Women on Divine Mission

Elise Italiano of the GIVEN Institute
A new institute is dedicated to mentoring young Catholic women for the future of the Church and the world.

Do young people know the gifts they have been given? The newly launched GIVEN Institute is dedicated to helping young women be good stewards of their talents, through mentorship and interaction with consecrated women in the Catholic Church. With so much scandal in the news, what will the next generation of leaders look like? GIVEN exists to help with formation and flourishing, building a network of women who seek to be part of the solution, following God’s call to each one of them. I spoke with Elise Italiano, the executive director of the institute, about what it hopes to accomplish.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is GIVEN?

Elise Italiano: The GIVEN Institute is a newly incorporated, not-for-profit organization dedicated to activating the gifts of young adult women for the Church and the wider culture.  Through leadership training, faith formation, and dedicated mentoring, we hope to inspire and equip the next generation of Catholic female leaders to receive the gift that they are; realize the gifts they’ve been given; and respond with the gift that only they can give.

The institute was born at a 2016 event called the GIVEN Catholic Young Women Leadership Forum, organized by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. The forum brought some of the Church’s most prominent lay and consecrated female leaders, including Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., Helen Alvaré, Dr. Carolyn Woo, and Sister Norma Pimentel, among others, in contact with the next generation of young-adult Catholic women.

In addition to hearing keynote addresses, the nearly 300 participants received mentoring and spiritual guidance from more than 75 religious sisters, had ample networking opportunities, and were guided in the development and execution of an action plan in their local communities during the year following the forum. The Council decided to establish an independent institute to carry on the mission of helping young Catholic women to know they are loved, noticed, and necessary.

Lopez: Why does the GIVEN Institute need to exist at this moment in time?

Italiano: GIVEN is a response to a changing cultural and ecclesial landscape, particularly as it affects young adult women.

Young adulthood is a critical period marked by a search for identity, community, and purpose,  and increasing numbers of young adults are finding themselves on an unclear path to adulthood. This period is often characterized by anxiety, identity exploration, instability, transitions, and delayed commitments. Young people have asked the Church for faithful mentors to guide them.

Secondly, the Church is facing a crisis of the disaffiliation of its Millennial members. This phenomenon has an overlooked but important aspect to it — the disaffiliation of Millennial-Catholic women.

According to a 2018 study by the Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate and American Media, only 17 percent of Millennial-Catholic women attend Mass weekly; 13 percent of Millennial-Catholic women have considered becoming a religious sister; and only 37 percent of Millennial-Catholic women reported having been involved in a parish ministry.

Because women have been the backbone of much of the Church’s life and ministry throughout its history, the Church’s future sustainability and mission-effectiveness requires inspiring and equipping a new generation of Catholic women to activate their gifts for the Gospel.

Lopez: Why the focus on women? Do men not have gifts to give too?

Italiano: The Church is always most effective in its mission when men and women collaborate and when their distinctive gifts come together in a shared call to serve. It’s important to invest in the next generation of both Catholic men and women.

My generation saw the Church making a concerted effort to inspire and equip young men for the priesthood in the face of declining seminary numbers and in light of the necessary role of the priest to the faith. More recently we’ve seen a proliferation of grassroots ministries and support from bishops to help young men on their path to Christian maturity.

GIVEN aims to complement those efforts by investing in the faith formation, leadership development, and vocational support of young Catholic women. We hope to play a role in helping to identify existing areas where an incisive female presence would strengthen the Church in its mission and help the Church to imagine new, inspired pathways for women to share their gifts.

Lopez: Why are mentors so crucial?

Italiano: Young people learn what it means to become an adult by watching others live as adults, and they also learn what it means to live as a Christian by watching others live as Christians.

But in recent decades, many young people — including those who count themselves as engaged Catholics — have lacked the consistent presence of adults in their lives to show them what it means to be a mature Christian. They’ve also been starved for instruction in how to tackle the general expectations and demands of adulthood as well as how to navigate today’s complex moral questions.

Families — nuclear and extended — used to be reliable and consistent “schools of love.” They were the context in which emerging adults could learn how to make lifelong commitments and discern God’s will. But decades of divorce and a changing economy that has scattered people far and wide in search of work have weakened the family’s foundation as a critical place of instruction for those coming of age.

And the weakening of what were previously ubiquitous centers of communal support — parishes, neighborhoods, and civic associations — have left young adults looking for adults who can help them understand and meet the expectations and demands of adulthood. Mentors play a critical role in helping to fill this gap.

Lopez: Is there credibility in anything the Catholic Church has to say anymore? Especially on sexual teaching in light of this latest round of scandal we’ve only just begun to enter into?

Italiano: In times like these it’s important to highlight where the Church is thriving and its credibility is strongest. One place to start would be with Catholic women on mission — those who are living and serving in a manner consistent with the call they have received. The speakers at the inaugural forum provide such examples. The religious sisters who spoke at the forum are living and working with some of the most vulnerable populations, including migrants, pregnant women, and young children. Many of the lay women leaders work directly alongside bishops and clergy and will contribute to the Church’s reform. And the first cohort of GIVEN alumnae are joyfully engaged in innovative apostolates aimed at evangelization and serving the marginalized.

Lopez: What are you most excited about in the launch and what’s to come?

Italiano: I’m excited to pull back the curtain on the diverse ways that faithful, skilled women are already contributing to the life of the Church. I think one of the easiest ways to respond to young women’s request to see how they can lead is by showing them where women are already doing it. Demystifying how and where that’s done is one of our goals. I think it will inspire young-adult Catholic women and awaken their imagination as to where God might be calling them to use their gifts.

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