By Sheila O’Connor-Ambrose
Sun contributing writer
On Saturday, Oct. 16, 2010, women from all corners of the Syracuse Diocese gathered at the OnCenter to celebrate our faith, to reflect upon our challenges, and to meet our sisters in Christ face-to-face. Nearly 900 women attended “Through the Heart,” a day-long conference of prayer, music, speakers, adoration, and opportunities for confession.
The response to this first-ever diocesan gathering of women? Tremendous!
With Bishop Robert Cunningham’s strong support and the help of the Diocesan Commission on Women in Church and in Society — a team of appointed women from throughout the diocese who focus on women’s concerns — the organizers brought to life for those in attendance the inspiring adage of St. Catherine of Siena: “If you are what you should be, you would set the world on fire!”
It wasn’t an easy path. The long months trying to plan something of this scale without a blueprint meant worry, prayer, and crossed fingers. The obstacles, however, never shadowed the vision of what could be — of what should be — a day dedicated to and for the women of the diocese.
As if to a field of dreams, the women of the diocese came in numbers that exceeded expectations. And they came with full hearts, hungry to listen, to share, to pray.
In personal notes shared with me and in the questionnaires filled out by the attendees, so many women expressed gratitude for the conference, recognizing the perseverance and dedication needed to organize this event. They felt honored that the diocese was sending such a strong message of support and encouragement to the women of the region. And repeatedly they expressed genuine astonishment and joy at the sheer diversity of women in attendance — old and young, single women, mothers, some with babes in arms, grandmothers, and religious women — all united in an effort to deepen their understanding of how they, as Catholic women, can live out their faith in the world.
As one friend wrote to me, “I felt a unity with all the women who were there. It’s amazing to me with nearly 900 women in one place that this could happen. Obviously we all come from different life circumstances, but we were all there, united in our faith and love of God.”
The speakers, including former White House speechwriter and EWTN host Colleen Carroll Campbell, Theology of the Body speaker Damon Owens, novelist Regina Doman, and songwriter Alicia Hernon, inspired the attendees with their own stories of living out their faith in the middle of the world. One friend, who loved all the speakers, wrote how touched she was in particular by Damon Owens’s talk: “In a world where men are taught in so many ways that they are supposed to treat women as objects in order to be ‘real men,’ it was refreshing to hear from a man who respects the dignity of women and marriage, and has the courage to spread that message to the world.”
The women overwhelmingly expressed a mixture of pride, gratitude, elation, joy, and deep feelings of having been blessed. One woman — who could have been speaking for all the others — wrote that she was “exhausted from the emotions of the day!” All expressed hope that the Diocese would offer such an event for women in the future.
Buoyed by the success, the organizers are working even now on the second annual Catholic women’s conference, to be held on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011. Speakers will include Father Leo Patalinghug of “Grace Before Meals,” a popular chef who has bested Bobby Flay and uses food to teach and engage people about community and faith; Helen Alvare, a beloved speaker on a host of women’s issues, who teaches family law at George Mason University and serves on the Pontifical Council for the Laity; and Leah Darrow, a former reality TV contestant on “America’s Next Top Model,” whose powerful conversion experience during a photo shoot has inspired her to reach out to women of all ages to recognize their great dignity and to embrace the richness of our Catholic faith as a great vehicle of God’s grace, mercy and love.
As the details unfold, please make a commitment now in your heart to attend what surely will be another profoundly enriching event for women!
See you there!
Sheila O’Connor-Ambrose, who holds a Ph.D. in women’s studies from Emory University, is a member of the Diocesan Commission on Women in Church and in Society. She attends Our Lady of Lourdes in Utica.