By Allyson Escobar     8/8/2016

This summer more than 300 young women, including myself, representing all 50 states and 116 dioceses across the nation, gathered at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. for an unforgettable women’s leadership conference. We gathered in the nation’s capital, each of us from different cultures and faith journeys, with open hearts waiting to be filled.

Hosted by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the first-ever GIVEN Forum took place from June 7 to 12 at the Catholic University of America. A group of West Coasters, including several young women hailing from the Diocese of Orange, was chosen to attend the Forum, which in its first year encourages participants to “cultivate authentic femininity for the life of the Church.”

“This whole experience is so hard to put into words,” said Samantha Leveugle, a youth minister from Irvine. “I didn’t know what I was getting into when I first applied, but it felt like the right thing to do, and so I took it with faith. GIVEN challenged my mind and heart on so many different levels, spiritually and emotionally.”

After the lengthy application process, each attendee was provided a full scholarship that included travel arrangements, thanks to the generosity of major sponsors, primarily the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

Mother Agnes Mary Donovan of the Sisters of Life, chair of the CMSWR, helped to oversee the special project in connection with the Year of Consecrated Life for 2015.

The all-women’s conference was envisioned over a year ago and organized by the CMSWR, which for 24 years represents and unites 120 religious communities, with over 5,500 sisters nationwide.

Unique to this conference, 75 volunteer sisters representing various communities—including the Sisters of Life, Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, and the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles—also accompanied the GIVEN attendees as spiritual mentors.

“It was such a witness to what the Lord can do when we surrender our hearts to Him. The sisters are a true testament to the beauty of living out vocation as authentically as possible,” said Eliana Castillo, a Fullerton-based student at Cal Poly Pomona.

The Forum brought together all of these diverse women, religious and laity, for a weeklong immersion in faith formation, daily Mass and prayer, networking, and leadership training sessions. Modeled around the teachings of St. John Paul II on the “feminine genius” and theology of woman, the Forum was also a response to Pope Francis’ call for a deeper understanding of womanhood in the Catholic Church and in the world.


Receive the gift that you are

The vision statement of GIVEN is simple: “The GIVEN Forum is a launch-pad 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 models on the teaching that “every young woman has been entrusted with a mission: to cultivate her own unique gifts and initiate positive change in the world through the love that is exclusively hers to give.”

With profound talks led by religious sisters and leaders in the Church, topics included theology of woman, Mary as the Model of the New Evangelization, and utilizing your unique gifts in the home, professional, creative, business and nonprofit spheres. Breakout workshops and power sessions also included the various forms of prayer, living maternity, discovering the temperaments, and unleashing the feminine genius.

“I think [GIVEN] was the first time I was told that being a woman is a vocation from God,” Leveugle said. “Women are nation builders, we are mothers, we are professionals, we are out on the field. To think that God made me a woman intentionally, with a purpose, is incredible to think about.”

One of the initial speakers, Sister Mary Gabriel Devlin of the Sisters of Life, shared about casting the vision of God’s desires. “The enemy has always had his eye on women…but the Lord is fully invested in us. When we say yes to God unconditionally, we have no idea how far our ‘yes’ will take us.”

Laura Corza from Tustin agreed: “We live in a culture that still puts man above woman, and it is powerful to realize that there is so much goodness, beauty, and truth in being a woman. It was so healing and mothering; something about being surrounded by all those women who wanted to help me better discover and nurture my own gifts.”


Realize the gifts you’ve been given

Along with workshops and hands-on training sessions, attendees had the opportunity for prayer, Reconciliation, Eucharistic Adoration, and daily Mass celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (visited by many Popes—including Pope Francis last September, during his visit to the US—and currently the largest Catholic Church in North America).

Contemplative, prayerful activities at GIVEN also included a Marian procession “walking Rosary,” 24-hour Adoration, and my personal favorite, a brief talk/praise and worship concert led by singer-songwriter Audrey Assad.

“The real gift of Christianity is healing,” Assad said. “You have a ministry, you have a gift, you have something to offer to the world… seek healing, in order to be who you are openly. My hope is to create a space for you to gaze at God, and for you to see God’s loving gaze at you.”

Other diverse leaders speaking at the conference received thunderous applause. Dr. Amal Marogy, founder of Aradin Charitable Trust, shared her compelling story on growing up a Christian woman in the Middle East. Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, gave a powerful keynote on discerning her calling and allowing God to enter in. EWTN talk show host Gloria Purvis made audiences smile at her comical words about reclaiming the truth as women and having the willingness to serve.

“GIVEN for me was a call to allow God to show me my giftedness,” Corza said. “And in accepting my gifts, I give others permission to do the same.”

During free time, some of the women played sports like basketball and Spikeball, others enjoyed a film screening of “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” (2009), while some wandered the historic campus grounds or visited the nearby John Paul II National Shrine.

On the last night of the conference, everyone gathered under the stars for a “rhapsodic theater” talent show in tribute to St. John Paul II; dancers, writers, musicians, poets, actresses, and comediennes, all celebrating and showcasing the diverse gifts we were given.


Respond with the gift only you can give

In response to Pope Francis’ call to action on utilizing women’s gifts in the Church, GIVEN attendees were encouraged to propose an “Action Plan” showing how she aims to use her feminine genius to better serve, and bring back what she learned to her community.

Conference emcee Sister Bethany Madonna Burwell, of the Sisters of Life, assured the attendees on the last day: “There is no way you would have found out about GIVEN, or persevered through that application—which, by the way, we were told after the fact, surpasses the detail of MIT’s—if God did not lay it so very plainly on your heart. He chose you to be here…and how delighted He is in your coming! He has bestowed gifts on you, and has readied you with the graces necessary to carry out whatever He is calling you to do.”

For Leveugle, whose action plan involves creating consistent, sustainable ministry leadership training in the Orange diocese, continuous formation is necessary to bring in “new personalities and different perspectives to enlighten and serve our church.”

“As a special educator, I know how challenging it can be for young women to feel validated when they are placed in special education classrooms,” said Castillo, whose plan is to develop a group aimed at working with special needs teenagers and youth. “My hope is for them to discover their identity in Christ and in the beauty of the sacraments.”

My action plan is to bring the notion of the feminine genius to all women, inviting them to discover and share their unique, God-given gifts and identity. I hope to create an online community at TheFemGenius.com, where women of all seasons can find helpful resources and come together in authentic support, learning, and encouragement.

Being surrounded by every woman at GIVEN Forum was, to put it simply, humbling and life-giving. Not only was it my first time in Washington, D.C., but it was my first true experience getting to know the religious sisters on a personal level. It was an awakening of my distinct, entrusted feminine genius and vocation as a woman of Christ.

“This conference was about bringing together so many different, real women who now understand their femininity and are not afraid to be women in this world,” Corza said. “Using our natural giftedness of womanhood, we are all a gift, and in that giftedness we give of ourselves to others, and others respond to it.”

For more information on GIVEN and the CMSWR, as well as to pledge prayers and support for future events, please visit givenforum.org.