By Kenneth J. Souza
EASTON, Mass. — More than 800 pre-registered participants and dozens more last-minute walk-ins filed into the Ames Sports Complex at Stonehill College in Easton on March 11 for the first-ever Women and Men’s Conference sponsored by the Fall River Diocese. Well-timed to coincide with the beginning of the Lenten season, the conference was a singular opportunity for attendees to reexamine and renew their faith while seeking out better ways to evangelize and pass on the Good News of the Gospel.
Convened at the behest of Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., Bishop of Fall River, the conference included keynote speeches from former Fall River bishop Cardinal Séan P. O’Malley, OFM, Cap., and Dominican Sister Terry Rickard, along with a breakout session for women with ValLimar Jansen and another for men with Michael Cumbie.
Bishop da Cunha was not only pleased with the promising turnout for this introductory conference, but also with the overwhelming response of the attendees.
“They enjoyed the talks, prayers and fraternal atmosphere,” the bishop told The Anchor. “I sensed the joy, enthusiasm and hope in all the participants. In their words and actions they expressed a sense of hope for the Church and for our diocese. My hope is that they left from there renewed in faith and committed to go back to their parishes ready to become missionaries of the New Evangelization.”
Beth Mahoney, who served as chairman of the planning committee for the conference, echoed the bishop’s sentiments about this inaugural event.
“As I was walking around the sports complex, I could hear people sharing how happy they were to attend, just how much they were enjoying the day and how grateful they were that the diocese offered this event,” Mahoney said. “Personally, I was thrilled to see the hard work of the planning committee become a reality, as you could sense the joyful and enthusiastic atmosphere in the building. My heart was full of joy to think, what a wonderful way to begin our Lenten journey, then to gather to pray, receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to hear from our keynote speakers and to celebrate Mass with Bishop da Cunha.”
As shepherd of the diocese, Mahoney said it was encouraging to see Bishop da Cunha take the lead in convening this conference and setting the example for all to follow.
“His words of challenge to all of us present — to rebuild the diocese with faith and hope — touched me deeply as we begin this tradition of gathering the faithful to be enriched by God’s grace at the first-ever Women and Men’s Conference,” she said.
One of the conference highlights for many was a keynote address from Cardinal O’Malley, who previously served as the sixth Bishop Fall River from 1992 to 2002 — a job that he joked “may be the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
Considering Cardinal O’Malley’s own impressive list of achievements and various posts within the Church, he suggested that we are all called “to find new ways of bringing the Gospel to our contemporary world — of proclaiming Christ anew and passing on the faith.”
“Our task is to turn consumers into disciples and disciple-makers,” he said. “We need to prepare men and women who witness to the faith and not send people into the witness protection program. Every Catholic can be a minister of welcome, reconciliation and understanding to those who have stopped practicing the faith. In this new millennium, business as usual is not enough. We must be a team of missionaries, moving from maintenance to missionary mode.”
Noting that Lent was the most appropriate time to consider our important role in evangelization, Cardinal O’Malley made reference to the theme of this year’s conference — “Thirsting for Hope: Can You Drink the Cup I Drink?”
“It’s a time for new beginnings and a time to renew our faith and our hope that will allow us to drink from the cup, to embrace the cross and to follow Jesus in discipleship,” the cardinal said. “My hope is that this wonderful Lenten conference, which takes place during the 40 days of our baptismal retreat, will help all of us to deepen our faith in God and His Church, as well as to make us more aware of our own personal calling in life.”
Stressing that the Gospel message is “an urgent one” and as Lent progresses the “clock is ticking,” Cardinal O’Malley implored attendees to take action: “Christ is calling you right now,” he said.
“The irony is so many people think of us as the Church of ‘no’ — don’t do this, don’t do that — but in reality we are the Church of ‘yes.’ Yes to God, yes to faith, yes to the cross, yes to life, yes to service,” Cardinal O’Malley said.
During her afternoon keynote address, Dominican Sister Terry Rickard, president of RENEW International, likewise called upon conference attendees to become “witnesses to hope.”
“We can’t speak of hope without speaking of faith,” Sister Rickard said. “As I look out at this gathering, you are ordinary people, like me; but you are also extraordinary because of your faith in God and your desire to be all that God has called you to be. Each one of us has a story — I call them God moments, or moments of grace. These are the moments we need to share with others in very simple and ordinary ways.”
“As witnesses to hope, we’re called to share these moments, these stories of grace, one-on-one or through social media,” she added. “We have these everyday, ordinary moments when we are called to be missionary disciples, right where God has planted us. Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others. And this can happen unexpectedly, in any place — on the street, during work, or on a journey.”
Cautioning that sometimes people will discourage you by saying, “Don’t get your hopes up,” so that you won’t be disappointed, Sister Rickard argued that it’s all right to be disappointed sometimes.
“We need to say: ‘Get your hopes up. Take a risk. Use the gifts God gives you,’” she said. “And if that doesn’t work, something else will happen.”
Attendees were noticeably impressed with this first-time diocesan convocation.
“I’m getting a lot out of it and I think it’s very important to bring all the churches in the area and the parishes together to celebrate,” said Deb Gildea, a member of St. Mark’s Parish in Attleboro Falls. “I think they’ve done an amazing job in putting the speakers together and it’s been very inspiring. I think it’s a great event for Lent, because you’re always looking for something more to celebrate the holiness of the season.”
Having never been to a conference before, Gildea was thankful she first learned about the event in the diocesan newspaper.
“Actually, if I hadn’t read about it in The Anchor, I wouldn’t have known about it, so I’m thankful that you advertised it,” she said.
Brian Brown of St. Nicholas of Myra Parish in North Dighton was thrilled to learn it will now be an annual event and he said he “can’t wait to get back here again next year.”
“It’s just terrific to see, especially during Lent, and it’s a great environment to be in: right here on the campus of Stonehill College,” Brown said. “I haven’t been to anything like this before.”
For Maggie McGee, a parishioner at St. Rose of Lima in Rochester who also frequents St. Francis Xavier Church in Acushnet, the highlights of the day included Cardinal O’Malley’s keynote address and ValLimar Jansen’s uplifting and exuberant breakout presentation.
“I was very impressed with her — she was wonderful and I truly enjoyed seeing her,” McGee said. “And I think second was Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s (talk). I think just having him back here and hearing his voice and the message that he gave was inspiring.”
Although he’s been to similar conferences sponsored by the Providence, R.I., and Worcester dioceses, Bill Kearney, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Seekonk, said this is one of the best he’s attended.
“It’s been a wonderful conference with wonderful speakers,” Kearney said. “I think it’s great that the Fall River Diocese is getting together as a group during the Lenten season. It’s a great time to deepen our faith and become closer to Jesus and I think it’s a wonderful way to do it.”
“I think it’s a great idea to have something like this in the Fall River Diocese,” agreed Manuel Avila, a parishioner at St. Nicholas of Myra Parish in North Dighton. “I think it’s good to get people in the Spirit and to understand that your faith is important and you should be able to share it with your friends and neighbors as well.”
Due to the overwhelming success of this year’s diocesan Women and Men’s Conference, Bishop da Cunha announced it will become an annual event.
“We have already started to plan for next year (and) are excited to be able to offer this event again,” Mahoney said. “It was hard work, yet the team work was outstanding, and you know that we were guided by God every step of the way when people leave with smiles on their faces, hearing words of gratitude and asking when the next event will take place.”
If there’s one important takeaway from this inaugural conference, it might best be summed up in the words of Bishop da Cunha’s homily during the closing Liturgy celebration. The bishop urged all present to not “settle for the minimum.”
“Don’t allow yourselves or any of us here to say: ‘That’s enough. We’ve done enough. We’ve stayed with the status quo, in maintenance mode, we’ve survived so far and we’ll be OK,’” Bishop da Cunha preached. “That’s not what God wants from us. God would say: ‘You’re better than that. You can do better than that.’ Do not settle for the minimum. We are all called to greater things.”
More conference photos can be found HERE.