Syracuse Catholic Women’s Conference welcomes women from across the state and beyond
By Connie Berry
While a common adage is “The way to man’s heart is through his stomach,” for women it might be “The way to a woman’s heart is through her heart.”
The theme for the first ever Syracuse Catholic Women’s Conference was “Through the Heart” and approximately 950 women attended the event Oct. 16 at the OnCenter. They came from upstate, central New York and from all over the northeast U.S. There were great-grandmothers, grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters in attendance. There were babies being passed around for hugs.
Organizers were encouraged by Bishop Robert Cunningham and sponsored by the Diocesan Commission on Women in Church and Society. Even Father Joseph O’Connor, one of the organizers for the diocese’s annual Catholic men’s Ignite Conference, gave the women more than a few helpful pointers on such a major undertaking. Nina Walters served on the committee to develop the conference. She said they worked for a year and a half in planning the event.
“We were thrilled with the conference results,” Walters said. “We want to do it again and hope that it grows.”
Speakers included Colleen Carroll Campbell, Damon Owens and Regina Doman. There were vendors representing diocesan entities as well as some commercial vendors. Bishop Robert Cunningham celebrated Mass to begin the event and several priests were there for the Sacrament of Reconciliation throughout the day.
As Bishop Cunningham began the Mass he talked about putting aside distractions to focus on the theme of the conference.
“What a wonderful sight it is to see so many of you,” Bishop Cunningham told the women.
“Your committee was a little worried a few months ago but like always, you came through. … May the depths of your hearts be enlightened so that you may know the hope that belongs to His call.”
He said the newly-canonized Cardinal John Newman’s motto, “Heart speaks to heart,” was one of this favorites. “At this gathering you will let your hearts speak to each other and more importantly, your hearts speak to God.”
Bishop Cunningham said Cardinal Newman reminded everyone that God gave them a special purpose that only each person can come to acknowledge. “Our task is to discover that purpose and fulfill it as completely as possible,” Bishop Cunningham said.
Whether Catholic women are young or old, married or single, they are called to bring Christ into the world, Bishop Cunningham said. “It is the feminine touch that brings us closer to God.”
“Know this Mass is offered for you,” he told the women. “We hold up any concerns that are in your heart — your anxieties, your hopes, your disappointments and your joys — we bring all of them with us today and we join our hearts together giving praise and thanks to God.”
There were breaks between speakers and time to visit and enjoy refreshments and lunch. Suellen Callahan, a parishioner of Holy Family Church in Fairmount, said she loved the opportunity to get together at the conference. “The men have had it a few years and I think it’s wonderful that women can gather like this. The Mass was very uplifting. You see there are other women who have the same feelings as you do,” Callahan said.
Groups from all over the Syracuse Diocese and other New York dioceses traveled to the conference. One group came all the way from Providence, R.I.
“We have friends from the diocese and we heard about it so we came,” Katie Tuttle said. “I think it’s very encouraging to see so many women together for that great purpose to promote the dignity of women and living out our Catholic faith.”
The purpose and dignity of women was foremost as Colleen Carroll Campbell spoke to the crowd. Campbell is a writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Toronto Star, Charlotte Observer, National Catholic Reporter, National Catholic Register and many other publications. In 2000 she took a year off with a journalism fellowship and traveled the country researching and writing about the trend of traditional religion’s appeal to young Americans. The result was The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. She is a former speech writer for President George Bush. Campbell also hosts “Faith & Culture” on EWTN.
Campbell spoke of the link between faith and female identity. She said women are sometimes hesitant to recognize the obvious differences between themselves and men. Culture today has focused on professions, beauty, possessions and achievements leaving little room for women to embrace who they truly are.
“So often women’s spirituality equals ‘Christianity lite,’” Campbell said. “If you go to Borders or Barnes & Noble you’ll find books on Wicca and Christian diet manuals as if women’s primary concerns are boosting self-esteem and looking pretty for Jesus.”
The very idea of femininity tends toward damsels in distress or one’s definition of being “hot,” Campbell said. It all begins at a very young age, she said. When she shops for her baby twins the boys’ section of a store offers puppy dog prints and the girls’ section has little shirts proclaiming “diva” and “I’m a shopaholic.”
“Department stores are selling fashions favored by Britney or Lindsay. Young girls send pictures of themselves on cell phones while parents say, ‘Kids will be kids,’” Campbell said. “There’s no escape in our culture from being ‘hot.’ If being feminine is not about petticoats and padded bras, what is it about?”
As women become more fulfilled in their careers and politics, they still have an inner emptiness, Campbell explained. The emptiness can’t be filled with men or money.
Campbell spoke about Pope John Paul II and his understanding of the feminine. He empowered women through his writings and focused on what he called “women’s natural inclination to focus on the concrete.”
“Women can use their gifts to convert a society from one which values people for what they have rather than who they are,” Campbell said. “Women are not born to shop. We are born to love.”
Women are called to make society more gentle and humane, Campbell said. They have a radical openness to the human person, she said. They bring their gifts to classrooms and boardrooms. Spiritual femininity embodies women who drive their mothers to doctors appointments and who stand next to their best friends while they go through an unplanned pregnancy. “Men can do those things too, of course,” Campbell said, “but they do them differently.”
Women can discover their dignity by recognizing that God should reign in their hearts, she said.
“When Jesus reigns in our hearts we have the grace we need to be authentically feminine and authentically Christian,” Campbell said. “It’s all about relying on God’s strength and not our own.”