NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Students at the University of Notre Dame pre-empted the mainstream’s version of Valentine’s Day by holding their own celebration of love.

The Catholic understanding of love was the focus of the Edith Stein Project, a two-day conference held Feb. 7-8 that was devoted to the theme of “Relationships and the Call to Love.” The conference featured 30 speakers, who, through paper presentations and panel discussions, covered a wide range of issues.

Among the treated topics were parenthood, spiritual friendship and the legacy of Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women.

The conference brought together students and faculty from not only Notre Dame, but also colleges across the country.

According to the event’s organizers, about 60 of the 350-plus attendees were from other schools, including those in states as far away as Wyoming and Pennsylvania.

Also among those in attendance were a number of professionals hailing from cities like Washington and New York.

Organizers said this year’s event, the ninth iteration since the first event was held in 2006, attracted more people from outside Notre Dame than ever before.

Notre Dame senior Madeline Gillen, who, along with Caroline Reuter is the co-chairwoman of the Edith Stein Project, said the conference’s national pull is not only a testament to its reputation, but also to the popularity of the countercultural message it promotes. She said the themes discussed resonate especially with young adults, who made up the majority of those in attendance.

“[The event’s popularity] shows that young people want to be fed more than just the usual ‘be a good person’ message,” she said. “They want to find out what it really means to live an integrated life.”


‘Timeless But Relevant’

The Edith Stein Project was first conceived in 2004 as a response to The Vagina Monologues, a lurid and sexually explicit performance that was being performed on Notre Dame’s campus at that time.

The play has since been expelled, but the Edith Stein Project, which is put on by the Identity Project of Notre Dame, is still going strong.

Its proponents are motivated by a desire to advance the Catholic understanding of womanhood.

“One of our main goals is to combat the secular pop culture and ‘so-college’ images of femininity,” said Gillen. “Rather, we seek to present a more integrated view of femininity” that accounts for human dignity and explores what it means to be authentic men and women.

The project’s namesake is St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — better known as Edith Stein — a 20th-century German martyr during the Holocaust renowned for her philosophical writings. Stein examined women’s education, as well as females’ unique gifts and role in the workplace.

“Her writings are still very applicable today, as women seek to understand how to situate themselves in the modern world,” noted Gillen.

Given the prevalent attacks on the Catholic understanding of marriage and sexuality on the national stage, the relationship theme was adopted for this year’s event.

“We want our themes to be timeless, but also very relevant [to today’s issues], and I think, from the feedback I received, we managed that this year,” Gillen said. “Relationships are so important to us all, but definitely involve many challenges.”


Notable Names

The conference featured many insightful and edifying talks. When attendees were asked about the most memorable speaker, one name consistently came up: Alasdair MacIntyre.

MacIntyre is perhaps the most prominent living Catholic philosopher. A former Notre Dame professor, MacIntyre opened the conference as its keynote speaker, discussing Edith Stein’s dissertation, On the Problem of Empathy.

MacIntyre, who has written a book on Stein (Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922), skillfully unpacked her philosophy, a difficult task that Gillen says “really got the conference up and running.”

Other notable presenters included Spiritual Friendship blogger Ron Belagu, Carmelite prioress Sister Claire Sokol and author Donna Freitas, who has written extensively on sexuality on college campuses.

Elise Italiano, a high-school theology teacher from Washington, who is also a contributor to the Women Speak for Themselves campaign, delivered a talk on what single women can learn from the writings of Edith Stein. Italiano observed that “the single woman carries a cross,” but also that singlehood can be “an opportunity for discernment of a personal vocation and mission.”

Asked about her experience at the conference, Italiano said it was a wonderful opportunity to “give hope and encouragement in praying one’s way through questions of discernment and patience in understanding God’s will.”

Also speaking at the Edith Stein Project was Sandra Laguerta, who was making a homecoming of sorts. A 2013 graduate of Notre Dame, Laguerta presented papers in the past as a student and was also the 2012-13 president of the Identity Project of Notre Dame.

Now a junior fellow with the religious publication First Things, Laguerta presented a paper that focused on Alice von Hildebrand’s understanding of the vocation of women.

“[It] was an attempt to understand how the teaching of the complementarity of the sexes can aid us in having fruitful, spiritual friendships, especially with the opposite sex,” she said.

Also presenting was current Notre Dame student Michael Bradley. A senior, Bradley delivered a talk on God's purpose for erotic love.

He hopes that the Edith Stein Project will attract more of an underrepresented demographic: men.

“I think that more male students should attend,” he said.


From Wisdom to Action

For those who attended this year’s conference, the response was overwhelmingly positive.

“I left the conference with a lot of motivation to inspire others with my example of Christian faith,” said Notre Dame sophomore Alexandra DeSanctis. “Having heard from all of these speakers, I truly believe it’s possible to redeem the culture by having a strong Christian family of my own.”

She added, “An event like this reminds me that I’m not alone and that there are other young people like me willing to fight for these values.”

Bradley also had high praise for the experience, calling the Edith Stein Project “a source of grace.” He commended the sense of community created at the conference, aided by a pizza dinner, banquet and two Masses.

“I take comfort in knowing that others are going forth to put into action the wisdom that they encountered while here,” he said.

For Gillen, co-chairing the conference as a senior was a fitting way to end her tenure with an event that carries a lot of personal significance.

“The Edith Stein Project means a lot to me,” Gillen said. “I experienced the intellectual depth of Catholicism and the wonderful communities that it holds. I also engaged for the first time meaningfully with discussions of the complementarity of men and women.”

Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from Washington.