Catholic women told to 'bear witness to the truth' at first diocesan Women's Conference

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PROVIDENCE — Women from throughout Rhode Island gathered at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on Saturday, October 7, for the first diocesan Catholic Women’s Conference. More than 150 women participated in the day of prayer, speakers and fellowship as well as reflection on their responsibilities as women of faith and witnesses of the Church.

“Today, you have come to Providence, a city named in honor of God’s fatherly care and love for his children,” said Auxiliary Bishop Robert C. Evans during the opening Mass. “You have come to this oasis of faith to reenergize yourselves for the task of bearing witness to the truth that Jesus is the only savior of the world, that there is but one who is the way, the truth and the life.”

The conference, the first of its kind held in Rhode Island, drew women from a variety of parishes, backgrounds, age groups and experiences with the Church. Many participants viewed the day as a small retreat and an opportunity to gather with other individuals committed to examining their roles and responsibilities as Catholic women.

“You need fellowship, and the women need to know what kind of an important role they have,” said Evelyn Moreira, a participant and parishioner at Holy Family Parish, Pawtucket.

The day’s first speaker, Lisa Cotter, examined these important roles, beginning her talk with a slideshow of images of “womanhood” as it has been portrayed and embraced over the decades. While the idea of femininity according to American society has changed, from the 1950s housewife to the hippie-activist of the ‘60s and ‘70s to the businesswoman trying to assert herself in the offices of the 1980s, woman’s role according to God, Cotter reminded her audience, has not changed.

“What makes a woman a woman doesn’t change,” she said. “What changes is the time and place in which we live. So how do we live our femininity in this time and place today?”

Referring to Saint John Paul II’s 1995 “Letter to Woman” and his description of the “feminine genius,” Cotter discussed women’s unique attributes and their call to help men in a mutual partnership in which each one complements the other. She encouraged women to turn to God in prayer rather than societal images to understand their purpose and identity.

“It doesn’t matter what the world tells us, it matters what we know to be true and what is given to us as truth,” she said.

The day’s second speaker, Allison Gingras, continued the theme of identity and offered women a model in Mary and her acceptance of God’s plan, emphasizing the importance of relying on other women of faith for support in their journey.

“I want us to see that we are women, that we have more in common than you think and that will help us as we go forward to see ourselves in Mary,” she said.

She encouraged women to use the spiritual tools of prayer, sacraments and scripture to discover the gifts given to them by God and to accept and use these gifts in their mission of witnessing to the faith.

“You can change the world by just being you, by being open to what God wants of you, because that’s what Christ is for,” said Gingras.

Between talks, participants enjoyed live praise and worship music by St. Patrick Church Women’s Ministry and browsed products from vendors, including religious booksellers and ministries as well as secular businesses run by local Catholic women.

Gina Audate, a parishioner at Holy Family Parish, Pawtucket, said she enjoyed the atmosphere of the conference and attended for the opportunity to hear Catholic women speakers discussing topics of concern for women.

“I think it’s attractive to see two women talking about women. You’re just curious to see what they have to say about us,” she said.

In particular, Audate said she enjoyed Gingras’ discussion of Mary as a role model for women in discovering their gifts and contributing to the Church and society.

“I have a great devotion to our blessed mother, and how can you connect to someone that you don’t know?” she said. “So trying to learn more about our Blessed Mother and her roles in her life and in the Church, I connect with her.”

Anna Silva, a parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Cumberland, also appreciated the opportunity to be among other Catholic women for a period of reflection and support.

“I think I was at a crossroads in life and when I saw this, it was like, huh, I’ll give it a try,” she said.

Many high school and college-aged women were also in attendance, including Raquel Pouliot, a student at Salve Regina University. Pouliot said she appreciated Cotter’s message of embracing her uniquely feminine gifts and strengths, especially in a culture where words like “feminism” often come with an expectation to embrace pro-choice views that disrespect human life.

“I really like the fact that she said embrace your femininity and womanhood,” said Pouliot. “I feel like to be a woman is to accept all the gifts that God gave you, and one of the gifts that God gave you is life.”

Gabriela Morais, a high school student and parishioner at Our Lady of Fatima Church, Cumberland, also said she appreciated Cotter’s message as a young woman discovering her faith.

“Just being at this age, it’s really good to know how things are and just get the view of being a woman in general,” she said. “It’s just eye-opening being involved in my faith.”