Area women listen to diverse topics at annual Diocesan Council of Catholic Women convention

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By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

ASSONET, Mass. — Sixty-one years ago women of the Fall River Diocese got together and asked, “What can we do for the Church?” and six decades later, the Fall River Diocesan of Catholic Women are still working hard to answer that question. And though the number of active council members have become smaller than in years past, that hasn’t diminished the faith of the current members as seen during this year’s annual convention held at St. Bernard’s Parish in Assonet.

“Do whatever He tells you,” was this year’s theme, based on what Mary told the servants during the Wedding of Cana, and after the formal meeting that updated members on everything from money raised to acknowledging those who had passed away, the council welcomed its guest speakers.

Father Thomas Washburn, O.F.M., former pastor of St. Margaret’s Parish in Buzzards Bay, opened with the question, “Does anyone here believe in miracles?”

Some might answer quickly and easily, he said, stating they do believe in miracles, while others may be skeptical and only credit miracles happening in the Bible, while others may be open to the possibility but have yet to truly believe.

“We would love to experience a miracle. You might wonder why I’m asking you about miracles today?” said Father Washburn, who then expounded on the convention’s theme, “Do whatever He tells you,” with a retelling of the Wedding of Cana.

By having Jesus turn the water into wine, Jesus was making a bold statement, said Father Washburn. He could have begun His public ministry in a different way, but “He revealed His glory and His disciples began to believe,” said Father Washburn. “It was this bold statement that ushers in the very first miracle of Jesus.”

Jesus could have begun His holy ministry in myriad of ways, continued Father Washburn, but instead “He begins at Cana. He doesn’t begin with a glorious speech or a ritual moment or grand entrance; He begins with a miracle. He begins with a moment that challenges those around Him and us, that things may not be what they appear. Even the things that seem impossible may become possible. He begins by showing us that the very presence of God can enter powerfully in an ordinary moment of our lives, if we let Him. Jesus didn’t come to merely tell us about God, He came to be the very presence of God.”

It’s a very timely reflection considering the current climate; we live in a world that does not believe in miracles or challenges the belief in miracles, said Father Washburn; everyone wants to believe only in what can be seen, touched, measured or explained. There are some who feel God doesn’t live here anymore, or is distant and far away in our lives.

Father Washburn then did a play-on-words with his audience: “Did you know the fastest growing group in the United States is the ‘nones’? Now let me clarify that for you; I’m not talking about religious Sisters,” he said, eliciting laughter from those listening to his presentation. 

He continued, “Instead, I’m talking about those who have no religious affiliation at all. Today when it comes to religious affiliation in America, those who consider themselves nothing in particular have grown to 20 percent of Americans, or 46 million Americans. That’s a whole lot of people in this country. The ‘nones’ are made up of those who don’t believe anything at all, or those who aren’t sure, or those who don’t care if there’s a God at all. These are folks who like to refer to themselves as spiritual but not religious. We know these people, after all, many of these people are our friends and family.”

But what does this have to do with miracles? It may differ from person-to-person, but it’s really God reaching into our lives and into our world. When we stop seeing God’s presence in our world, it’s that much easier to become a “none.”

Father Washburn began to list things that close us off to God, beginning with extremism that creates a polarization between differing parties, like in politics where there’s no meeting in the middle, it’s all or nothing — and that idea spills into our everyday values; “We approach our lives with an ‘all or nothing’ way, especially with those closest to us. We say things like, ‘I can never do anything right,’” said Father Washburn, adding, “Never?”  

“Or, ‘every time I try to make a difference, I always give too much and no one ever appreciates me.’ Always?” asked Father Washburn. “Or, ‘you only care about yourself and you will never change.’ Never ever? You see the ‘always’ and the ‘never’ leave very little room for God. Our God is about transformation and change, and it’s harder to find room for Him in the extremes.”

Another factor that closes us off is the constant comparison, that tendency to be endlessly wanting what others have, a prevalence in our culture that encourages us to keep up with everyone else, said Father Washburn; “When we do this, our eyes are never on the goodness present in our own lives. God is always found in blessings and gratitude and never found in envy, jealousy or greed.”

He asked those in the audience who believed they had experienced a miracle in her life, and as hands were raised, he said that “miracles are nothing more than God breaking into our world” and that he hopes “God is breaking in with regularity.”

He encouraged everyone to be an on-going witness, and to continue to do “whatever He tells you” and “to fill the world with miracles of peace.”

The council then welcomed Sister Eleanor McNally, a Holy Union Sister who is a voice raising awareness of human trafficking. 

“It’s hard to get the message out for human trafficking,” she said, “a lot of people don’t want to hear it.”

Human trafficking of women and children for commercial sexual exploitation is the second largest known criminal activity in the world, with estimated numbers of those being trafficked at 2.4 million.

“In 2005, they were talking about it but very little was being done,” said Sister McNally, but as awareness has been raised, states have been writing laws to counter human trafficking.

Victims are severely traumatized, and while some may recover, many do not and require services for their physical and mental health; “It’s a very complicated crime,” said Sister McNally.

She said that technology has given traffickers an edge, from communicating either online or with cell phones to feeding the evil of pornography on the Internet.

“There are criminal groups that work internationally because they can communicate” so easily online, she said. “The Internet and technology have been contributing factors.”

Victims come from all over the world, often victims are lured with the promise of a good job and then are coerced, deceived and finally abducted; “All are fooled, none want to go into trafficking,” said Sister McNally.

Women in Eastern Europe were among the first groups heavily targeted by the traffickers but as technology grew, so did the reach of traffickers and they began to reach out to Asia and “everywhere else in the world,” said Sister McNally. In the United States, the group most susceptible to traffickers is children of domestic violence, and those who are escaping from a bad home life.

“Traffickers know these things and can spot these children who are runaways in bus stations and shelters, and they befriend them,” she explained. “They know if children come from a bad home, most children don’t really know how to love so when a trafficker reaches out to them, they befriend them and when they’re in their clutches, [the children] become things, not people.”

Sister McNally encouraged everyone to pray, stating that prayer can be a “secret weapon,” and to pray not just for the victims and those on the front lines combatting this evil, but also for a conversion for the traffickers; “This is the reality of our world,” said Sister McNally. “As long as the demand is there, criminals will keep supplying.”

The council then celebrated Mass with Bishop George W. Coleman and had lunch.

Through a newsletter, council president Mary Mitchell stated the council is continuing to work on increasing membership and acknowledged the membership committee had been doing a wonderful job. Having events posted in local newspapers, including The Anchor, has helped alert potential members of upcoming events.

As the annual convention began to wind down and the group began to gather for lunch, Mitchell said, “I thought both of our speakers had excellent thoughts. I think the day ran remarkably smoothly and we thank the Lord for this beautiful day.”

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