Conference participants review all they heard during a break.
Conference participants review all they heard during a break.
Collectively, the featured panel of three speakers at the “Women Leaders of the Diocese” Conference brought more than 60 years of experience within diverse segments of the Catholic Church with them to the table in Nativity Parish, Fair Haven, June 25.

By the time the nearly five-hour event concluded, it was clear the insights of Terry Ginther, diocesan chancellor, Marlene Lao-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, and Mercy Sister Rosemary Jeffries, former president of Georgian Court University, Lakewood, left listeners uplifted and inspired by their examples and encouraged to follow their lead into Church leadership.

This reaction from Annemarie Woods, a member of Holy Cross Parish, Rumson, captured the sentiments of those attending. Woods has served in a number of capacities on the parish level including those of catechist and reader. She declared the event a “win” saying it left her “smarter about the role of women in the Church today than I was before I walked in.”

Energizing Day

The conference was inspired by the recent Synod ‘23 listening sessions where consistent mention from participants reflected the desire so see more women in roles of Church leadership. Nativity’s pastor, Father James Grogan, responded to those requests with the half-day event which highlighted the presenters as among the many women demonstrating leadership today in the Catholic Church.

In compelling individual presentations to the multi-generational gathering of women from the Trenton and Metuchen dioceses, they shared observations about the importance of answering the call to mission. Each encouraged attendees to develop skills that would enable them to meet requirements for the tasks ahead and keep a clear focus on fostering a collegial, collaborative atmosphere in the greater Church community.

Urging listeners to “pay attention to the call from a person you know and trust...Be willing to give your yes,” said Ginther, who thought back to saying yes to a number of such calls over the years, including that of parish pastoral associate, while honing skills that would eventually lead to her being named Diocesan Chancellor by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.

All acknowledged they did not originally anticipate the call. “It was the furthest thing from my mind,” said Lao-Collins who grew up in a “typical Catholic family” where her mother and father were “very active in responding to the needs of the community.”

Following their example, she joined the Aspira Foundation “to help the community” and earned a degree in business management from Rutgers University with no inclination it would eventually lead to her working for the New Jersey Catholic Conference. There she learned how to “speak the language” of building alliances that would become so necessary for her role with Catholic Charities.

Sister Rosemary, eighth president of Georgian Court, who guided the institution through its transition to a co-educational university, now serves as the executive director of the All African Conference – Sister-To-Sister which supports the empowerment and education of women religious in Sub-Saharan Africa. She said she identifies with “so many pieces of the same situation” that drew Ginther and Lao-Collins into Church work. “It began with a call,” she said. “When a call comes, you have to consider what kind of a ‘yes’ you give" especially now, when "we are in a challenging situation," Sister Rosemary said.

“Cultural norms are being challenged in the country and the Church and the Church is recognizing the changes,” said Sister Jeffries, urging listeners to “pay attention to what people are saying and doing and encourage others to come along – allow them to be comfortable.”

Town Hall

During the “town hall” portion of the conference, attendees expressed their interest in a wide range of issues from the changing cultural norms raised by Sister Rosemary to the need to find ways to work together to attract and involve younger women in Church life.

They were urged to seek out opportunities to interact with women such as: informal networks including one that could be formed by the group meeting at the conference; getting involved in parish life, looking for organizations that invite people to the table and sharing generally about what’s important with women as mothers, cousins, aunts, friends and colleagues.

Father Grogan, who drew the conference to a close with readings about women leaders through the centuries including St. Catharine of Siena and Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, said he was heartened to hear questions raised that clearly showed participants were both “seeking and hearing that there are roles available for women.”

Their reaction, he said, reflected the importance of taking “action as a pastor in a ‘listening Church’ as Pope Francis was encouraging with the Synod ‘23 process where the original idea for this session surfaced...Where local opportunities are evident, then pastors have the chance to engage participation by both women and men which could continue to energize our parishes and our Church.”