By Christina Lee Knauss
Catholic News Service
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (CNS) — When the National Council of Catholic Women chose “Be the Voice of Catholic Women” as the theme of its 2012 convention, the organization’s members probably didn’t foresee how relevant those six words would be in today’s political and cultural environment.
More than 540 women who attended the annual gathering Sept. 19-22 in Myrtle Beach heard speakers discuss how vital it is to spread the message in the public square, especially when religious liberty is threatened by, among other things, the HHS mandate on contraception.
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone of Charleston was the principal celebrant of the opening Mass Sept. 20. He was joined by more than 30 priests who are spiritual advisers for women’s councils around the United States.
The bishop praised the work that women do in the daily life of the church, and said it is more necessary today than ever before. He urged attendees to not be discouraged by troubles at the national level or in their personal lives, and to turn to God for solutions and encouragement.
“If we are willing to confront and not run away from problems, the presence of Christ will sustain us,” Bishop Guglielmone said. “As we try to conquer the evils of our times, we need to remember we don’t want to defeat people, we want to convert them. We want them to see the presence of Christ.”
Increased involvement also was encouraged by John Carr, a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and former executive director of the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, who gave the keynote address.
“This is not a time for discouragement, but a time for increased engagement,” he said.
Carr said women play a vital role in spreading the church’s message, educating the culture about the sanctity of all human life, and standing up for the most vulnerable in society, including the unborn, the elderly and disabled, poor people and immigrants.
But taking sides will only dilute the message, he said.
“We’re not factions or interest groups but one family of faith,” Carr said. “We can divide up the work, but we shouldn’t divide up the church.”
William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College in Charlotte, N.C., noted that the college was one of the first to file a lawsuit against the HHS mandate requiring employers, including most religious employers, to provide free contraceptive coverage to their workers. He urged attendees to develop their own sense of gratitude and faith as a defense against secular culture.
“If God took everything away from me, I could still never be thankful enough for what he’s given me up this point,” Thierfelder said. “If we overlook praise and thanksgiving to God each day, we have lost before we have even begun to fight.”
Thierfelder said an overwhelming self-centeredness in American culture has led to everything from the breakdown of the family to today’s debates about contraception, abortion, health care and poverty. Sacrifice and service, already familiar to many women, is the true key to a happy life nurtured by God’s grace, he said.
Elizabeth Scalia, the final keynote speaker on Sept. 22, encouraged the faithful to embrace the Internet and new technology as a potent tool for evangelism. Scalia is a writer and managing editor of the Catholic portal at www.Patheos.com, where she writes The Anchoress blog.
She said too many people regard the Internet as the devil’s tool and don’t engage in the medium with the voice and truths of the faith. Scalia noted that Pope Benedict XVI embraces the Internet’s evangelistic power, and described the diverse Catholic population who use new media, from young couples with podcasts to the woman who started http://Catholicmom.com.
“People who never thought they were or could be evangelizers are slowly but surely being formed by the Holy Spirit to share their voices,” she said. “People who thought that all they could ever do for the church was iron altar cloths are on the Internet. The new evangelization is astonishing … that’s how the Holy Spirit moves. In the end, it’s not about profit, but becoming modern-day prophets.”
People need to pray to find the way God wants them to communicate, Scalia said, because their voices are needed more than ever in a world where everything from pop culture to politics seems ever more hostile to Christianity.
She said the partisanship and downright meanness that infiltrates nearly every discussion of faith and politics, from mainstream media to comment boxes on blogs, shouldn’t drive people away.
“Cling to the word and God will take you where he wants you to go,” she said. “I don’t see how Catholics have a choice but to get engaged in the public discussion. If we don’t fight for our faith and identify as Catholics, we’re going to lose our identity and our freedom. … You can’t be a hammer, but you can share the truth when you know you have the church behind you.”
Workshops throughout the four-day event focused on how women could reach out to the poor, young adults and victims of domestic violence, how to nurture vocations and a pro-life message in a secular culture, and how to nurture true Catholic womanhood.
Sally Jackson, of the Diocese of Knoxville, Tenn., received NCCW’s highest honor, the 2012 Our Lady of Good Counsel award, for nearly 50 years of service to the organization from the parish to the national level. She has worked with a variety of community outreaches, and is dedicated to promoting Catholic values.
Jackson said her involvement with the council helped her grow from a shy young mother from a rural background to someone who was not afraid to speak out in public.
“Bringing the voice of Catholic women to the world is truly essential right now … I really believe that,” Jackson said.
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Knauss writes for The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston.
PHOTO: Elizabeth Scalia, managing editor of Patheos.com, makes a point during a June 23, 2011 panel discussion at the Catholic Media Convention in Pittsburgh.She was the final keynote speaker on Sept. 22 at the National Council of Catholic Women gathering. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)