Last night, I rolled over in bed and whispered to my husband in a hoarse voice, “You know what I really got from this Conference, baby?”
(silence) … “What’s that?”
This weekend was the twelfth annual Catholic Women’s Conference in San Antonio, Texas, for which I’ve had the privilege of serving on the Conference Steering Committee and as the first speaker on Friday night. I have about a million things crammed into my head and have no clue how to unpack them. So here I go…
ST. THÉRÈSE’s HAND IN OUR PLANNING EFFORTS
At the start of our conference planning in the early months of 2013, I saw St. Thérèse of Lisieux everywhere I went. She was mentioned everywhere, I saw her face everywhere, and I heard her name everywhere. As my coworkers began asking who our patron saint for the Catholic Women’s Conference would be this year, it became glaringly clear to me that NOT suggesting the ‘Little Flower’ was NOT an option. Still, I had my doubts. After all, what does the average woman have in common with this young, cloistered nun from a French, bourgeois family? But I was especially encouraged by Dawn Eden’s book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, in which she speaks about Thérèse and Catholic teaching on healing memory, healthily integrating trauma into our lives and persons. ‘How many women,’ I thought, ‘need to hear this message!’
I suggested Dawn as a speaker (she was a shoe-in) and Thérèse as our patroness. After some convincing, our outstanding CWC Coordinator Nan Balfour was on-board. We put together the remainder of our speaker list as the months followed: Heather King, author of Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux; Pat Gohn, author of Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood; Fr. Nathan Cromly, Prior of the Brothers of St. John’s monastery in Laredo, Texas; myself and Nan.
Our trouble was the venue. In 2012, we had squished 1,300 women into a modestly-sized conference center and turned away close to 200 women after selling out. We looked at EVERY. POSSIBLE. VENUE. in San Antonio, a city internationally-known for our tourism industry, hoping to find a venue where the price, location, atmosphere, facilities and services would fit our unique event. We visited the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center’s Lila Cockrell Theater facility — which had been our highest hope — and came away disappointed, since it couldn’t meet our needs.
Coinciding with this visit was a curious little occurrence that we’ve all forgotten, but of which I’m now reminded: our Conference foundress was offered some flowers by someone who said, “These are for you from St. Thérèse.” The context of this offering, which I cannot now recall, was logical enough for us to write it off as simply a sweet gesture (rather than a heavenly sign). For us, the Convention Center had been crossed off the list. We had exhausted all locations in town. We wrote a letter to our archbishop, begging him to consider building a Catholic conference center. Then, we prayed.
CWC Coordinator Nan had an inkling to call the Convention Center one more time, giving them a list of our needs and asking if any of their facilities could accommodate us. After several phone calls and site meetings, it was settled: the 2013 Conference would take place there on September 20-21.
On a Friday in August, I was running around with errands, when I got a call from work. “Hello?” I answered, concerned. “Hi, Angela! Don’t worry, nothing’s wrong, I just have to share some AMAZING news with you!” Our administrative assistant excitedly told me what had just happened that morning. As on every Friday, our staff had Mass with Fr. Jim Curiel, discalced Carmelite priest and parochial vicar of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower. Following the celebration, Fr. Jim had casually mentioned that the relics of St. Thérèse would be coming to San Antonio soon. Intrigued, staff members asked when this visit would take place. September 21-22, he responded…and our staff nearly fell out of their chairs! Our patroness had chosen to visit San Antonio on the same weekend as the Catholic Women’s Conference!!
THURSDAY – AN EVENING WITH ST. THÈRÉSE
Prior to all this excitement, we had planned a pre-Conference, special event honoring our patroness at her National Shrine. Thursday, the church was packed full of women eager to learn about this intriguing, young Doctor of the Church. We prayed the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary with meditations by Thérèse, heard a presentation on Carmelite spirituality from Fr. Gregory Ross, O.C.D., and were given a tour of the Basilica by a dynamic, Third-Order Carmelite woman. We also venerated Thérèse’s first-class relic.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned during that evening was a morsel from Fr. Gregory’s presentation. He said (paraphrasing) that when we pray in our rooms, where no one ever sees or hears us, our prayer is still powerful and efficacious because we are members of the Body of Christ. What an encouraging lesson! Previously, I had heard that Carmelite prayer was individual prayer at the service of the Church, and thanks to Father Greg’s explanation, I finally ‘get’ that.
Here I am with the painting of the Little Flower, painted by her blood-sister, Sr. Celine. It was used during Thérèse’s canonization ceremony and given to the Basilica.
FRIDAY – ENCOUNTERING CHRIST’s HEART
Fridays are usually ‘sabbaths’ for my husband and me, but this Friday was the first day of the CWC. Thankfully, we were able to have downtime during lunch with our friend Pat Gohn, chatting about evangelization and radio (what else?). Afterwards, I arrived at the Conference site, spent time in Adoration, and helped with last-minute details before changing into my dress and applying makeup!
We opened the Conference with the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, and then it was my turn to speak. Honestly, I’d been concerned that my lack of celebrity and experience meant that I was not suited to speak first. Speaking first is powerful! You have the potential to either… set the perfect tone for the Conference — OR — immediately disappoint women who traveled from across the States to attend. My time in Adoration and praying the Rosary, however, gave me peace. I knew the Lord has a reason for everything, so I chose to trust Him.
I walked onto the stage and, as soon as I began to speak, felt the Holy Spirit take over. Before I knew it, I had finished. I don’t even remember the audience’s applause. I do, however, remember the many women who approached me — that night and throughout the weekend — who chose to thank me, confide in me their personal struggles, and ask for advice. (What an honor it’s been this weekend to allow God’s Spirit to bring so many women, so many graces, through me. I am flabbergasted by the goodness and greatness of God.) Friday night ended with Dawn Eden’s presentation on healing, and a Eucharistic Healing Service.
SATURDAY – DISCOVERING BEAUTY in MY BROKEN SELF
Saturday began with Holy Mass at the Conference, and then we enjoyed a full day. My fellow speakers taught me so much about myself and how God sees me. Not surprisingly, my prayer for these past several months has been, “Lord, help me to see myself as you see me.” God. He is so good! I can finally see the beauty in my broken self. Not in spite of my brokenness, but because of my brokenness and perseverance in Christ.
The women who stopped me anywhere and everywhere throughout the Conference to tell me how much they loved my message on Friday, were also instrumental in my finally seeing this beauty. My eyes well up with tears as I think about all of the volunteers, Steering Committee members, and speakers, and their unflinching dedication to proclaim with boldness the beauty of each woman, and to tirelessly open their arms to them, as the arms of the Church. I marvel at our God, who can work the most marvelous miracles with the smallest, simplest, broken-est of things. He is the God who says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” and “Blessed are the meek.” because those are the ones through whom God’s Spirit re-creates the face of the earth.
I am a Catholic woman.
Why should I be ashamed?
Whom should I fear?
Thank you, God! Now, time to rest.