By Ana Franco-Guzman, Catholic News Service     6/13/2016

WASHINGTON (CNS) — An invitation to think big during the Catholic Church’s Year of Consecrated Life in 2015 turned into a meeting of about 300 young women from all over the nation this spring in Washington.

The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious hosted the Given Catholic Young Women’s Leadership Forum June 7-12 at The Catholic University of America. Organizers said it was spurred by the church’s special focus on consecrated life, which ended this past February.

“Coming to this conference it has been inspiring just to see the number of women who are also seeking God’s will, trying to develop themselves spiritually and professionally in order to better serve God,” said attendee Laura Locker, who is from the Washington area.

The principle themes of the conference were to “receive the gifts you are, realize the gifts you’ve been given and respond with the gift only you can give.” Faith formation, professional skills development and networking also were part of the gathering.

The council described the Given forum as “a launchpad for what St. John Paul II called the feminine genius and a response to Pope Francis’ call to activate women’s gifts in the church.”

“By creating an environment of mentorship, the next generation of Catholic women leaders will be equipped to develop and implement initiatives to utilize their gifts for the life of the church,” it said.

Seventy-five women religious volunteered at the conference to be a source of encouragement and have a presence “as spiritual mothers” accompanying the women at the conference.

With funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the council provided each attendee with a scholarship to participate in the conference. In applying for the scholarship, the young women had to submit an “action plan” to show how each would offer her gifts in service to her home diocese, workplace or university over the next few months.

For example, attendee Rian Holland said her plan would be to organize “a retreat for young adults ages 21-35 so that they can experience what natural law truly is.”

“The retreat would include activities such as bailing hay, going out to the chicken coop and getting eggs, in order to really understand where the root of our physical humanity comes from,” she told Catholic News Service.

Another plan came from Iris Chen, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, who wants to have a summer leadership program for rising high school seniors “so that they can recognize the ways they are leaders and give them the opportunities to step up.”

The conference schedule included keynote addresses and panel discussions. Speakers included:

— Helen Alvare, a family and religion law professor at George Mason University in Virginia.

— Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the Baltimore-based overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. bishops.

— Sister Norma Pimentel, a Missionary of Jesus, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas.

— Sister Anne Walsh, provincial superior of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

— Sister Constance Viet, a Little Sister of the Poor, who is communications director for her order.

— Laraine Bennett, editor and communications manager for the National Council of Catholic Women.

— Erika Bachiochi, a legal scholar and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

— Sister Mary Prudence, a Religious Sister of Mercy and founder of an international women’s ministry called

Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women, or ENDOW.

In her remarks, Woo told the young women that she had “never intended to be the CEO of anything nor did I wake up knowing I wanted to serve God. Work a lot of times is our own ticket to be a part of something. This is your way of being part of the world.”

Speaker Hallie Lord, co-founder of the Edel Gathering for women, told the attendees all need to “lift our fears out of the darkness.”