God’s love symbolized in cheesecake and bacon, the beauty and strength of women, and the genuineness of faith were among the topics of this year’s Diocesan Women’s Conference, “Catholic Women: Our Place at the Table.”
Streamed live from the Diocesan Conference Center in Harrisburg Oct. 17, the virtual event yielded a feast of themes for women, with engaging presentations and real talk about life’s joys and sorrows.
Keynote speaker Emily Stimpson Chapman wove stories of her own personal experiences – a battle with anorexia and her struggle with infertility – into presentations on the way food reveals God, and what to make of unanswered prayers.
Food, she said, is a sign of God’s gratuitous love and a foretaste of the Eucharist.
“Food is a blinking neon sign that helps us understand the work the Eucharist is doing in our souls and in the world. Natural things point to supernatural things. Natural truths reveal supernatural truths. That’s how it is with food and the Eucharist,” she said.
“Every natural truth about food – a source of comfort, healing, strength, nourishment, community, joy – points beyond itself to the supernatural truth of the Eucharist. It makes visible in the world the invisible work the Eucharist is doing in our souls.”
Struggling with anorexia throughout college and early into her career, Stimpson Chapman said she came to a profound realization after receiving Communion at Mass one day: “The most intimate communion that I have with God is that I eat Him. I eat God. Under the guise of bread and wine, the God of the universe feeds me with His very self.”
“I understood the Church teaching on the Real Presence, I understood Transubstantiation, but until that day, I didn’t see the radical gift that was God giving himself to us in the Eucharist,” she said.
Immediately, she began to treat food as a gift from God.
“The world doesn’t tell us that food is an occasion for grace. It doesn’t tell us that food is a sign of God’s love. It doesn’t tell us that food helps us understand the fullness of what the Eucharist does in our bodies and in our world,” she said.
She called food – from bacon and cheesecake to wine and lemonade – a sign of the “absolute gratuitous love of God.”
Even as we carry our crosses in this life, God’s gift reminds us that something better awaits us.
“Food tells us we don’t have to wait until we get to other side for something better. We encounter it now, every single time we go to Mass, in the Eucharist,” Stimpson Chapman said.
“The Eucharist is essential. That is what transforms our lives and our world,” she said.
The unanswered prayers that leave us discouraged or even angry with God ultimately draw us closer to him, Stimpson Chapman remarked. She’s encountered her own: praying for nine years until the man she loved became her husband; praying for the gift of fertility, which never came; praying for the healing of friends with cancer, who succumbed to the disease.
“Christ calls us to be his co-workers in the process of Redemption. When we join our sufferings to God, grace works through that, and the suffering becomes redemptive,” she said.
“Does this mean I always understand the grace that comes from answered prayers? No,” she added. “I don’t understand why some people lose loved ones and other people get to keep them. I don’t understand why some children have to suffer unimaginable trauma and other children are protected. I don’t understand why some people go through tragedy after tragedy and loss after loss, and others’ lives are so simple and carefree.
“But all of my years of going to Him in prayer have taught me that He loves each and every one of us more than we can imagine,” Stimpson Chapman continued. “They have taught me that He wants more for every one of us than we can want for ourselves, and that He is more than capable of providing for us and giving us exactly what we need, when we need it.”
“Prayer taught me trust. That gave me the ability to end each and every prayer with the words, “Not my will but your will.” That’s the best advice I have to offer you about unanswered prayers,” she concluded. “Don’t stop bringing your needs before Him, but seek His will first. Ask Him to change your heart to conform to His. If you do that, that’s where you’ll get your answers. You’ll see He gives us everything we’ve ever truly wanted.”
Interspersed with praise and worship music by the Caelorum band between conference sessions, the event also included presentations by Bishop Ronald Gainer and Catholic speaker and evangelist Megan Murphy.
Passages from the First Letter of St. Peter were the focus of Bishop Gainer’s talk, “The Genuineness of Your Faith.” The letter is one of affirmation and encouragement to the faithful of the first century and applicable to Catholics today.
“We live in a time when the genuineness of our faith in Jesus Christ is tested. I don’t think there was ever a time when Christians’ faith was not being tested in one way or another,” Bishop Gainer remarked. “This is our time to take the test. How are we doing, and how will we do when the test continues to get more difficult?”
Passages from the First Letter of St. Peter exhort readers to be holy, to be alive in a life of virtue, to “keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul,” to sanctify Christ as Lord, and to always have hope.
The New Testament letter is particularly relevant for us today, the bishop said, as it addresses “the refusal of the Christian believers to conform to the values and the standards of the dominant culture – paganism – which kindled mockery, rejection and hostility against them.”
“Peter’s purpose in writing this letter was to see that the people might remain firm and steadfast in the faith, holding on and persevering in hope. Today, Christians in Africa, India and the Middle East are experiencing it, right now. Increasingly, our own society has no sympathy for our faith, for our Christian values, and considers us aliens. Freedom of religion has been attacked and restricted, and in some cases denied,” the bishop said.
“Rather than circle the wagons and disengage, 1 Peter urges us to be good citizens, but Christians first, by participating in the conversion of society, while persevering and strengthening our loyalty to Christ and to one another,” he said.
In a presentation on Biblical women Judith, Esther and Jael, Megan Murphy illustrated how the women of the Bible harken to Our Lady in their prayer, intercession, model and beauty.
Murphy recounted the stories of these women and their fight against the enemy, as well as the beauty of their virtue.
“It’s clear that people were drawn to them like moths to a light,” she said of the Biblical women. “One thing they had in common was Christ’s presence in them.”
“An incredible need for beauty exists in our culture. These women model the way for us,” Murphy said. “They are full of grace, full of holiness, full of beauty. Their beauty is extraordinary because of their virtue.”
She remarked that in the stories of Judith, Esther and Jael, victory for the chosen people is found in the hand of a woman.
“Pray, fast, sacrifice, do penance. Pray the Rosary,” Murphy urged. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I part of Mary’s army? Am I another Marian spirit in the world, to help defeat those enemies of the Church that wish to destroy the beauty that exists in holiness?’”
Now in its sixth year, the Women’s Conference is hosted by the Diocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis and planned by members of a conference committee. Next year’s conference is planned for Oct. 16.
Attendees expressed gratitude for the event, which met the challenges of offering a conference virtually.
“I thought the whole thing came off beautifully and flawlessly,” wrote Barbara Goss, a member of the planning committee.
“Overall, I thought having three primary speakers, with Emily’s keynote in two shorter parts, enabled everyone streaming to have a wonderful and accessible shared experience,” she said. “The quality of talks, including Bishop’s insightful and timely reflection on 1 Peter, made for a genuinely relatable and uplifting morning. It certainly came at just the right time for me!”
Participant Jacqui Veres commended event planners for an enlightening and enjoyable conference.
“The speakers, music, and spiritual worship made for a beautiful morning,” she wrote. “In the course of my work, I attend many virtual meetings during the week, so I can appreciate the challenges. Today’s conference was one of the best that I have seen. Although I did miss having a day out and mingling with the ladies, I am so grateful that you were able to offer this venue and did not cancel this year’s conference.”
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness