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Catholic women’s retreat for Lent draws record attendance numbers

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“Love, forgiveness, togetherness,” came to mind for Edyleen Santos, standing with her mother as 500 women spilled out from the St Mary’s Cathedral College hall into the early autumn sunshine.

Kicking off Sydney’s biggest ever retreat day for Catholic women they had enjoyed the wisdom and humour of the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia who led them in an inspiring spiritual push through the last week of Lent.

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They had laughed and nodded as the Sydney archdiocese’s Tania Rimac shared her journey from being a “tick-a-box-Catholic” teenager—“Mass on Sundays, no sex before marriage”—to a wife and mother deeply committed to Christ.

The talks and personal testimony were on offer along with opportunities for Mass, Eucharistic Adoration and the Sacrament of Reconciliation—all at a gentle pace with time and space to relax in the company of like-minded women, catch up with friends and meet new ones.

From teenagers to seniors, young mums, students, carers, professionals and retirees, they made a diverse crowd whose voices filled and reverberated through the large hall as they recited a “litany of joy” in a powerful moment of united prayer to Jesus.

Following lunch nearly a dozen priests made themselves available for confessions in and around the cathedral crypt, with many retreatants taking the opportunity before heading up for a quiet hour with the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

“I wanted to deepen the whole experience of Lent this year,” Edyleen said.

“Given the absolute craziness and busy-ness of life I feel like God has called us to spend time together as mother and daughter and to be with him here today.

“We also don’t have many opportunities to enjoy the presence of the sisters, so having them with us and hearing them spread their message of God and his love has been a very moving experience.

“Their enthusiasm is infectious, it’s so awesome to be able to know and feel his presence through them and we’re so grateful to them.”

For Irene Ravino, Edyleen’s mother, the highlight of the morning’s talks was hearing Sr Joanna Marie OP speak movingly of God’s abundant mercy.

Nearly 500 women gathered at Sydney’s biggest ever day retreat for Lent, held at St Mary’s Cathedral on 16 March. Photo: Alphonsus Fok
Nearly 500 women gathered at Sydney’s biggest ever day retreat for Lent, held at St Mary’s Cathedral on 16 March. Photo: Alphonsus Fok

“I know that despite my shortcomings and mistakes, God loves me,” she said.

“Since coming closer to him I have had so many answered prayers and I honestly feel his presence every day of my life.”

Student Lara Pavkovic also took the opportunity to spiritually recharge with her mother and friends.

“It’s great to get out of the routine of our daily life to dedicate our whole day to God, and to renew our faith in these two weeks’ out from Easter,” she said.

First offered by the sisters around six years ago for 60 women at Berala parish, the annual Lenten retreat day has grown each year, but for the first time was sponsored by the Catholic Women’s Network of the Archdiocese of Sydney.

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the great response we’ve had each year,” said Sr Cecilia Joseph OP.

“The women tell us that the highlight of this day is the opportunity to receive God’s mercy and love and forgiveness through Eucharistic Adoration and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“Everything we do in the talks, testimony, the laughs, the companionship, is oriented to that moment of meeting Jesus, so that they can know and experience his love in a new and deeper way.”

Women also engaged with a number of stall holders including natural fertility educators, the Mustard Seed Bookshop and Catholic Women’s League.

Hazel Lim, Mission Manager for the Sydney Centre for Evangelisation, said the Catholic Women’s Network was delighted to support the sisters in their annual work of mercy.

“It’s been overwhelming to see nearly 500 women gather here to receive a beautiful Lenten experience and spiritually prepare for their Easter celebrations,” she said.

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