By Tim Johnson
VATICAN CITY — Even cloudy skies and showers could not dampen the spirits of a Saint Mary’s College senior, a 2014 alumna, college President Carol Ann Mooney and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, as a handmade stole, art and letters collected by the college titled “Voices of Young Catholic Women” were presented to Pope Francis during his general audience on Wednesday, Nov. 26.
Students, supported by Saint Mary’s Center for Spirituality (CFS) and the Campus Ministry office, organized a national letter-writing response to Pope Francis’s outreach to young people to encourage the Millennial Generation — those born between 1981-1995 — to write to the pope about their love for Catholic tradition and offer ideas on how the Church might better reach their demographic. CFS advertised the Voices project in America magazine and sent letters and posters to campus ministry offices at colleges and universities across the U.S.
The women who took part in the project were instructed to send letters, prayers, poetry, art and other forms of creative expression to the CFS at Saint Mary’s.
On Nov. 26, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades accompanied Saint Mary’s senior Kristen Millar of Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, and recent graduate Grace Urankar of San Francisco as well as President Mooney and her husband George Efta to the general audience in St. Peter’s Square to make the presentation.
Both Millar and Urankar worked on the Voices project.
President Mooney described that she and Millar had reserved seats for those who would be able to speak with Pope Francis. The others had close seats and could see very well, she said.
“Bishop Rhoades was able to join us when Pope Francis approached us,” Mooney related, “and the bishop introduced us. Kristen and I presented the stole and the letters.”
“We told Pope Francis that the letters contained the joys and hope, grief and sorrows of our young women,” she shared. “The interchange was brief but truly moving. He asked us to pray for him, he said that he needs our prayers.”
Kristen Millar said, “I am honored to be able to advocate on behalf of the women of the Millennial Generation and am hopeful that the pope will hear our message. It is truly wonderful to be an outspoken and truly inspired Saint Mary’s woman.”
Millar added, “I am very blessed to be a part of a project as wonderful as this. This is not about me, but is truly about the Church and for all women struggling to maintain their Catholic identity in a time when religion is not deemed as necessary. I am here to give a voice.”
Millar said she was thankful for all of the support in the project. “It has been much appreciated and it’s awesome to see everyone at home as excited as we are,” she said.
Grace Urankar shared, “It was really incredible to be in St. Peter’s Square and so close to the pope himself. I’m sure anyone who goes to an audience would say this, but it was such a testament to the universal Church.”
“Pilgrims from all over the world were present, and the pope’s reflection was summarized in at least 10 languages after he read it in Italian,” Urankar added.
“I was really struck by what a small group we were in the presence of so many, but I had to focus on all the women we were representing,” Urankar emphasized. “I really hope the pope reads our letters and takes the concerns of young American Catholic women to heart.”
Elizabeth Groppe, director of the Center for Spirituality, reported 225 contributions to the project, including 10 students and three alums from Saint Mary’s College. Fifteen other Catholic-affiliated organization, including Catholic and secular colleges and universities and Newman Catholic Communities from across the country, participated.
There were also some letters from women with no affiliation with any particular school.
One Saint Mary’s alumna sent a poem, “My Church, My Home.” She gave voice to the caring relationships and bonds of communion that flow from the worship of God and sharing of the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Groppe related another woman had shared that she was sexually abused in high school and developed an eating disorder. In the aftermath of this, she attended a Kairos retreat that renewed her relationship with God and enabled her to discover her leadership abilities. Through the community of women in the Catholic campus ministry program at her college, she found hope, focus, meaning and direction. She recommends that the Catholic Church would provide all teenage women in parishes with the opportunity to have a woman mentor.
Students at Saint Ursula Academy in Cincinnati hand made a stole as a gift for Pope Francis. Their letters spoke of some of the challenges teenage women face in the culture today, including media images of women that establish false ideals of beauty that are impossible to meet, degrading language about women in the lyrics of popular music, degrading and objectifying images of women in advertising, films and other media, assumptions that girls are inferior to boys, and social pressures related to drinking, sex and social media. In this context, one wrote, it is “difficult for me to accept myself as God’s good creation made in God’s divine image and likeness.” Some wrote about the lack of confidence, depression and eating disorders that many teenage women experience. They also made recommendations for ways in which the Catholic community can work to foster a culture of respect for women in the United States.
November 26 marked Bishop Rhoades’ birthday and his second meeting with Pope Francis. Earlier in the week Bishop Rhoades concelebrated Mass with Pope Francis at Domus Sanctae Marthae, where the pope resides, and then greeted Pope Francis after Mass. The pope extended a blessing on the priests and faithful of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
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