Annual diocesan gathering takes place at St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland
By Emily Booker
The family is the building block of society. The family is the domestic Church where children first learn about God. It is through a family that Jesus came into the world in human flesh.
Family was at the heart of the 32nd Knoxville Diocesan Council of Catholic Women annual convention held at St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Cleveland April 28-30.
The theme of the convention was “The Holy Family: Our guidance and our strength.” More than 100 people attended the three-day convention.
MJ Uhlik, who was the chair for this year’s convention, said the theme arose over the past few years where so many people realized the importance of family and spending time together.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve had the pandemic, and that is sort of what our theme grew out of. It seems we’ve all gone back to family. So, the theme is ‘The Holy Family: Our guidance and our strength’ because we thought that that was what we all relied on, even if we couldn’t see them for the past two years.”
The convention opened April 28 with the Mass of Remembrance for members of the KDCCW who died in the past year.
Bishop Richard F. Stika celebrated the Mass. Monsignor Al Humbrecht and Fathers Mike Nolan, Charlie Burton, Mike Creson, Alex Waraksa, Ray Powell, Dan Whitman, and Michael Woods concelebrated.
“It’s good to be here during this Easter season as we celebrate unity and faith and purpose and sharing in life, and also to remember those who have died, those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith,” the bishop said.
In his homily, Bishop Stika recalled the early Church as seen in Acts.
“That first Church—they talk about the blood of the martyrs as that which gives life to the Church. It is seen through history. When the Church looks like it’s going to be completely destroyed…people stand up because they trust in faith,” he said.
“When we look at the Acts of the Apostles, we see the beginnings of the Church—like this diocese in 1988—we see the beginnings of the Church and the need to educate, to catechize, to build.”
“Today, we remember. I’ve been doing this for 14 years, minus two or three. All the names. All the names of people just like yourself who saw something important in this organization, who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.”
At the end of Mass, the names of the women who had died in the past year were read, and a bell tolled after each name. A candle was lit for each deanery. Monsignor Humbrecht read the names for the Chattanooga Deanery, Father Powell read the names for the Cumberland Mountain Deanery, and Father Whitman, who also serves as KDCCW chaplain, read the names for the Smoky Mountain and Five Rivers deaneries.
Raising holy families
Following Mass was a banquet dinner. Deacon Scott Maentz gave the keynote talk, “The Christian Family: Tips for Growing in Holiness.” Deacon Maentz serves at Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville and leads the Bridge Ministry, which ministers to the homeless in downtown Knoxville.
Deacon Maentz spoke on how the family unit is under attack in many ways and how we must be intentional in raising families in the faith.
“Pope Francis recently said, ‘It could be said, without exaggeration, that the family is the driving force of the world and of history.’ The driving force of the world and of history. Think about that,” he said.
“It is in the family that children learn about love and forgiveness. It is in the family where children first learn to give thanks to God for all they have, both their material goods and their many other personal gifts and talents.”
Parents must recognize the power and the responsibility of the family, he said. As the domestic Church, the family influences the next generation’s values and faith. Both parents must be involved and intentional in this pursuit. God created the family unit. He entered the world through a family. Every family is called to holiness.
“What does it mean for a family to be holy? Being holy doesn’t mean being perfect. Thank God. Holiness means being sacred or set apart. Holiness means to be set apart. For us as people, it means we are set apart to belong to God. But belonging to God is actually much simpler than we might believe. … Holiness looks different for everyone. It’s an individual journey into holiness; it’s not a checklist.”
How a family journeys toward holiness will look as different as each family. Yet, Deacon Maentz, who is the father of five and grandfather of 14, offered several tips for how to keep the family close, united, and growing in holiness.
He emphasized that families should pray together and play together.
“An important part of your family’s health and happiness is making time to have fun together,” he said. “Now, this may sound like an oversimplification, but the family that isn’t working is probably the family that isn’t playing together. Playing together is an essential trait of a happy, healthy family.”
Deacon Maentz suggested family dinners, weekly game nights, regular outings, and other simple activities that bond families and establish routine, traditions, and memories.
He also gave several examples of how to pray together, including praying a family rosary, enthroning your home to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, consecrating yourself to Mary, and establishing family traditions around holy days.
Deacon Maentz shared several resources where families can find ideas and prayers to nourish their spiritual life.
“A holy family is our greatest weapon against the influences of the world and our most effective way of influencing the world,” he said.
During the deacon’s keynote talk, the convention attendees were blessed with an icon of St. Joseph presented in the front of the banquet hall. The icon was chosen by the Knights of Columbus to travel from council to council across America to spread devotion to St. Joseph and pray for the courage to carry out the mission of protecting, defending, and raising future generations.
Lester Brown of St. Thérèse of Lisieux arranged to have the icon of the father of the Holy Family displayed for the convention’s opening.
More than DNA
April 29 was a jam-packed day of activity with the convention business meeting, a silent auction, ministry booths, a bunco social, and two speakers.
It was announced at the business meeting that the KDCCW’s recent food-packing service project, which prepared 50,126 meals for those in need in developing countries, had been chosen as one of two projects presented to Pope Francis as part of a spiritual bouquet presented by the National Council of Catholic Women. Along with the service projects, thousands of rosaries, Masses, hours of adoration, novenas, and Hail Mary prayers were pledged by CCW members for the pope’s intentions.
The theme of the Holy Family continued to permeate the day.
Speaker Arlene Webb, a parishioner of St. Stephen Parish in Chattanooga, gave a talk titled “Family is more than DNA.”
She said when people chose to get involved and love unconditionally, they become like family. As part of the Christian family, all are able to reach out and bond with others and create that much-needed connection of love and support.
Some people do not have a supportive or healthy family structure. When that is the case, or when they are separated from family due to distance or death, it is important to find people who will become family, because everyone needs a family.
“I’d like to reflect on the people the Lord has placed in our lives who are not blood relatives but who have become family in the deepest way,” Mrs. Webb said.
She shared personal stories of people who had done just that.
Mrs. Webb said that for her, sharing stories and hearing others’ stories is a way of connecting.
“I’m going to go back to the power of stories,” she said. “Jesus was a master storyteller. Stories stay with you. So I’m choosing to tell a series of stories and hoping that some might connect with you.”
There were her next-door neighbors, who cheered her and her siblings on as they grew up, proud of every school and personal accomplishment.
There was the roommate who became a close friend and confidant.
There was the caregiver at her father’s nursing home who took extra time to come and visit with him in his last days. And there was the community that walked with her during her grief after her father died.
There was the friend who met a newly married woman, Maria, on a military base in Hawaii. Maria was from Puerto Rico, had married just out of high school, and was desperately lonely and homesick. The woman immediately took Maria under her wing and helped her connect with other Spanish-speaking women on base who helped her with practical skills like shopping and cooking, but more importantly, gave her a community and family to rely on while so far away from her own home.
There was Mrs. Webb’s aunt, who became a religious Sister and teacher. The family did not realize the impact the woman had had on so many other families until after her death.
“When she died of cancer, the parish shut the school down so everyone could go. My mother and her sister and I all came down to the convent for the wake. [A Sister at the convent] said, ‘Well, the wake is going to be from 2 p.m. until 10.’ I was appalled. I said, ‘My mother is over 80.’ And she said, ‘Well, we felt it was necessary.’
“So, about a quarter to 2, I looked out the window, and I said, ‘Mother, come see.’ And we looked out, and there were people as far as the eye could see, lined up all the way around the block. And they started coming. And there started to be stories.
“At one point I said, ‘Are you tired, Mother?’ She said, ‘No! I’m thrilled. It’s just fantastic to hear all the things that she did.’”
Hearing those individual stories helped the family to understand how their loved one truly impacted others, how she became family to them, and how much her and her memory would remain in them.
For Mrs. Webb, although everyone is born into a family, all also form families throughout life. Sometimes it is done formally, through marriage and having or adopting children, and sometimes informally, intentionally adopting another person and showing them love and presence.
Finding God through life’s challenges
Leah Carroll spoke on finding God through the challenges of family life. Mrs. Carroll is familiar with challenges.
“I have the privilege of having a testimony of my own, and I also have the privilege of caring for and having two other testimonies for my children,” she said, introducing herself.
The Carrolls have two sons, both of whom have a series of medical conditions.
About 24 weeks into her pregnancy with their first son, Malachi, she started feeling that something was wrong. At the hospital, doctors couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat.
Mrs. Carroll recalled being wheeled into emergency surgery.
“I remember thinking, I’m supposed to be praying right now. There was something that I need to be praying for, and I don’t know what to even pray. So, I asked God to just speak through me, and all that He said, all He put on my mind was the verse from Job: ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ And I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted to hear something else.”
Malachi was born without a heartbeat. It took 15 minutes of CPR for his heart to start beating. Mrs. Carroll also had complications during the delivery. She didn’t get to meet her son until three days later.
Malachi had suffered brain bleeds and lack of oxygen. His prognosis was not good. Doctors predicted that he would never breathe, eat, talk, or walk on his own.
A medical team met with the Carrolls.
“They said, ‘How would you like us to proceed?’ And I remember in that moment being offended. I looked at [my husband] Jake, and they were asking me if they should continue lifesaving care for my son. I looked at them and I said, ‘He’s here for a reason. We want him to live.’ I think of the shock on their faces. It was very powerful for me. It told me a lot. It told me a lot about how the other conversations that they’ve had in their careers went, and it breaks my heart, knowing that a lot of families didn’t get to meet their Malachis.”
Malachi was in the neonatal intensive care unit for 112 days. While the Carrolls had always been people of faith, this period of trial drew them even closer to God.
“The Bible started to come to life for me, just all the stories you read and the verses that you read just started to grow legs and started walking with us in a way I didn’t know existed,” Mrs. Carroll said.
“I felt very much like Hagar. I felt invisible. God revealed himself to Hagar in the desert, and she gave him the name ‘el-roi,’ ‘the God who sees me,’ and I remember reading that and just feeling the presence of God and saying, ‘God sees me. He sees me.’”
The Carrolls’ second son, Levi, was born five years later. He was born with paralyzed vocal chords, inhibiting his ability to breathe on his own. The Carrolls fought to get him admitted to a children’s hospital in Cincinnati that had successfully done experimental surgery on the condition.
Levi had dozens of surgeries and spent five months in the NICU in Cincinnati. During that time, Mrs. Carroll cared for Malachi at the Ronald McDonald House near the hospital while Mr. Carroll had to stay and work in Tennessee and commute to Ohio every weekend.
Malachi is now 9, and Levi is 4. Both still have lots of medical problems, but they are also typical young boys who play together, fight as brothers do, and are being raised to love God.
Mrs. Carroll said that while it is a difficult life, her family has weathered the storms, and God has used these challenges to grow her own faith. She recalls how a refiner’s fire and crucible burns off all that is unclean, leaving the metal purer.
“I saw God just scrape off these things in me, my pride, my arrogance, so many ugly parts of myself. I’ve learned to really appreciate the refiner’s fire, being refined by God, as painful as it is. There is so much that comes out of being right by God,” she noted.
Mrs. Carroll said her family has had to learn to let go of control, to trust God, to appreciate every moment of life.
“Contentment is an action,” she said. “It’s something you have to choose. When you look through the eyes of God, you realize that a lot of the trials you go through actually aren’t about you…It’s a blessing to be able to be used by God even in the trials and the hard stuff to influence the faith of others looking in.”
She said that while people want to experience the joy of spiritual mountaintops, life often casts us into the valley. But it is in the valleys, the dark moments, that we can find God, too. Finding God in the valley can make it a valley of peace.
“There is so much to be learned in the valley. Sometimes resting in the valley is where we need to be to reconnect to God. So, learn to love your time in the valley. Time in the valley is never wasted. I don’t know where you’re at in your life right now. I don’t know what things you’re struggling with. I know that my trials are very hard to relate with in terms of other people’s trials, but we all have things that are hard. We all have fires that we’re put in. We all have those moments where our faith is tested, and I just hope that you’re able to learn to look through the eyes of God in those moments.”
Grace in the Holy Family
On April 30, Sister John Catherine Kennedy, OP, wrapped up the convention by bringing focus back to the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. She took time to focus on each member of the Holy Family, their relationship with grace, and how people find grace in their domestic lives.
“I just want to call our minds to the mysteries, these realities of our faith, that are so beautiful and are the foundation of all we believe as Catholics,” she said.
“We have Jesus as the source of grace in the Holy Family. We also have the Immaculate Conception, the Blessed Mother. And then we have poor St. Joseph, the only sinner in the Holy Family. He has to spend his life with the Immaculate Conception and the Word made Flesh and not feel shabby about that.
“What comes to mind there with St. Joseph is the virtue of magnanimity, how he was able to become great even though he was living in the shadow of so much greatness,” Sister John Catherine said, recalling how God entered the world through a family. Part of His humanity was having a family.
“The whole point of the entire operation, of Jesus taking flesh, of the Holy Family existing, is for our salvation. That’s the only reason why. Which I guess why [the Gospel of] John calls us back to the beginning in the garden. Why the incarnation? Why the Holy Family at all? Because we need to be redeemed, and that happens through grace, and the source of that grace is the Lord Himself.”
Mary’s response to God’s grace and her fiat is what welcomes God into the world and into a family.
“Grace is dynamically working through her,” Sister John Catherine said. “She’s on a pilgrimage, as we are on a pilgrimage. It’s not a one and done, no, no, no. She is on a pilgrimage of ever-increasing faith. She freely cooperated in our redemption, and she kept cooperating.”
Joseph also needed strong trust in the Lord and cooperating with God’s grace to fulfill his role in the Holy Family.
“St. Joseph also needed special graces and virtues to fulfill his responsibilities in keeping with the dignity of his wife and son. And Joseph was not immaculately conceived, so he must have needed tremendous grace as he cooperated in faith with what he was given to do.”
Sister John Catherine pointed out, however, that the Holy Family, while given special graces, also lived out their lives as a typical family. They grew in holiness while doing everyday chores, living on a carpenter’s wages in a small village, and creating an ordinary but loving home.
“When Mary was sweeping the floor, washing the clothes, making the meals, Joseph’s in the workshop, doing what he’s doing, Jesus is growing up in the ordinary way that little guys grow up, and they are being really holy. And they are growing, deepening in faith.
“How is it that in the ordinary, day-to-day, humdrum, unremarkable circumstances of their life in Nazareth, they’re becoming the greatest saints that the Church knows?”
It is not about what worldly influence or power they achieve, Sister John Catherine said. It is about their response to God’s call and their cooperation with God’s grace. Growing in holiness is not always outwardly seen, but it is working within each person who accepts that grace.
It is our response to grace in our day-to-day that will lead us to grow in holiness, she said.
“We have a high call to perfection…Grace is being offered to us in that call. You are qualified. The call is there; if you’re baptized, the call is there. And the qualification is there. So, the grace is there, too.”
The Holy Family exemplifies what it is to receive grace in our ordinary lives.
“Joseph saw the high call, he depended on God’s grace, and he responded to the call. He was faithful to God, not letting fear of failure or inadequacy hold him back,” she said. “Likewise, Mary sought greatness in every respect. And Jesus, too, in His human nature, had the fullness of grace and lived every virtue to perfection.
“They were the greatest of the great in their very ordinary—and in some ways very narrow—hidden life. They didn’t go anywhere. They didn’t do anything noteworthy. …But in each action, each thought, and each word, there was magnanimity, this opening, this reaching out to greatness, this allowing God to do great things in me.
“Because that’s what He’s created me for. He’s created me for the greatest thing there is: Himself.”
By the end of the convention, the attendees were energized to bring renewed intentionality and grace into their families, be it their immediate family, their extended family, or their parish family.
Mrs. Uhlik felt that the Women of Faith of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish did a wonderful job hosting the gathering, and that this year’s conference was a success.
“I think the conference has gone well. It’s always energizing to see all of these women together with a common goal, and it’s just fun to be with all of them,” she said.
Next year’s KDCCW convention will be held at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Lenoir City April 20-22.
To learn more about the KDCCW, visit www.kdccw.org.