor ended up being benign, and her son was able to keep his leg.

"If it's the right decision, you will have clarity and peace," she said.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015