“Women of the Church . . . makes manifest the diverse work of Catholic women in the Church, in the past and present.” –From our Forum’s purpose statement.
The desire to make manifest the work of women in the Church sparked our dream of bringing people together to celebrate and support women of the Church. And a women’s basketball video played an important role in stirring up that desire in the first place.
The video wasn’t just any basketball video; it was the program history video for the University of Notre Dame women’s basketball program. One evening back in 2014 as I watched the video over and over, the vision of this strong, dynamic community of women helped me to imagine myself working more boldly and joyfully in the Church. But why, I wondered, did I need to watch basketball to receive such strength? What would it look like to have a highlights video, figuratively speaking, of women in the Church?
I took that thought to Sr. Jeana the next day. We called Agnes from the office next door to join us. And in those moments of hope-filled conversation, under the influence of Pope Francis, a conference was born.
Images of strong women hold a power to enliven other women. A 2016 visit to a nearby Newman Center to speak about the work of women in the Church reminded me of this. I spoke of the many ways that women offer leadership in both visible and less visible ways. With beautiful photos of the women projecting on the screen, I told them of women such as those leading three major Catholic service agencies in the US at that time: Dr. Carolyn Woo (Catholic Relief Services), Sr. Carol Keehan, DC (Catholic Health Association), Sr. Donna Markham, OP (Catholic Charities).
I told them about Kerry Robinson, who is the first woman on record to have offered a reflection at a Sunday liturgy inside the Vatican. I pointed to Flaminia Giovanelli, who, as Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace from 2012-2018, was one of the highest ranking women at the Vatican. I spoke of Sr. Mary Melone, SFA, of the Pontifical University Antonianum, the first woman to serve as rector for a pontifical university in Rome. As I scrolled through these photos, I noticed a fresh light coming into the eyes of some of the young women around me. I, too, found my sense of who I am as a woman in the Church expanding even as I spoke.
Soon after that, Janet, another of our conference planners, sent a link to this wonderful music video for the 2016 Voices of Faith event at the Vatican. I sat watching it at my desk in awe at the sight of each face, tears streaming down my face. That glimpse of Kerry Robinson laughing with joy still fills me with joy. Once again, I experienced the power of seeing other strong women sharing together the challenge and joy of the journey as women of the Church.
These experiences made me yearn even more for the time that many of us, women and men, would gather together on a hillside rich with history in Ferdinand, Indiana, for our first Women of the Church conference. In October 2016, we did just that, to celebrate the leadership that women are already offering, to support one another for the work ahead, and to help and encourage those who are discerning what God may be asking of them. If photos and videos of women have such an impact, imagine how much more our face-to-face encounters shape us and inspire us.
And by the way, I’m still inspired by that Notre Dame video. Check it out sometime.