Today is the 28th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Women.” It is a blessing and a gift for women and men alike.
I first read this letter as a freshman in college, only to be frustrated I didn’t read it sooner. Distracted by coursework, I ignored it for 3 years, to then discover that my last exam of college would require a full analysis of the text. With wider eyes and an open mind, the Holy Spirit penetrated the parts of my heart the initial reading closed off. Each line speaks to your past, current, and future vocations. Each reread strikes a new chord, resonating with your soul and permitting a deep reflection on the immense gift of being a woman. My hope is that your first encounter is like my second and you’ll allow this to permeate your mind and heart in a personal and inspiring way.
John Paul II’s first, and arguably, most profound point, is his expression of gratitude. Whether you’re a mother, wife, daughter, sister, employed in the workforce, consecrated virgin, or an educator (in whatever capacity), he thanks YOU. He doesn’t only thank you for the work you do, but for your very existence as a woman.
Although you might think it’s weird (and it’s only weird because we live in a depersonalized world), when is the last time someone thanked you for being a woman, unique and dignified? I don’t mean a “Thank you, mom,” “Thank you, Mrs. P,” or “Thank you, ma’am” but a “Thank you for the innate beauty of your mind, heart, and soul that contributes to the world in the most exceptional way, and for your design as a daughter of the Lord, as you complement men and sow grace, dignity, and virtue into everything you do.” My guess would be never.
As St. John Paul II continues in his reflection, he rightly brings awareness to the marginalization and lack of progress women have experienced. While it’s easy to see drastic progress in something like Title IX, we are simultaneously experiencing a “relapse” of this progress, spearheaded by lawmakers, organizations, and activists rushing to dismantle a law that has protected so many women. This is not the only deterioration we are seeing.
We live in a culture that no longer understands what it means to be a woman. We live in a culture that changes words like “breastfeeding” to “chestfeeding” or “women” to “wimmin” in the name of affirmation and inclusivity. We live in a culture where biological men compete in women’s sports. And we live in a culture that tells little girls they are boys because they enjoy wearing cargo shorts over dresses and prefer trucks over dolls. The list continues. So, what happened?
We not only forgot to thank women, but we also forgot to address that women are inherently different and unique, made in the Image and Likeness of God, with a specific vocation that only women can fulfill, to help. I’m not claiming the world became corrupt for this reason alone, but how are we expected to flourish in a culture that doesn’t respect or appreciate God’s given design for our bodies, let alone His plan for our lives?
We are designed “to help.” While we might direct or pursue this design through different vocations, interests, or actions, we can recognize the beauty of its fruition. God realized that man could not be alone, thus He “intervenes in order to help him [man] escape from this situation of solitude: ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’ (Gen 2:18). The creation of woman is thus marked from the outset by the principle of help: a help which is not one-sided but mutual. Woman complements man, just as man complements woman: men and women are complementary. Womanhood expresses the “human” as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way.”
We are called “to help,” but this does not only refer “to acting, but also to being…[as] womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the “masculine” and the “feminine” that the “human” finds full realization.”
St. John Paul II doesn’t categorize vocations based on a gradation of superiority to inferiority. He thanks every woman, no matter their walk of life, for the sheer fact of being a woman. The grace, virtue, and dignity they sow might come in varying forms, but it still bestows a “help” and sensitivity that only women can offer.
Our ingenuity in the working world, at home, at school, or at church directs the “genius of women,” and fulfills God’s “plan for humanity.” We are given the freedom of choice because “as a rational and free being, man is called to transform the face of the earth.” This transformation doesn’t require all women to have “peak femininity” by wearing floral dresses and having pink as their favorite color. Although, it’s beautiful if she does! Rather, it calls upon us to “reign” as Our Lady did by embracing the vocation that you are uniquely and unabashedly called for.
While the culture tells us that womanhood can be whatever “we want it to be,” let us remember that written into our very soul (and DNA!), is an innate call to help and be mothers to all – whether spiritual, psychological, emotional, or physical. We are designed to nurture in a way that only a woman can, whether that is through marriage, singlehood, or consecrated virginity.
Let us remind our daughters, “tomboys” or not, that they are loved as a child of the Lord and are no less of a woman because they choose dirt over dolls, or dolls over dirt. Let us remind our friends that they can still be “mothers” by guiding their students, peers, or nieces/nephews toward the truth, single or not. Let us remind those called to consecrated virginity that they are no less of a “mother” because they are married to Our Lord and don’t bear children; they are spiritual mothers to parishioners, students, one another, and many more. Let us remind our relatives and friends that experiencing infertility doesn’t make them “motherless,” but invites them to expand their hearts, by loving and nurturing all whom He puts in their path. Let us remind our sisters in the workforce that the vocation to their trade “mothers” societal flourishing because of their ingenuity and care, and we would be lost without them. Let us remind all women that their vocation to “mother” comes in the form of mentorship, guidance, friendship, work, and countless other avenues. Most importantly, we mother by “acknowledging the person, because they see…with their hearts.” By experiencing the unique and unrepeatable dignity of a person through this lens, it allows us to respect and recognize our own dignity and value in the process.
A “Letter to Women” reminds us of the importance of gratitude and personalism, as it upholds a culture of life and dignity, respecting the difference and complementarity of women’s vocation as unique in the eyes of Christ. Our identity lies in Him, and only in Him.