By Lilla Ross
Law professor Helen Alvaré got personal in her talk Friday night as the opening speaker for the 2017 Eucharistic Congress, sharing the ways God has answered her life-long question: What do you want me to do?
Catholics from the 17 counties in the Diocese of St. Augustine gathered over the weekend (March 24-25) at the Prime Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville for the annual event.
This year’s theme -“Do Whatever He Tells You” – focused on Mary’s instructions to the servants during the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle, turning water into wine.
Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University, said she began asking that question as a young child and looking back at her life she is amazed at the varied ways God has answered.
Growing up in a strong Catholic family in Philadelphia Alvaré said she was surrounded by people who shaped her understanding of the faith. They included a pacifist priest who would argue about defense spending with her father who worked in the defense industry. The nuns who seemed to be walking encyclopedias on theology. Even the photographs on the covers of her textbooks that showed happy people of all cultures.
“I got it in my head as early as fourth grade that this is where I wanted to spend my life,” Alvaré said. “I wanted to do something intense and difficult for the church. I wanted to contribute.”
She said she was always drawn to big theological questions – Why did God make us? Why is there suffering?
The questions weren’t theoretical. The emerged from her life that included a sister with profound disabilities.
“It was hard to watch her suffer,” Alvaré said. “Kids and sometimes parents weren’t nice to her. I have a memory – I was about 10 – of storming into a house and screaming at the parents who wouldn’t let their daughter play with my sister. They were having a dinner party. It was an early sign. I was not a kid with a winning personality. I wanted answers.”
The quest for answers took her to convents, where she considered whether she had a vocation for religious life.
A summer mission trip to poverty-stricken West Virginia caught the attention of the local newspaper and Norman Vincent Peale, a Protestant minister famous for “The Power of Positive Thinking,” who interviewed her on his radio show.
“God was calling to me to speak about the beauty of faith early on,” she said.
She initially pursued a career in opera until a voice teacher urged her to attend law school.
After graduating from Cornell University law school, she went to work for a law firm that represented the archdiocese and other religious organizations.
Alvaré had found her calling, but she wasn’t prepared for the way God wanted her to answer it – working in communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“I wanted a life in academics,” she said. “I thought communications was beneath me.”
Then, she said, she had a “smells and bells experience when God takes you by the shoulders” one Sunday after Mass.
“I was given to understand that I should get back on my knees and shut up and listen for a change,” Alvaré said. “What I heard was take the communications job, and it’s too bad if it was beneath me.”
For the next decade, she represented the American bishops “explaining complicated things” on nearly every talk show and before major organizations like the Republican and Democratic parties.
“I was prepared for none of it,” she said. “It was a high-wire act. But I got to do things in the church, for the church and for our faith in our world.”
She didn’t always see God’s hand as her life played out, she said. But now she sees clear markers that anyone can look for in their life.
The first marker is beauty. “You’ll see it in beauty all around you,” she said, especially in the people God has put in your life to shape and inspire you.
The second marker is discovering the needs all around you. “Your vocation is finding the place where you are needed the most,” she said.
The third marker is using “the weird basket of talents” God has given you.
“Listen to the people who love you, who taught you, and others who know your gifts. They are part of the voice of God,” Alvaré said. “He made you in His image and He has given you a share of his gifts.
“He is waiting for you to say yes and then do whatever He tells you.”