When John Paul’s Letter to Women was published in June of 1995, Catholic women around the world were moved by its words of deep appreciation for and profound recognition of particular feminine qualities, the “feminine genius” as he had already called it in his apostolic letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women in 1988. Receptivity, sensitivity, generosity, and maternity were vital aspects of this “feminine genius.” In his Evangelium Vitae, he even espoused a “New Feminism” as a prerequisite for defending life. He consistently emphasized the importance of women’s integration in all areas of public, social, and economic life. John Paul’s words of praise and tender appreciation of women’s capacity to love and nurture spoke to us directly as women and many felt affirmed in their special role not only as mothers, but as vital contributors to all areas of society.
Both the word “feminism” and his sticking with Church teaching on artificial birth control and the priestly ordination with women meant it all got wrapped up in ideological divisions. Which means, we missed a treasure. And so today, Catholic women in the Western world can still not agree on their particular role. They still seem split on the issue of motherhood and public career. Tensions between those women, who opt to stay at home and those who pursue careers seem to have increased over the years. I have personally experienced stares of boredom from women when I revealed my own choice of home-making while I felt resentment and, no doubt, envy towards those with exciting careers. Once I began to engage in projects outside of the home, I could, equally, sense misgivings among women who did not. Such tensions among women are unfortunate and run counter not only to John Paul’s affirmation of womanhood, but stand in opposition to the Gospels. As resourceful as we are, we can do better than harbor resentment and engage in competition over who is “more Catholic.”
Like all great saints, John Paul presents us with a challenge. He makes us think seriously about our fulfillment in faith through our God given nature. As we contemplate our vocation, his words encourage us to begin with fundamentals, not specific politics. As Catholic women, we should thus resist being pulled down to the level of feminist power politics and, instead, consider John Paul’s definition of the “feminine genius” as a challenge in our own personal journey of faith. Such a shift in focus will inevitably lead to a greater understanding of our common goals as women and help us realize our full potential. As we consider the complexity of life, we come to understand that women’s lives can differ in radical ways due to external circumstance. Yet instead of embarking on debates on the proper and practical realization of faith, we would do better to first focus on our commonality, on what we can bring to the world in the most essential way in line with Christ’s teachings. It is in this context, that John Paul’s words have the greatest power.
By speaking to women in the Gospel stories, Christ speaks to us. In fact, as John Paul points out in Mulieres Dignitatem, Christ’s “words and works always express the respect and honor due to women.” Similarly, the women in the Gospels feel “liberated by his truth, restored to themselves: they feel loved with ‘eternal love,’ with a love which finds direct expression in Christ himself.” (Mulieres Dignitatem, # 14 and 15.) To hear him, we must be focused on the tenderness and love of his message before jumping to conclusions on the applicability of moral imperatives. According to John Paul, “Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. In this way he honored the dignity which women have always possessed according to God’s plan and his love.” (Letter to Women)
The Gospels are love letters rather than rule books and judgment calls. The “feminine genius” of love and nurture should be at the heart of how we live our faith. In our endeavor to deepen our faith, it is useful to move from the practical and concrete to what drives us from within. A woman’s receptivity, her openness to life, her self-giving love and sensitivity, and her interpersonal authenticity, all part of the “feminine genius,” matter more than simply the number of children a woman has. As mothers at home, do we have a willingness to use our God given talents rather than rest comfortably within traditional social structures? As professional women, are we striving to improve the world through the way we live our faith, rather than pursuing careers for the sake of power and fortune? As both mothers and professionals, are we putting our children and our relationships, love and nurture, above all else? By contemplating the fundamental aspects of our being as women, all of us, are challenged with the same question: Are we pushing ourselves enough? Are we giving to this world everything we can?
St. John Paul, like all great saints, presents us with a challenge – the ultimate challenge of how to realize our full potential. It follows that when choosing our life’s trajectory, we must make room for the talents and strengths we have as individuals. A woman who is blessed with many children might very well devote herself entirely to parenting. Other mothers might very well choose to spend only a certain amount of years at home with their young children and then venture out into the larger world of culture, politics, science and business. In either case, a woman should not shy away from realizing her potential to the fullest, each in her own time and her own way. It should not be either or, but when and how. John Paul’s gift to women was that of dignifying their natural talents and of entrusting them with the awesome task of contributing to all areas of life.
Thus encouraged to fulfill our vocations, we should not close our eyes to the great social changes of modernity, but, instead, engage with the modern world in constructive ways and speak “the truth in love.”
(Ephesians 4:15) Similarly, we should not embrace modernity uncritically and sweep aside our Church’s wisdom on human nature and God’s plans for us. As Catholic women, we are called to engage fully with the world around us as witnesses to Christ’s love. Simultaneously, as John Paul encouraged us, we should be ready to challenge the status quo and speak out against injustice where we see it. Our “feminine genius,” informed by the truth of the Gospels, should be our constant guide in this engagement with the world as mothers, wives, professionals, workers, or consecrated women as true disciples of Christ.
Throughout history, women have played a crucial role. Modernity is no different. Women, in their unique capacity to “place themselves at the service of others in their everyday lives,” must be trusted. Above all, we must learn to trust ourselves! John Paul thanked every woman, all of us, “for the simple fact of being a woman!” He praised our womanhood for our insight, which “enriches the world’s understanding” and “make human relations more honest and authentic.” (Letter to Women) John Paul is a saint for our time and his words give us courage to shape the future. Let us be the best women we can be!