By Kris Jarocki
For The Northern Cross
What is the “right” way to live Catholic womanhood? That is the question more than 500 women heard answered by Catholic convert and SiriusXM radio host Jennifer Fulwiler at the fifth annual Women of Faith Conference, sponsored by the Diocese of Duluth and held at Marshall School March 11.
Fulwiler, the author of “Something Other Than God,” her bestselling memoir, and “Like Living Among Scorpions,” an ebook collection of humor essays, is a married mother of six young children from Austin, Texas, who describes her journey from atheism to a deeply faithful Catholic life as a “pursuit of truth and love.”
During her three talks, she wove humorous anecdotes with thoughtful revelations to illustrate the challenges, questions, and doubts that she encountered as she sought to become a woman of faith.
Through Fulwiler’s talks, “How Love Led Me from Atheism to God,” “The Good Life — What God Has Planned For You”, and “Girl on Fire — Be Who You Were Meant to Be,” she explained that although she was raised in a home without a faith tradition, her father told her that he was “not raising her to be an atheist, but to seek truth and love.”
She pursued what she thought was the “truth” of atheism until her marriage to a baptized Christian piqued her curiosity about faith. The arrival of their first child and the overwhelming love she experienced as a result propelled her to explore the idea of truth and love being God-designed and given.
Her first attempts at prayer led her to disappointment, and she realized that prayer was not a “Divine ATM, into which I put prayer and what I wanted printed out.” As she reflected on the flickering to life of faith in her heart, she wanted more guidance on what Christianity teaches, what she called the “Christian Moral Code.”
She began reading the Bible and started a blog, where she recruited atheists and apologists to make their cases and answer questions. When she discovered that all of the apologists were Catholic, she began to delve more deeply into Catholicism and was drawn into conversion by the intellectual argument that the 2,000 year tradition of the teachings and doctrine of Catholic Church were “the owner’s manual of the human soul.”
Fulwiler described her Catholic life at this point as “like being an atheist with less time on Sundays.” The emotional, spiritual, faithful trust of the Lord was not yet present, and it took a family crisis to light that fire within her. Struggling through a difficult third pregnancy while her husband was jobless and the family had to move in with her mother, Fulwiler said a series of “signal grace[s]” led her to the “trust and faith the Lord was asking” of her.
She pondered next what God really wanted from and for her and for her family. She identified five elements of life that, as an atheist, she thought were the keys to happiness, but that now as a Catholic, were in fact barriers to happiness: control, financial stability, freedom, comfort, and approval from others.
“As soon as I turned my life over to God, he took all of these things away,” she said, and she discovered that they were really idols which became obsessions that block out love. Learning to let go of these idols, to live without them, to be truly open to God’s love through openness to life led Fulwiler to the deeply felt truth that “God will always send love into your life if you don’t allow the idols and obsessions to block it.”
As Fulwiler explained, now that she understood what the truth of her Catholic faith was, she sought to discern how to live it and chose Mary as her model to “mold her life as an authentic Catholic woman.”
Through involvement in a women’s prayer group and observation of the Catholic women she knew, Fulwiler felt she was “getting an F in Catholic womanhood and doing it wrong.” Her message for her audience was that “you are worthy of love” and “there is no ‘right’ way to be an authentic Catholic woman,” and she urged them to seek that authenticity in their own way, rather than trying to be unrealistically “perfect.”
“The Lord says the ‘perfect’ [image of an] on-fire Catholic woman looks like you!” she said.
Also speaking at the conference was Angela Neumann, a Called and Gifted teacher from the St. Catherine of Siena Institute in St. Paul. Neumann spoke about charisms, which are “spiritual gifts given at baptism.” She listed 24 distinct charisms and explained the signs that define a charism.
“If you are baptized, you have charisms and prayer is the way to discern them,” Neumann explained. She led the conference attendees through St. Theresa of Avila’s Five Steps of Contemplation as a way to discern charisms in one’s life.
Neumann finished her presentation with an invitation to a Called and Gifted Workshop being held in Duluth May 12-13 as an opportunity to learn more about charisms and how to discover them. Further information on the workshop is available at www. dioceseduluth.org.
The conference concluded with Mass celebrated by Bishop Paul Sirba. Next year’s conference will be held at Marshall School on Feb. 24
Correction: The print version of this story had the date of next year's conference listed incorrectly. It has been corrected online.