By JEAN DRISKELL, Special to the Bulletin | Published October 16, 2014
ATLANTA—Women who came to the annual archdiocesan convention of Catholic women heard about female saints who made a difference in their time for peace and justice.
Melanie Rigney, who spoke in a workshop on spirituality, is author of the book, “Sisterhood of Saints: Daily Guidance and Inspiration” and co-author of “When They Come Home: Ways to Welcome Returning Catholics.” Rigney, of Arlington, Virginia, came back to the Catholic Church in 2005 after 32 years away.
“Sometimes, when we think about the saints, we just think of them as people who lived many, many years ago,” Rigney said. “We think of them as perfect-looking, pious people. The saints were people, they were just like us.”
“They fought with their parents, their siblings, with their bishops, cardinals, and even the pope,” Rigney said. “The one thing they all had in common was that they loved God no matter how much they were tested. Another thing they had in common was the knowledge and faith that God loved them.”
She spoke about St. Genevieve of Paris, a 15-year-old girl who gathered a group of people to pray when Attila the Hum was threating the city. He changed his plans.
Rigney said that many religious order women saints went into dangerous places, places where there was no hope. “The women went in there and did their work,” she said.
She said that Blessed Margaret Flesch, who grew up in mid-19th century Germany, lived in an area that did not have any orphanages. The children were living on the streets. “Obviously very dangerous and harmful situations. More would end up dead,” Rigney said.
“When Margaret was 25 years old, she and one of her sisters set up an orphanage in one corner of their church,” she said. “Margaret went to work as a day laborer so that they could support the children. Eventually they founded an order and helped thousands of children from a horrible life.”
Rigney quoted Blessed Margaret as saying, “It is through service to others, lovingly given, that we reach a special fulfillment and union with our Lord.”
She spoke on St. Frances of Rome who lived in the 1400s. Rigney said that Frances wanted to be a nun, but her parents arranged for her to marry. She loved her husband and was married for 40 years. Frances and her sister-in-law started a Benedictine Oblate congregation, in which laywomen ministered to the needy and sick.
“Even when we are disappointed because God provides a different plan, with the help of our friends we can do great things for those who are called to serve,” Rigney said.
She also spoke about St. Claudine Thévenet (also known at St. Marie d’Ignatius). When Claudine was a young girl she watched her brothers be executed during the French Revolution. They extolled her to “forgive as we forgive.” She founded a teaching congregation to educate both poor and wealthy girls.
“St. Marie d’Ignatius teaches us that when evil deals us an almost unbearable blow,” Rigney said, “with Christ’s help we can still use that pain to ease the suffering of others.”
Another saint Rigney spoke about was St. Catherine of Siena, one of the great Doctors of the Church.
“She had an opinion on just about everything. She was a mystic. She wrote to kings and popes to advocate for conflict resolution and generally they listened to her,” she said.
“She was one of the most powerful women of the 14th century,” Rigney said. “She also found time for social justice. She was ministering to condemned prisoners. She was caring for patients with illnesses such as leprosy and cancer in advanced stages.”
Rigney quoted St. Catherine of Siena, “Start by being brave about everything, driving out darkness and spreading light as well. Don’t look at your weakness, but realize that in Christ, crucified, you can do everything.”
“Yes, we have weaknesses. Yes, we have fears. Yes, we have obligations,” Rigney said. “But not one of them needs to stop us from making a difference, from drawing closer to Christ and helping others draw closer to him.”
“Through Christ we can help bring peace and justice to those in need and despair; to the people we love and to ourselves,” she said.
“All are called to holiness,” Rigney said. “And that pursuit of fullness, that perfection of charity, and that holiness is what being Catholic and a sister in Christ is all about. Rejoice and be glad.”
Archbishop speaks on domestic violence
The 59th annual convention of the Atlanta Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women had as its theme “Women Working Together for Peace and Justice.” The convention was held at the Atlanta Marriott Northwest Galleria Sept. 12-14. Over 140 women attended, including 35 newcomers.
Speakers, including Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, touched on the need for women to work for peace and justice in their communities, homes and families. In personal testimonies, speakers said that the peace and justice the world needs is the kind only God can give and begins with personal conversion.
News at the time of the convention included a series of allegations of domestic abuse against NFL players. Archbishop Gregory asked the women to take the message to their sons, grandsons and nephews that “violence against women is nothing less than hateful.”
“That’s a lesson we must impart to them in our homes, in our schools, and in our religious education programs,” the archbishop said.
“There have been too many examples of prominent, public sports figures who have been disclosed as being violent to their wives, to their fiancées, and to their girlfriends,” he said.
“We must train our young men to respect women, especially our young men who look up to and admire those men for their athletic ability. They are role models for our young men.”
The archbishop said that while these sports figures may be successful, “we cannot allow our young men to see their behavior against women as anything other than despicable.”
Father Bill Williams, AACCW spiritual advisor and pastor of St. Gerard Majella Church, Fort Oglethorpe, spoke on the 1963 encyclical “Pacem in Terris” or “Peace on Earth” of Pope St. John XXIII.
He said that the encyclical was written during the Cold War-era at a time when the pope “felt we needed to be aware of the peace God has for us, the peace that only God can give. A peace all men and women of good will should work for.”
A great need for peace is evident today, and Pope Francis has asked people to look at the document again as a guide to peace building.
“The world needs peace because of a great terror that exists,” Father Williams said. “This is a time in which peace can only come by prayer, by relationship with Christ and in Christ and through Christ. … He is called the Prince of Peace because in him we find hope, we find our love, we find the care of God.”
“Pray for peace,” he said. “Pray for good will for all people that we might be one with Christ’s will. He fills us with grace every time we come to the altar of his love. He fills us with hope, with trust, with desire to do his will.”
Leslye Colvin, speaking on the topic of service, noted that “Pacem in Terris” was groundbreaking because the pope addressed it to all people of good will, not just to Catholics.
“The head of the Catholic Church is not speaking to his faithful alone, but he recognizes that God is not limited by faith,” she said.
Program specialist for Justice and Peace Ministries for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Colvin said, “In the Gospels we see our Lord accepting the invitation to embrace the marginalized, crossing cultural, religious and social barriers.”
She also spoke on the relationship between charity and justice.
“Charity addresses an immediate need. Justice is understanding the root cause for a problem and then working, advocating to change the situation,” Colvin said.
Papal documents on economic and social issues began in 1891, during the Industrial Revolution, when Pope Leo XIII issued “Rerum Novarum,” calling for a living wage, opposing child labor, and supporting trade unions.
The popes, each in turn, have linked justice and peace, Colvin said.
“Pope Paul VI is often quoted, ‘If you want peace, work for justice,’” she said. “Pope Paul VI established the Commission on Justice and Peace. Pope St. John Paul II later changed the name to the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace. The purpose of the council is to promote justice and peace in the world in the light of the Gospel and of the social teachings of the Church.”
In the archdiocese, Justice and Peace Ministries works with those in parishes and in complementary ministries, including Respect Life, Disabilities, Prison and Jail, the Georgia Catholic Conference, Catholic Relief Services, and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
Peace ‘starts in our homes’
Martha Smith, the Saturday luncheon speaker, gave a personal testimony that peace and justice starts first in one’s heart and family.
“Family is the most realistic model we could possibly have for finding peace and justice in this world,” said Smith, a spiritual director and adult faith formation teacher at St. Jude the Apostle Church, Sandy Springs.
Smith said she left the Catholic Church while in college and became a born again Christian, which caused a rift with her parents. She attended several denominations looking for something, but coming back to the Catholic Church she found that it was the Eucharist she was missing in her life.
Smith said with the help of a priest, through confession, spiritual direction and prayer, the rift with her parents closed, allowing peace and love to come through in their lives.
“The Holy Spirit can do anything, regardless. He can overcome anything. That’s his promise,” she said.
She said, “You are the leaders in your parishes. We are meant to be channels of peace. The only way to provide justice is to start with peace and my firm belief is that it starts in our homes.”
Frank Mulcahy, executive director of the Georgia Catholic Conference, spoke on current issues in Georgia at the business meeting. He represents the four Georgia bishops and speaks on their behalf, applying Catholic social teaching to issues before the state legislature.
Mulcahy used the title of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” as a way to look at public policy.
“We each need to use the Gospel to filter out some of the stuff that passes as news, such as celebrity news,” he said. “There are tremendous issues: Syria, Africa, the Middle East. All can seem overwhelming.”
Mulcahy asked Catholic women to look at what they can do in Georgia, such as the public policies they can affect by talking to other people and bringing Catholic values to bear on current issues.
One he spoke on was the plight of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border from Central America. The majority of the children are now living with relatives. Mulcahy said that parishes, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and Catholic Charities Atlanta are being affected because many of these families are on the margin and now have added children with needs to be met.
“Our approach is to help these children,” he said. “Why? They are children. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We need to be reaching out.”