Illness, grief, death, family rifts, stress at work – all of these things can take away our joy and gratitude. Yet, as Christians, we are called to rejoice, even in times of trial, and we can do so through the grace of God.
This was the resounding message at the 95th annual convention of the Harrisburg Diocesan Council of Catholic Women. Offered via livestream this year in response to ongoing COVID-19 safety protocols, the virtual event was streamed from the Diocesan Center in Harrisburg on April 17.
The convention’s theme, “Rejoice and Be Thankful,” offered a poignant reminder to turn to the Lord in times of struggle and cultivate the gift of God’s grace to live in Christian joy.
“In the world, you have tribulation. In the world, you have sorrow. Things go bad; that’s a given. But what isn’t a given is your response,” said Sarah Christmyer, the convention’s keynote speaker. “We can have joy even when pressures pile up. Why? Because Jesus has destroyed the power that suffering and death have over us.”
Christmyer is the co-developer of The Great Adventure Catholic Bible Study program, an author and an adjunct professor at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. In her blog, www.comeintotheword.com, she reflects on Scripture and how to make it part of our daily lives.
In her presentation, she spoke of two types of joy: one that is fleeting and one that is eternal.
“When I say ‘Joy is…’ I want you to fill in the blank. What is joy to you?” Christmyer asked the convention participants. Maybe you’re thinking of blooming flowers or a baby’s smile.”
“So many things can bring us joy, but the problem with that type of joy is, it doesn’t last very long. It’s fleeting,” she said. “It’s God saying, ‘This is just a tiny picture of what I have in store for you.’ Like anything on earth that can bring us a little taste of the joy of heaven, if you stare at it too hard, try to preserve it or fail to look past it to the person who sent it, we risk making it a god instead of looking to the source, to God Himself. A beautiful day or spring flowers can’t give us the kind of abiding joy that God can give us.”
Christmyer turned to the words of Scripture, saints and Holy Fathers throughout her keynote address to underscore the grace of joy in our lives.
“Pope Francis has written a lot about joy, and he says that joy ought to be the hallmark of a Christian: ‘There are Christians whose lives seem more like Lent without Easter,’” she quoted. “If you think about that, a Christian without joy is someone who is stuck between Jesus’ death and His Resurrection. A Christian without joy is someone who has forgotten that Christ overcame death and that he is with us on a journey that ends in everlasting joy.
That doesn’t mean we won’t experience grief, sadness or disappointment, she said. But even in our trials, we can find reason to rejoice.
“Trials perfect us. They help to make us into who we are,” she said. “The book of James says, ‘Count it all joy when you face various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.’ James calls us to come out of our self-pity, our worry and our fear, and to consider the trials as joy. He invites us to see them in a new light because of who God is and the work He is doing within us.”
Trials also prove that our faith is genuine, she remarked. “There is only one way to really know that you have faith, and that is, when it’s tested, you actually live by it,” she said.
“So where to do we come up with this joy? Where do we get the joy that helps us overcome the trials in our life?” Christmyer asked. “Joy comes from grace; it’s a gift that comes from God.”
Although we cannot manufacture our own everlasting joy, we can cultivate it by remaining and abiding in Christ, she said, particularly through reception of His Body and Blood, through Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
“Joy is a feeling, yes. It’s a surge in our heart when we hear a baby’s laugh or see the spring flowers come up. While those things are fleeting here on earth, eternal joy is waiting for us in heaven. That joy can help us push through our trials here in earth,” Christmyer said. “But it’s not just something that lies ahead. When we remain in Christ, he gets underneath our cross and makes it easier to bear. The joy of the Lord has real power. It has power to give us hope, even when things are hard.”
“Anybody can be joyful when things are going well. As Christians, the Lord fills us with a supernatural joy that passes understanding. The power of joy is always at our disposal to help us deal with life’s challenges,” she said.
The convention also included three afternoon workshops. Donna Gilberti spoke on “Finding Forgiveness on the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela;” Kelly Golick presented “Active Listening Basics: How to Be a Better Listener;” and Tina Kowalski spoke on “SHINE: A Faith-Based Exercise Program.”
Do Not be Afraid
365 – that’s the number of times “Do not be afraid” or “Peace be with you” appear in the Old and New Testaments, Bishop Ronald Gainer said in his homily during the celebration of Holy Mass.
“365. One for each day of the year. Every day of our lives, God is telling you and me, ‘Do not be afraid,’” he said.
The bishop celebrated the Mass from the Diocesan Center, with several HDCCW officers present.
“Given the theme of your convention this year, ‘Rejoice and be Thankful,’ I think we could recognize that fear is often what robs us of joy – and it robs us of gratitude” the bishop said. “When you and I are shaking because of some worry, something troubling our minds and our hearts, something that we’ve become afraid of, we lose a sense of joy…. It’s the thief that takes joy from our lives and takes gratitude from our hearts.”
He encouraged convention participants to ask themselves, “In what aspect of my life is Jesus saying to me, ‘Do not be afraid?’”
“Many things can cause each of us to have fears…. So many things can cause us to be afraid and not to rejoice and not to be thankful,” the bishop said. “But Jesus is in the boat with us, no matter how serious the storm seems to be.”
About the HDCCW
The Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, founded in 1924, works to support and inspire the parish councils of Catholic Women throughout the Diocese. Council programs support the spiritual life of members and the physical needs of the Church locally and globally. These efforts include retreats, a prayer shawl ministry and support for vocations, pregnancy centers, migrant workers, and children in third world countries.
Meeting the challenges of a changing world – not only in response to the pandemic but also in an effort to attract new members – the HDCCW has engaged in new programs this year. Among them, a weekly Rosary, during which participants pray Glorious Mysteries on Wednesdays at 7 p.m., either online or individually. The council also introduced the virtual Journey to Bethlehem and Journey to Jerusalem; the Advent and Lenten programs combined physical and spiritual fitness as participants tracked their miles of running/walking to meet a combined goal representative of the distances to the two locations.
Addressing council members across the Diocese during the convention, HDCCW president Alycia Laureti congratulated the women for their unwavering efforts.
“In 2019, I spoke of change, but we did not know the magnitude of that change,” she said. “This has been a challenging time for everyone, but the Council of Catholic Women has gracefully adapted to that change.”
“As the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, we have accepted that mission along with all of you. The HDCCW has been working hard to bring programs and ideas to stay engaged. I am proud of the work that they have done and excited that there is more to come,” she said.
Among other new initiatives this year are the HDCCW Happenings newsletter and a Council Insights program on the HDCCW’s YouTube channel. The council continues its annual scholarship program for female high school seniors, as well as its Spiritual Adoption program, which pledged daily prayers for more than 110 babies in danger of abortion this year.
“The programs and initiatives are a result of the great work our board has done. I want to thank all of you for your hard work and dedication to the Council of Catholic Women,” Laureti said. The council is successful because of each and every one of you.”
Learn more about the work of the Harrisburg Diocesan Council of Catholic Women and how to get involved at www.hdccw.webs.com.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness