As the Women of Christ leadership team discerned the planning of their 2020 conference, there seemed to be more questions than answers.
Would an in-person event of the size and scope Women of Christ usually commands be feasible, or even safe? Would switching to a virtual model deliver the same experience the conference attendees have come to expect?
As the team met monthly via Zoom, they shared their suspicion that the answer to both questions was no.
“We kept thinking, we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it — but probably about two months ago, we realized, no, it’s just not going to happen,” said Tina Thull, a member of the Women of Christ leadership team. “We knew we had to do something; we just didn’t know what.”
“Virtual didn’t feel right for us,” said Elizabeth Meier, president of Women of Christ.
The group’s spiritual director counseled them to pray together, and the group completed a novena to the Holy Spirit. At its conclusion, they shared a morning retreat led by Frs. Patrick Burns, Nick Baumgardner and Jacob Strand. At the retreat, their plan for 2020 seemed to become clear: the conference had to be live, somehow, and it had to be centered on the sacraments. After so many weeks earlier this year when public Mass was suspended, and even in the months that followed, thousands of Catholics have been separated from the Eucharist, creating what the Women of Christ team calls a “sacramental void” in the faithful.
“We really felt a tugging of the Holy Spirit to get the ladies back into church,” said Thull.
“A lot of us shared messages we had received in prayer, and it all sort of pointed the same way — that we had to have an event, and the Eucharist has to be central,” said Meier.
Women of Christ this year will look a bit different than usual — it will not be a giant conference held at the Washington County Fair Park. But the essential aspects of the event will remain — Mass, confession, adoration and a message that speaks to the unique situation women find themselves facing in 2020, after many have endured months without the sacraments.
“At the retreat, Fr. Nick talked about how we cannot exist without the Eucharist, and Fr. Patrick talked about this void of sacramental grace that exists — here we are, millions of sacraments have not been received since March because so many couldn’t go to church and now they’re not going back,” said Meier. “If you think about grace, there’s no such thing as a private sin or secret sin. Every sin affects the Body of Christ. So it goes with grace. Every time we receive a sacrament and we receive the grace from that sacrament it affects the whole Body of Christ.”
The team developed a parish-based retreat model that will allow for smaller groups all over the archdiocese to simultaneously experience pre-recorded talks given by Frs. Burns, Strand and Baumgardner on Saturday, Oct. 10. The morning will also include Mass, confessions and, if the hosting parish chooses, a rosary procession.
The in-person model was crucial all along, said Kelly Weske, secretary and tech director for the Women of Christ leadership team. “We can’t receive the Eucharist through a computer. We have not been worshipping as a faith community. We wanted to bring women together, to build community and provide an opportunity to receive the sacraments and graces that flow freely at our annual conference.”
Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, many businesses and restaurants have reopened their doors, and people are flocking to them. But church pews remain only partially filled, even after taking into account the demands of social distancing. “It’s frustrating that the bars and restaurants are full, but people aren’t coming back to Mass,” said Thull. “And we feel, like so many, that especially now, in these times of confusion and unrest, we cannot not go to Mass, adoration, confession, receive the Eucharist. We have to be smart but we cannot let the evil one prevail.”
Meier said she sees this as the most fitting way Women of Christ can serve the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and to fulfill its mission to live, defend and pass on the Catholic Faith.
“When someone is in need, women want to do something. This is something women can do. I can go and receive the sacraments and it affects my soul, but it also affects my community, it affects my family — as Fr. Nick said — it affects the cosmos, it affects the entire Body of Christ,” she said. “When I receive the sacraments, I’m serving the whole Church.”
The Women of Christ Morning of Grace parish-based retreat is being hosted at more than a dozen parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and three in other dioceses. To find a parish that is hosting the retreat, go to womenofchrist.net or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Women of Christ continues relationship with Deaf apostolate
For years, the Women of Christ conference has enjoyed a close relationship with the Catholic Deaf community of Milwaukee. This year will be no different. Perhaps more than any other group, it is deaf Catholics who have suffered most from the “sacramental void” that comes from scarce public Masses and the demands of social distancing.
“The Catholic Deaf community has been part of the archdiocese since its earliest founding through St. John School for the Deaf, in close proximity to Saint Francis de Sales Seminary,” said Fr. Christopher Klusman, director of the Deaf Apostolate for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, who travels throughout the archdiocese with Dcn. David Sommers to bring the sacraments to the Deaf. “Sadly, only 1 percent of the Deaf community attend church services due to many obstacles, such as limited services available in their language, limited resources, low percentages of parents achieving basic sign fluency rendering home catechesis in the faith as nearly nonexistent, and on and on.”
And so, when the women of the Deaf Catholic community are welcomed at Women of Christ — particularly by the presence of a priest who is able to hear confessions in American Sign Language — Fr. Klusman said they feel it is like “a Niagara Falls of grace.”
“The Deaf women told me that they have laughed, cried, been in awe and felt so inspired,” he said. “Women of Christ welcomed them to a whole accessible environment by providing them with seating that is optimal for their receptivity, sign language interpreters and lighting so they can see.”
This year will be no different. The women of the Deaf Catholic community are invited to gather on Oct. 10 at St. Roman Parish in Milwaukee to experience the Morning of Grace retreat interpreted by a sign language interpreter, followed by a Holy Hour of Adoration, along with confessions (with one Deaf priest and one priest fluent in American Sign Language).
“Our Deaf Dcn. David Sommers will preside at the Adoration service, while we will have the Deaf women lead the Rosary,” said Fr. Klusman. Mass will begin around 10:30 a.m.
For more information, contact Fr. Klusman at KlusmanC@archmil.org.