September 23, 2016

God specializes in second chances, NCCW speaker says

Motivational speaker Judy Hehr uses a ball and chain as a prop to illustrate the feelings of imprisonment that plagued her for decades following childhood abuse and other traumas. Her realization of God’s mercy was her turning point, she told hundreds of participants at the National Council of Catholic Women’s annual convention in Indianapolis on Sept. 9. (Photos by Victoria Arthur)

Motivational speaker Judy Hehr uses a ball and chain as a prop to illustrate the feelings of imprisonment that plagued her for decades following childhood abuse and other traumas. Her realization of God’s mercy was her turning point, she told hundreds of participants at the National Council of Catholic Women’s annual convention in Indianapolis on Sept. 9. (Photos by Victoria Arthur)

By Victoria Arthur

At an early age, she suffered sexual abuse. As a senior in high school, she lost her mother without warning to a heart attack. She spiraled into drug and alcohol addiction, battled an eating disorder, “broke every commandment” and contemplated suicide.

But on Sept. 9, the mother of four electrified an audience of hundreds in downtown Indianapolis with her personal witness to God’s abounding mercy.

Judy Hehr, a Wisconsin resident and radio host, wanted those gathered for the annual National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW) convention to know that God specializes in second chances.

“God has given me a new heart, and he has turned my mess into a message,” said Hehr, who now travels the country as a motivational speaker.

A cradle Catholic, Hehr says her family never missed a Sunday Mass or holy day of obligation when she was growing up. But she felt there was something missing.

“I had religion . … I had rules. … I had tons of regulations. But I did not have a relationship with Jesus,” she said during an impassioned talk at the downtown Indianapolis Marriott.

It was “difficult to see God” as she endured abuse by those she should have been able to trust, Hehr said. “As I continued to grow, I was starving to be known and to know, starving to love and be loved.”

With the sudden death of their mother, Hehr and all five of her siblings left the Church.

“My mother was that one who knew me and loved me,” she recalled. “I didn’t know about Mary yet.”

As she reeled from her devastating loss, Hehr said that she found herself in increasingly risky situations, spiraling into a “pit” that seemed impossible to escape.

“I didn’t understand that dignity was something that God gave me, and no one could take away from me,” she said. “I didn’t understand that I was loved and chosen and forgiven. When my mom died, nobody spoke Romans 8:28 into my life and said, ‘Girlfriend! God works all things out for good for the sake of those who love him.’ ”

Her years of self-pity and self-condemnation led to a self-imposed prison, she said. But over the course of years, after successful treatment for her addictions and a gradual reawakening and renewal of her faith, Hehr said she realized that God had a plan for her life all along. Even her rocky relationship with her husband was transformed by faith through the Catholic Retrouvaille program for troubled marriages.

“I can now look back and see the hand of God in every facet of my life,” she said. “I consider many of my hardships to be the greatest gifts he ever gave me.”

Her faith further blossomed with a new understanding that “Mary leads us to Jesus,” and with her discovery of the Divine Mercy message and devotion.

Hehr’s talk dovetailed with the NCCW convention theme of “Catholic Women: Instruments of Mercy.” That theme was inspired by the Holy Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis that began on Dec. 8, 2015—the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary—and will conclude on Nov. 20.

Other speakers included Sue Ellspermann, former lieutenant governor of Indiana, who currently serves as president of Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis; author Katariina Rosenblatt, Ph.D., a survivor of human trafficking; Cuban-born author and CatholicMom.com blogger Maria Morera Johnson; and Dominican Sister Donna Markham, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities USA. Workshops on spirituality, leadership and service provided attendees with information and resources to take to their home parishes and dioceses.

Now in its 96th year, the NCCW has a long history of orchestrating events that have lasting impact. At the 1960 convention in Las Vegas, a relatively unknown Mother Teresa was a guest speaker during her first trip to the United States. Her message had such a powerful effect that following her speech, donations began pouring in to her mission in India. St. Teresa of Calcutta was canonized on Sept. 4.

In concluding her remarks on Sept. 9, Hehr proclaimed that NCCW members are “changing the world, one person at a time.”

“You give without measure . . . you give without cost,” she said. “Keep doing what you’re doing!”

As the ballroom erupted into applause, a longtime NCCW member could hardly contain her enthusiasm.

“That’s why we come to these events,” said Jane Schiszik, a member of Holy Rosary Parish in Medford, Wis. “It can be a life-changing experience.”

Schiszik was among 60 people at the convention representing the NCCW’s Province of Milwaukee, including four priests who serve as spiritual advisors. She estimates that she has attended at least 18 conventions, and says she always brings back valuable insights and ideas for action.

“You have to open your mind and heart,” she said. “There is so much need out there—from the parish level to internationally, and I am going home with a lot of food for thought and ideas for projects that we can do.”

She praised the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, this year’s host, for a

well-planned and executed convention.

“It was so educational,” she said. “And very motivational and spiritual.”
 

(Victoria Arthur is a freelance writer for The Criterion.)

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