On Saturday 7th April, I climbed aboard a train bound for Aylesford priory, a Carmelite community which dates back as far as the thirteenth century. I was there to lead a workshop at the first ever conference of Catholic Mothers, a group founded in 2015 by London-based mother-of-six Chiara Finaldi as a Facebook community for mothers to share ideas, offer support and pray for one another. Chiara’s ministry was inspired by the words of Pope Benedict in 2013, when he spoke of social networks as “portals of truth and faith, new spaces for evangelization…in which new relationships and forms of community can come into being.”
The group was also founded in response to a secular Facebook mothers’ group where womanhood, motherhood, manhood and family life were constantly under attack and being redefined. Catholic Mothers offered an alternative vision, guided by the teachings of the Church, and quickly became a global virtual community where mothers have the opportunity, not just to share the joys and woes of parenting in the twenty-first century, but to help one another on the journey to sainthood. I personally value the sense of solidarity the group provides, especially in a country where Catholics can feel very isolated, and I have been grateful on many occasions for the advice and prayerful support other members of the group offer.
The conference marked the beginning of a new chapter for Catholic Mothers, allowing over 125 members of the group, many with their babies and toddlers, to meet face-to-face for the first time and to build new faith-filled friendships. The outpouring of grace throughout the conference was palpable. Besides the talks and workshops, there were many opportunities for mothers to receive the sacraments and enjoy peaceful moments before the Blessed Sacrament. It is impossible to describe how important this side of the conference was for mothers of young children who virtually never get an undistracted minute to pray or spend time in the presence of God.
The two main speakers were both from Italy. The first, Costanza Miriano, is a journalist and author of the world famous Marry Him and be Submissive, a book so controversial that feminist groups called for it to be banned. [See CWR’s November 2016 interview with Miriano.] She gave a gloriously funny and down-to-earth talk about married life and its conflicts, chaos and challenges, often citing hilarious examples from her own experience, while always pointing to the importance of the Sacrament of Marriage and the need to love unconditionally.
The number of questions by young mothers at the end made me acutely aware of how much of a need there is to support couples and to provide forums like the Catholic Mothers conference. With some 10% of mothers experiencing Post Natal Depression and loneliness cited as a major cause, the value of these networks cannot be overemphasized. I am sure that many first-time mums went away from the conference reassured that they are not alone and that they have friends and sisters within the Catholic community who are there for them.
Perhaps the greatest honor for the conference, however, was hosting Gianna Emanuela Molla on her first visit to England. Gianna is the daughter of St Gianna Beretta Molla and the child St Gianna sacrificed her life for when she was diagnosed with a tumor during pregnancy. Gianna, now in her fifties, spoke movingly about her mother, a passionate young doctor and devout Catholic, about her happy (if tragically short) marriage, and the faith that led her to choose life for her unborn baby all those years ago. What struck me the most about Gianna was how unassuming she was. Wearing a pink cardigan, her physical appearance was delicate, almost frail and she spoke in a quiet, rasping voice that was initially quite uncomfortable to listen to. What she said, however, was so powerful, she had every single member of the audience hanging on her every word by the end of what was one of the most impressive talks I have ever heard.
The feedback from mothers who attended the conference has been overwhelmingly positive, with praise for everything from the sense of camaraderie to the ability to breastfeed anywhere without a single dirty look. A comment from one mother summed up the extraordinary atmosphere we all experienced at the conference: “I felt like there was literally nothing but love and strength present. Like somehow all our guardian angels had joined forces and made us leave the devil at the gates and be our best selves for those days.”
Social media gets its fair share of criticism – and rightly so in the face of accusations of censorship and the exploitation of personal data – but for Catholic Mothers and other groups like it, Facebook has provided a platform through which thousands of Catholics dealing with the struggles of daily life can reach out to one another in prayerful support. It is my profound hope that the Aylesford conference will be the first of many and that the success of Catholic Mothers UK can be replicated around the world.