Celebrating the early days of the Easter season and a period of springtime renewal, the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women brought the joy of their good works and faith to the Diocesan Center in Harrisburg for their annual convention on Saturday, April 15.
The yearly event is a time of spiritual renewal and of witnessing to the organization’s many efforts in sharing the Good News through its various events and activities.
The Diocesan Council was founded in 1924. Members at the Diocesan, district and parish levels of Council work to support the spiritual life of members and the physical needs of the Church locally and globally, with programs for spiritual growth and support for vocations, pregnancy centers, women, migrant workers, and children in third world countries.
This year’s convention – the 97th overall – presented the theme, “Live in the Love of Christ,” and featured spiritual offerings, reflections and efforts through which women can deepen their faith and continue their resolve to serve Christ and the Church.
In his homily during Mass – concelebrated by Father Ted Keating and Father James Lease – Bishop Ronald Gainer commended the women of the Council for its longevity and dedication.
“I thank you for taking up your share in the good works of the Council of Catholic Women. It’s not just 97 years – it’s 97 years of doing good works in the name of Christ, serving the Lord, serving your brothers and sisters throughout the 15 counties of our Diocese,” he said. “For that, I give particular thanks to God and to you, and I ask God’s continued blessings upon you and all that you do for the good of the Gospel, for the good of our Church.”
Turning to the day’s Gospel reading of the Lord commissioning the disciples to go into the world and proclaim the Good News by which humanity has been saved, Bishop Gainer said Jesus’ commission is also the inspiration of the Council of Catholic Women.
“You are called to be part of that Great Commission, take up the works that the Lord has entrusted to the community of believers and – by your words and conduct – to proclaim that Good News to all our brothers and sisters,” he said.
“We have been sent to have an intimate relationship with Christ…so we can be authentic witnesses before the world,” the bishop told them.
Lost Souls and a Good Shepherd
Award-winning author Elizabeth Kelly – whose books include “50 Reasons I Love Being Catholic” and “Jesus Approaches: What Contemporary Women Can Learn about Healing, Freedom & Joy from Women of the New Testament” – was the keynote presenter during the convention.
In her presentation, “Two Lost Souls: One Good Shepherd,” she told the uplifting stories of the lives and faith of two women, underscored by the joy the Good Shepherd finds in bringing home the lost sheep.
“It is the joy of the Good Shepherd to place the lost sheep on His shoulders. It’s the joy of the Good Shepherd to find me when I am lost and to place me on His shoulders, to lift me up and carry me home,” Kelly remarked.
“It can be frightening to be lost or left behind, but the Good Shepherd always knows right where we are. He always knows when we’re lost, whether by accident or in sin or through error. No matter how far we go, how far we might wander, how lost we might get, there’s no distance He will not travel to find us, to rescue us, to bring us home,” she said.
Kelly told the story of the late May Lemke, who went to remarkable lengths in the care of her adopted son, Leslie. Deemed by doctors to be near death when he was born in 1952, Leslie overcame blindness, cerebral palsy and learning disabilities to become an acclaimed pianist and prodigious savant, thanks to the faith, hope and love of his mother.
“May knew God had a plan for that child…. May acted as Good Shepherd to that little boy. No matter how far she had to go, she was not going to let that little boy be lost to illness,” Kelly said.
“We often imagine the Good Shepherd coming to save us, but I wonder how often He asks us to go in search of those who are lost, to be a Good Shepherd in His place,” she said.
Kelly also told the story of Eve Lavalliere, a wildly popular French actress in the late 1800s who ultimately turned away from a life of debauchery and decadence to a life of repentance and deep faith, thanks to the kindness of a countryside priest.
After encountering the life and witness of Mary Magdalene, Lavalliere made a contrite Confession and turned away from her previous lifestyle. With a newfound desire to make faith, hope and love visible to others, she worked to assist orphans in Africa and gave herself to helping the poor. In her illness at the end of her life, she offered her sufferings as penance.
The virtues of faith, hope and love demonstrated by Lemke and Lavalliere are “infused into each of us by God,” Kelly said. “We get a fresh dose of them every time we receive the sacraments…. We need these virtues, because when we make our faith, hope and love visible, that’s when people are converted.”
She encouraged the women to revisit the Parable of the Good Shepherd, and to tell Jesus where they feel lost in life.
“Let no one talk you out of believing that you are the joy of the Good Shepherd,” Kelly said. “There is no place so dark that His light cannot find you, no place so remote that His heart cannot make the journey to you, no trauma so profound that He doesn’t have the strength to join you in the midst of it.”
Afternoon workshops invited attendees into sessions on spirituality, reflection and volunteer efforts. Mary Taylor, a lay Carmelite, presented on the Carmelite Sisters and Carmelite spirituality; Cheryl Hornung, founder of Caitlin’s Smiles, offered a presentation on the organization and its efforts to deliver arts and crafts activities to children in medical facilities; and chalk artist Joni Warner presented an artistic meditation on the Risen Lord.
The convention highlighted many of the works of the Council of Catholic Women, including donations of items for infants and toddlers in support of pregnancy centers, support of a scholarship fund for graduating high school senior girls, a prayer shawl ministry and a migrant ministry.
The HDCCW presented its annual Our Lady of Good Counsel Award to Susan Merfa of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Hanover for her generosity and service in various capacities of Council leadership.
Merfa has been a member of the Council of Catholic Women since 1972, when she joined at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Abbottstown.
“All the years and service I’ve done have been all for the glory of God,” Merfa told The Witness after receiving her award from Bishop Gainer. “I joined the CCW more than 50 years ago, and I’ve loved every moment of it.”
Membership in the Council of Catholic Women is open to all Catholic women in parishes throughout the Diocese. Learn more about the programs and activities of the Harrisburg Diocesan Council of Catholic Women – including its upcoming retreat in June, a weekly recitation of the Rosary, spiritual adoption program and annual baby shower – at www.hdccw.webs.com.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness