Women gather for annual conference

Faith is often described as a journey, and those who attended the fifth annual Syracuse Catholic Women’s Conference at the Oncenter Oct. 25 covered a lot of miles. Speakers who addressed the crowd of about 1,000 offered practical advice, humor and encouragement for following a faith-based family life.

   Leading off the conference was Kimberly Hahn, a Catholic convert and mother of six, who spoke in practical terms about meeting the challenges of being a wife, mother and follower of God. “I find parenting is a constant journey in uncharted waters,” said Hahn. “You’re just continually adjusting.”

   Hahn urged all women to look to God in determining their own worth. “Who or what determines our value as a woman? Our culture says one thing, but our Lord says something different. We are always comparing. Even marital status can be a false… value.” Hahn, married for 34 years to biblical scholar Scott Hahn, said marriage is a vocation. “Men and women approach things very differently,” she said. “We don’t lose our identity. When we embrace our spouse, we embrace the cross.”

   Hahn said regardless of marital status, “we are all called to be a spiritual mother. If you are single — don’t allow life to be on hold. In the meantime, live for Him. He has a plan for your life. And it continues to unfold.”

   That message was embraced by Kristen Rayfield, 22, and Ashley DiStefano, 23, FrancisCorps members in faith-based services in Syracuse. They were among the numerous young, single women at the conference. Rayfield said she had done mission work in the past, and upon college graduation felt called to do more service work.

   “I came here really to develop my faith,” she said. “We are all in different parts of our journey. I wanted to hear more.”

   The day was also meant to be a retreat of sorts. Organizers built more time into the day to allow for visiting and shopping among the 40-plus vendors, and coffee and snacks were available throughout the day. Nationally-known Catholic musician Martin Doman served as musical emcee.

   Just back from the synod of bishops on the family in Rome, Kim Daniels focused her 30-minute talk largely on the role of Catholic women as the Catholic Church grows and evolves. Daniels, co-founder and director of Catholic Voices USA, presented a global view of today’s Catholic woman, her challenges and responsibilities.

   “Our church is seeking to meet people where they are,” said Daniels, in reference to the Vatican’s recent newsmaking discussions on topics like same-sex relationships and divorce. “The Catholic Church has simply begun a conversation … to renew our engagement on marriage and family issues.” Still, she said, “Catholic distinctiveness matters.”

   “In other words,” said Daniels, “we’re in the middle of a conversation right now, and all of us should contribute. We know that the stakes are high.” Daniels credited Pope Francis with shifting headlines away from negativity, and focusing his first session of the synod on family life.

   “These days, being Catholic often means being a defender of the faith,” said Daniels, encouraging women to be evangelizers. “One of the surest steps … is for Catholics to commit themselves to their home parishes. We are not meant to be Catholics alone — we are meant to be Catholics together.”

   Daniels spoke of the importance of the Catholic culture and of women’s role in facilitating a culture of community within the Catholic faith. “Women know in their hearts that people are hungry for community,” said Daniels.

   Strength in community was evident at the conference, which continued its tradition of healthy attendance.

   “To be in a room with so many other faithful people, when you pray together, is just so awesome,” said Linda Farden, who was attending her first Catholic Women’s Conference as member of the Diocesan Women’s Commission.

   Before closing the day with Mass, Father Joe O’Connor, director of the Office of Vocation Promotion for the Diocese of Syracuse, took on the role of game show host to bring some levity to the day. Grabbing the microphone and heading into the audience, Father O’Connor played “Let’s Make a Deal” to score chewing gum, then settled in with a message about intimacy with God.

   Prayer, said Father O’Connor, is not making deals with God. “Real prayer is a lot more risky than that.”

   “Sometimes we hide from the Lord,” said Father O’Connor. “Come out from behind that mask. Be concrete. You don’t have to have it all together for God. We often ask very guardedly what we want out of life. If you’re struggling with an unanswered prayer, keep going. Keep going.”

   Allison Kanaley Trudell is a freelance writer who lives and works in Central New York.

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