National GIVEN Forum trains the next generation of Catholic women leaders

More than 120 Catholic women from across the country, including two from Michigan, joined religious sisters, mentors and organizers at the 2019 GIVEN Forum in Washington, D.C. The forum, which launched in 2016, gives Catholic women a chance to network and find inspiration, develop leadership skills and better understand their vocation as daughters of God. (Photos by Lisa Julia Photography | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Women from all over U.S. gather for inspiration, networking and leadership development, taking 'action plans' home with them

WASHINGTON — “Receive the gift you are. Realize the gifts you have been given. Respond with the gift only you can give.” 

This was the framework guiding the talks, panels, workshops and reflections during the 2019 GIVEN Forum in Washington, D.C. from June 12 to June 16 at The Catholic University of America.

Organized by The GIVEN Institute, the Forum gathered 120 young Catholic women from 30 states — including one each from Detroit and Lansing — Canada, and Ireland to grow in faith, develop leadership skills and better understand their unique vocation. The GIVEN Institute helps fill the void of vocational resources and mentorship for young Catholic women.

“In both the secular and religious arenas, women are faced with various definitions of femininity, which can be very confusing during a transitional season of life in vocational discernment,” Rachel Harkins Ullmann, the GIVEN Institute’s executive director, said. “GIVEN leads women toward their true identity and, rooted in the Gospel and in full adherence to the teachings of the Catholic Church, empowers them to serve others as a gift of self whether as a single lay woman, a married woman, or a religious sister.”

A GIVEN mentoring group meets to share insights, discuss challenges and receive guidance on their action plans.

Whatever vocation or mission the women feel called to, the GIVEN Forum offers actionable material and connections — personal and professional, said Madison Bolesta, an attendee from Baltimore. 

“All of the things I’ve learned this week can really translate well into a professional setting,” Bolesta said. “I was really excited to find something that was authentically Catholic, would help me grow spiritually, but also help me in my own personal development.”

The first GIVEN Forum was held in 2016; it will be an annual event moving forward. After receiving inspiration and graces during the five-day forum, each attendee is tasked with implementing a yearlong action plan with the guidance of a mentor. The chosen project or initiative allows the women to apply their gifts in service of the Gospel.

Some of the plans that came into fruition after the 2016 GIVEN Forum include The Catholic Woman, a storytelling platform for millennial Catholic women; FIERCE Athlete, an organization that promotes authentic femininity within female athletes; and Managing Your Fertility, a resource to learn about reproductive health and natural family planning methods.

GIVEN Forum attendees gather during a networking session at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Sisters share faith and inspiration

Each day of the forum consists of keynotes, panel discussions, mentor groups, free time, Mass, confession and adoration. In addition to The GIVEN Institute team, the forum is facilitated by religious sisters from 13 orders, including the Sisters of Life, Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, and Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity.

Lily Alvarez, a 26-year-old attendee from Los Angeles, said the GIVEN Forum was the first time she'd been surrounded by so many sisters. 

“You get to see them and know them, and you have really good conversations,” Alvarez said. “It’s amazing all the key things that they do for our Church.” 

Sr. Mary Gabriel of the Sisters of Life gave the opening keynote, sharing a message of hope and affirmation. 

Sr. Constance Veit of the Little Sisters of the Poor speaks during a panel discussion on “Integral Ecology: Caring for Life” with Jeanne Mancini, Anna Halpine and Joan Rosenhauer.

“Today, I say to you, very gifted women: the Lord is pleased with our littleness, with our need,” Sr. Mary Gabriel said. “You have found favor with God, and you don’t need to earn it. This very moment, God is loving you into creation. Receive the gift that you are.”

Sr. Miriam James, SOLT, urged the young women to embrace their feminine genius and the call to all forms of motherhood.

“I really believe that you are the Church,” Sr. Miriam James said. “Because the world needs more than anything else an encounter with the living God. And that person is you.”

The power-packed speaker lineup included Helen Alvare, professor at George Mason University School of Law; Gloria Purvis, host of “Morning Glory” by EWTN; Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life; Dr. Monique Ruberu, a NaPro Technology-trained pro-life OB/GYN; and Kathryn Jean Lopez, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, among many others.

GIVEN Forum attendees pray during Mass in the St. Vincent de Paul Chapel on The Catholic University of America’s campus. 

“I think being able to learn from more seasoned and wiser women living out their faith and their different vocations and their different callings in life is a true gift for all of the young women here and very hopeful for the future of the Church,” Carmel Tajonera, an attendee from Houston, said.

“Together, I think we’re building not just a professional network, I really feel like there is something much deeper happening here,” Sr. Mary Madeline, of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, explained. “There’s a kind of friendship, a kind of support because we’re not just working together, we’re praying together, we’re laughing together, we’re crying together.”

Now, each woman continues the GIVEN mission through her action plan, to complete by May 2020. Attendees are paired with a mentor met during the forum to offer support and schedule regular check-ins to touch base on their progress. 

“I have five young women in my mentee group, and just hearing what they’re going to do back home fills me with great excitement,” Cynthia Psencik, a GIVEN mentor from New York, shared.

Forum attendees network and speak with Catholic sisters of various orders during the 2019 event.

The GIVEN Forum isn't just a tactical conference, spiritual retreat or a networking event, Ullmann said. 

“My hope is that the women deeply know the love of Christ for them and that their God-given gifts are needed for the Church and for the world,” Ullmann said. “The activation of those gifts will not only change the landscape of women in the Church, but it will also satisfy the deepest desires of their hearts and lead them to holiness.”

This article's author, Christine Warner, attended the 2019 GIVEN Forum and writes from her experience at this year's event. Warner is editor of the Archdiocese of Detroit's Unleash the Gospel magazine.