Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

In her keynote address at the diocesan Catholic Women’s Conference, Saturday, Nov. 3, in Richmond, Michelle Benzinger said women, with their “feminine ingenuity,” can lead the Church to restoration and reformation, but first they must have peace and hope in their own hearts. That requires prayer, the sacraments, answering God’s calling and having a personal relationship with the Lord.

The sixth annual conference, themed “Christ Our Hope,” at the Greater Richmond Convention Center drew 224 people, about 60 of whom attended the Spanish track. The event provided breakout sessions led by women from parishes across the state, opportunities for adoration and reconciliation, a vendor expo and Mass. Singer/ songwriter Marie Miller, whose repertoire includes “You’re Not Alone” and “6’2,” performed. 

The keynote speakers on the Spanish track were Comboni Missionary Sisters Cecilia Sierra Salcido and Olga Estela Sanchez Caro. Sister Cecilia is the executive director of the Association of Missionary Latino Sisters in America. Sister Olga is a fellow of the Center for Women, Faith and Leadership of the Institute of Global Engagement in Washington.

Benzinger, leader of Greenhouse Collective and creative director of Meaningful Market Shop and Design House, compared the Catholic Church to a ship tossed by wave after wave on a rocky, stormy ocean as it reels from priestly sexual abuse accusations. She said women are poised to lead efforts to quell the waters because, paraphrasing Pope John Paul II, women, with their life-giving maternity, have a feminine genius characterized by a unique sensitivity and intuition into the Church.

This message rang true for Natalie Cherry, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Newport News. 

“We’re going to have a revival, and it is going to begin with women,” she said. 

Relating a story of adopting two of her six children, Benzinger said God is “in a wild pursuit to get us home and to get us into his arms.” 

After having four biological children in six years, Benzinger was ready to catch her breath and “pause” before she and her husband decided to adopt a Haitian 12-year-old girl and 16-month-old boy, both of whom had been orphaned in an earthquake. She described the adoption as an “exhausting, grueling” process. 

When she visited Haiti about six weeks before the adoption was final, it was heartbreaking for her to leave the two children at the orphanage one last time. When Benzinger was flying home, she chastised God for allowing the adoption process to drag on so long. Then she heard the Holy Spirit say he longed for her just as she longed for the children.

“He said, ‘Now you have just a clue on how I feel about you and how I will go to lengths to pursue you and adopt you and call you by name and have you in my heart,’” Benzinger said. 

“God wants you to experience his goodness personally so we can be impregnated with the hope of the Gospel and give it to other people,” she added.

Ana Sofia and Marie Therese McLaughlin from the Madonna House in Roanoke visit with Karen Melendez, right, from Our Lady of Nazareth Parish, Roanoke, during a break at the Diocesan Women’s Conference, Saturday, Nov. 3, at the Richmond Convention Center. (Photo/Jennifer Neville)

Stating that God has a unique calling for each person, Benzinger challenged the women at the conference to find and follow their callings. But, she added, that does not necessary mean doing more. It means being more. 

Instead of concentrating on a goal, she advised participants to recognize that a calling is a journey, an opportunity to grow in holiness. As they grow in that holiness, she said, they are more able to help the Church transform because when hope and courage are cultivated in a community, they multiply.

Benzinger noted the power of prayer. She explained that when a friend’s marriage was at risk, the friend said she could no longer see hope. As the couple worked to fix their marriage, Benzinger and friends took turns fasting and praying for the couple. Not only did their marriage flourish but so did her friend. She told Benzinger that she had hope again, and it was more hope than she had ever expected.

It is important, Benzinger added, that when one prays for healing, one prays for complete and total healing and transformation, not just for a particular aspect. 

She challenged the women to have “steadfast hope” for themselves, the Church and the world. 

“If I was going to believe that this is the God that resurrected Lazarus from the dead, rose his son from the dead, the God that parted the Red Sea, I have to believe that hope against hope that he will be the God that can restore and redeem everything,” Benzinger said. “Never doubt, tire or be discouraged. Never, ever, give up on hope.”

She added, “God always ends his story in beauty, never ashes.”