Settling into their seats for the Diocesan Women’s Conference, in-person and virtual attendees of the annual event were greeted with the Scripture reading of the woman of worth, found in Proverbs 31.
A superficial reading portrays a high and arguably unattainable standard: “She seeks out wool and flax and weaves with skillful hands;” “She rises while it is still night, and distributes food to her household;” “She picks out a field…and plants a vineyard;” “She reaches out her hands to the poor;” “She makes her own coverlets;” “She makes garments and sells them, and stocks the merchants with belts.” Her lamp is never extinguished at night.
And all the while, she is a kind counselor, and a strong, wise, self-giving and joyful woman.
It’s a tall order by any means, but the Proverb, when read through the lens of the faith, is a beautiful tribute to the dignity and value of women, said the conference’s keynote speaker, Dr. Theresa Farnan.
“I look at this proverb and see a home that is ruled by wisdom,” Dr. Farnan said. “It is functioning, beautiful, calm, orderly and infused with charity…. We see a woman whose actions are ordered by the virtues of faith, by love, by prudence, by justice, by fortitude and temperance.”
“In this poem, we see a woman whose actions create a culture within the home where all are able to flourish,” she said.
Dr. Farnan is the co-founder of the Person and Identity Project, a wife and the mother of ten. Her keynote presentation set the tone for the seventh-annual conference, themed “Catholic Motherhood: Life-Giving Love.”
The Oct. 16 event took place at the Diocesan Center in Harrisburg and was also available via a livestream. Speakers across eight sessions wove a common thread of the Church’s understanding of womanhood through workshops on the dignity and vocation of women, the complementarity of the two sexes, physical and mental health, service and spirituality, and the call to be people of life.
A Remedy for Society’s Lies
Weaving personal anecdotes, Scripture readings and papal insights in her opening presentation on women, culture and the maternal vocation, Dr. Farnan cautioned attendees against the temptation to be or appear perfect.
“You have to admit that there is work that never gets done,” she said of the piling demands of work and family life.
“Social media has been particularly disruptive for the vocation of women, because they’re in a constant lens on their actions. The things that you do for your family and your loved ones are no longer always behind the scenes. They’re on display, so we tend to carefully curate them and try to create an image for public consumption,” she said.
Despite social media images of families on picture-perfect vacations with children who are MVPs and award-winning artists, “we are raising our kids in a time when every family has been harmed and broken in many ways by our sick culture,” Dr. Farnan remarked. “We have a country that is divided. We have families that are dealing with addiction, mental health issues, suicide and crime. By every single measure, the human family is struggling, and women are being told, through social media, lies about what it is to be a woman.”
The good news, she said, is that St. John Paul II offers a remedy to society’s lies.
The pope describes two great tasks entrusted to women, in his apostolic exhortation Christifidelis Laici, on the vocation and mission of the laity: understand and bring full dignity to marriage and motherhood to create a culture where women and families are appreciated and supported, and assure the moral dimension of our culture that is worthy of the person.
In Mulieris Dignitatum, an apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, John Paul II describes the vocation of woman as related to her maternal identity, Dr. Farnan noted. “Whether you are called to physical motherhood, or to a life of virginity…the vocation of women is a vocation to spiritual motherhood. The vocation arises because God entrusts human beings to women in a special way…. We heroically and tirelessly work on behalf of others, and we do it out of love,” she said.
Dr. Farnan pointed to the substantial role women play when it comes to changes in culture, pointing to their leadership in numerous movements and their ability to connect and mobilize.
She encouraged the conference’s participants to unite through their own local networks, including the faith-based infrastructures in Catholic parishes, schools and organizations.
“We have the infrastructure to change our culture, and we need to start by doing things locally. The women in our churches notice the needs of others, see the people entrusted to them, and are capable of forming personal bonds to support them,” Dr. Farnan said. “This is how we can create a culture of love and heal our broken culture.”
Education and Spirituality
The Women’s Conference is an annual event of the Diocesan Office for Evanglization and Catechesis. In addition to two presentations by Dr. Farnan, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Holy Mass, speakers and their topics included:
- Bishop Ronald Gainer on an examination of gender dysphoria based on Catholic teachings
- Sister John Sheila Galligan, IHM, of Immaculata University, on how to be blessed disciples, and on praying the Hail Mary fruitfully
- Patty Price, a catechist from Assumption BVM Parish in Lebanon, on the Seven Sisters Apostolate of praying for priests
- Tina Kowalski, a certified personal trainer and member of Holy Spirit Parish in Palmyra, on the SHINE faith and fitness exercise ministry
- Bonnie Finnerty, Education Director for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, on bringing a message of life and love to today’s culture.
A three-time attendee of the Women’s Conference, Patty Dowling of St. Patrick Parish in Carlisle, said she enjoyed this year’s line-up of speakers and the time of Adoration, Mass and Confession.
“Dr. Theresa Farnan was very insightful about the dignity and vocation of women in these uncertain times, she said, “especially as we try to raise healthy Godly children in a confusing world of mixed messages.”
“The message I felt was perseverance and prayer, and perseverance in prayer,” Dowling said. “St. Monica never gave up on praying for St. Augustine, and we must never give up on praying for our culture, faith, and families, especially during this very challenging time when many people are feeling helpless and hopeless.”
The unique and complementary differences between male and female, and the relationship between the two, were the focus of Dr. Farnan and Bishop Gainer’s presentations following the opening keynote address.
Focusing her second talk on the dignity and vocation of women, Dr. Farnan said we are in a battle to restore to society the truth of what it means to be a woman.
This is clearly revealed in Genesis, where the Creation story shows us that woman has an essential identity with respect to man. She is made from the same substance as he is, and that gives them equality. Both are wonderfully made in the image and likeness of God.
“As a person, you exist for others. In the beautiful meeting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we discover that we human beings exist mutually for each other. In existing together, we discover who we are by this relationship,” Dr. Farnan remarked. “We’re born into relationships, we’re called to live in relationships, and through these relationships we grow in holiness and grow closer to our eternal destiny.”
“This is the core insight that distinguishes a Christian feminism from ordinary secular feminism,” she said. “Our feminism is not based on any kind of power dynamic; it’s not based on a need to reject our role or relationship as wives and mother. Instead, it’s premised on the understanding that men and women are made for each other.”
The Church’s understanding of the human person and the gift of human sexuality were focal points of Bishop Gainer’s presentation, “When Tommy wants to be Tammy: A Look at Gender Dysphoria from Our Catholic Teachings.”
Our culture today is experiencing a “tsunami of transgender ideology,” the bishop said. In today’s society, “Gender is no longer equivalent to sex; it is now how one feels about his or her sexuality based on their self-perception,” the bishop said.
Gender dysphoria is when a person’s self-identification does not match their given biology. He lamented today’s approach toward children who don’t feel fully masculine or feminine: they are labeled “trans,” encouraged to take a new name or pronoun, given affirmative care and led toward hormone therapy and surgery.
He pointed to a recent study in the United Kingdom that indicated a 4,400 percent increase in the number of girls seeking treatment for gender dysphoria in the past ten years.
“Teenage girls are in the midst of the worst mental health crisis in history,” Bishop Gainer said. “They are suffering unprecedented rates of anxiety, self-harm, and clinical depression.”
“How do we approach this? It must be from our Catholic understanding of the human person,” he remarked, pointing to Church teaching and the understanding of the Theology of the Body.
“We are God’s creatures, formed in the Divine image and likeness…. The very story of the creation of the man and the woman is unique, and it shows the exulted position of the human person,” he said.
Under transgender ideology, the human person is encouraged to look at themselves not wonderfully made but as a mistake to be corrected. Contemporary culture exaggerates the creativity of the human person,” the bishop said. “Decisions are made not based on objective truths, but on subjective situations.”
“The gift of human sexuality is given to us; it’s not ours to control,” he stressed. “Masculinity and femininity are not conditions to be overcome, but are gifts to be lived and shared.”
Turning to a passage from Amoris Laetitia, an apostolic exhortation on love in the family, the bishop quoted Pope Francis’ words: “…the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created, for thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation… An appreciation of our body as male or female is also necessary for our own self-awareness in an encounter with others different from ourselves.”
Bishop Gainer concluded his presentation by calling on the Church and her people to “love others enough to tell them the truth about who they are in the eyes of God as His creation, and be not afraid to speak the truth to government leaders, to school boards, to all of those who have used the transgender ideology in this rapid and radical way.”
“And we must extend pastoral care and accompaniment to those who are suffering from gender dysphoria without affirming the gender ideology, but by affirming their dignity of who they truly are in the eyes of God,” he said.
Dr. Farnan sent conference attendees forward with the task of reclaiming their status as Catholic women.
“You are responsible for this Gospel call; you are called to love other people, you are called to serve. There are persons in your life entrusted to you, and their dignity is given to you as your task and your vocation,” she said.
“It is a hopeful message, because there is a way forward,” she said. “We are living in a culture right now where people feel despair. We have the message of the Gospel, and we have an arena in which to work. Be not afraid, be not discouraged. Love your family, love your friends, love your community with the confidence that, if everyone does that, we will reclaim what it means to be women.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness