The sixth annual Women of Faith Conference Feb. 24 at Marshall School had almost an embarrassment of riches, with two dynamic speakers — Father James Sichko and Teresa Tomeo — and a registration record of more than 500 women from across the Diocese of Duluth and beyond.
Father Sichko went first. A priest of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, he was appointed by Pope Francis during the Year of Mercy to be one of a select group of papal missionaries of mercy. He now travels the world as an evangelist and missionary, taking no salary and living off the generosity of the people he meets.
A gifted singer and storyteller, his two talks featured songs, stories, and poetry, as well as a lot of interaction, including answering the phone of one woman when it rang during his presentation and taking numerous selfies with them to add to his collection of them, which includes everyone from Pope Francis to Nancy Pelosi to a homeless man named Kyle.
In his first talk, Father Sichko promised to explain how to fill Mitchell Auditorium even more thoroughly with two words that he said are the essence of the Gospel: #BeKind.
He gave three ways to do that: “stop being jerks,” “hold your tongue,” and “be positive when someone comes to you with a request instead of negative.”
To illustrate the first point, he told a story of a travel nightmare and how he ended up sitting and complaining to his neighbor about the situation without realizing he was speaking to the president of the board of the airline. “He listened. He didn’t get defensive,” Father Sichko said. “… And that’s what Jesus does with each of us.”
By “hold your tongue,” Father Sichko gave a particular emphasis to the sin of gossip. “Pope Francis speaks about that constantly,” he said.
The principle, he said, is to “honor the absent.”
“If you’ve got something to say, say it to the person,” he said. He encouraged the audience not only to avoid participating in it but to object to gossip when they hear it.
Father Sichko’s second talk included a Q&A and several moving stories covering a number of topics, including stewardship — which described as “the act of organizing your life so God can spend you” — and listening to the Holy Spirit to let him take you out of your comfort zone. That, he says, begins by listening in prayer. “If your Bible is in good shape, you’re not,” he quipped.
Tomeo, a quick-talking Italian American who lives in Michigan and is known for her daily Catholic radio show broadcast on 300 stations and her twice-weekly TV show on EWTN, “Catholic View for Women.”
She said an experience traveling in the mountains in Italy and watching a young couple take selfies the whole time while never really experiencing the mountains was part of the inspiration for her latest book, “Beyond Me, My Selfie, and I.”
She said the technology can be good, and she uses it herself, but while it seems to make us more connected, often it doesn’t. “We are still so isolated, even more isolated from each other,” she said.
She told her own experience of growing up Catholic but becoming a pro-choice feminist with one foot in the secular world and one in the Catholic world. She said she was driven by ambition to be a successful broadcaster, and during years of work as a broadcast journalist in Detroit says she had achieved all of those goals by her 20s.
She said her husband’s coming to a deeper faith (he is now a deacon in the Archdiocese of Detroit), marital struggles, and the experience of losing her high-profile reporting job helped bring her to a deeper lived faith.
It also helped her learn that God has a plan and it’s always the best plan. “We may not believe it at the time, but it is so, so true,” she said.
She now has spent 16 years in Catholic media.
“It’s because I’ve surrendered the gifts and the talents that I have to God,” she said.
Tomeo also addressed the #MeToo controversies of the past several months, arguing that they demonstrate the truth of the church’s teaching on contraception. She noted that Blessed Paul VI, in Humanae Vitae, had predicted widespread immorality and objectification of women as a consequence of contraception.
Tomeo’s second talk was on becoming a Catholic who goes “Beyond Sunday,” living a life of faith each day. She discussed some of the cultural challenges, such as Joy Behar’s recent comments on national television suggesting people who believe God speaks to them have a mental illness.
She urged those in attendance to have the courage to pass on the truth to those in their lives.
This year’s women’s conference, as usual, included opportunities for confession, Mass with Bishop Paul Sirba, and vendors. Eucharistic Adoration was also available through the day.