St. John Paul II’s Letter to Women & What it Teaches Us in 2018

I recently re-read St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Women,” which he wrote in 1995, and I realized that this document perhaps has more weight in 2018 than it did 23 years ago considering where society is at morally and culturally.

I was first introduced to the Letter to Women in a women’s study group at Lindenwood’s Newman Center (also known as the Catholic Student Union, if you’ve never heard of Newman Centers before). By the time I joined this study group in the spring of 2013, I was just beginning to learn more about the Catholic faith and was trying to understand why I was so drawn to it.

March is, apparently, “Women’s History Month.” In 2018, it’s not hard to see that women are still told by advertising and media that we have to be a size 0, be successful by the world’s terms, be sexually promiscuous, and have a life that looks like a perfectly curated Instagram account in order to have worth and be “empowered.”

A Polish pope–and now Saint of the Church–turned these ideas of society completely upside down 23 years ago, and through this letter he reminds us of who we are and from where our dignity comes. Three main points from the letter deeply impacted my conversion and my faith–and still do–and they dramatically counter what society tells women we should be in 2018:

Thanking Women Who Work

Perhaps one of the things that pleasantly startled me the most was how, within the first few paragraphs, JPII specifically addressed women who work:

Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life–social, economic, cultural, artistic, and political. In this way, you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of ‘mystery,’ to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.

This really opened my eyes because I grew up with a working mom who has told me how so often she was shamed for having a career. Told she shouldn’t–and couldn’t–be a mother and work and do both well, that she should stay home instead. (Note: She does both and does both VERY well 🙂 )

So I have always been pretty sensitive to this topic, especially in college as I discerned a career path. I’m not a mother yet but I think that the idea that children and family life are a hindrance to a high-powered career or professional success is a lie; and it’s also a lie that you can’t have a career to feed your intellect and creativity while also being a mom, and putting that vocation first.

It meant a lot to me that JPII not only thanked women for their contributions to the world through their work, their creativity, their innovation–but he also advocated for more protections for working mothers. The Pope offered his affirmation of and thanks to women who work, and called for them to be treated with respect and dignity.

We Have Worth Because of Who We Are

The way JPII speaks about women in his letter is countercultural even by today’s standards. Perhaps it’s even healing for girls and women trying to live up to standards imposed by a backwards culture. He conveys to us that women have worth, value, and dignity NOT for what we do or what we have–but because of who we are.

Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.

For me, at least, it’s encouraging to be reminded that I am worthy of love because I am a daughter of God, created in His image and likeness; and that’s what this letter did for me the first time I read it, and again when I re-read it just a few days ago. As hard as it is to accept sometimes, we aren’t valued and worthy because of our academic or professional success, our outward appearance, etc. but rather our identity in Christ. It reminds me of something my spiritual director often tells me: “There is nothing you can do to make God love you more or less than He does right now.”

Yet how many women have been and continue to be valued more for their physical appearance than for their skill, their professionalism, their intellectual abilities, their deep sensitivity; in a word, the very dignity of their being!

And this is what the world gets wrong, I think. It seems like way too often, women associate being “empowered” with their physical appearance, and using it in a way that exerts “power” (i.e. birth control and abortion being touted as two things that “empower” women). An example that comes to mind is U.S. Gymnast Aly Raisman. Now, I really admire Aly for her talent and athletic ability, and for her bravery in coming forward to report Larry Nassar, former U.S. Gymnastics team doctor, for sexual abuse and for her demanding accountability from the organizations that allowed him to abuse so many girls for so long.  

But it makes me sad when she posts images on her social media feeds posing half-naked for Sports Illustrated and other similar advertising/media outlets, calling it “empowerment”. This is not empowerment. It is use, but under a different banner and in a more euphemistic way. You aren’t “empowered” if you are still being used, if you’re allowing yourself to be used. You aren’t “empowered” if what you’re doing doesn’t respect your God-given dignity. And posing half-naked for millions of men to gawk and lust after you does not respect your God-given dignity.

What the world considers today as “empowerment” is a sorry replacement for understanding our dignity and worth as daughters of God and living in a way that reflects that truth.

The Vocation of Women

John Paul’s Letter to Women was also my first exposure to the word “vocation.” JPII didn’t so much talk about it here in terms of a vocation to the married, consecrated religious, or single life, but rather a general vocation to love–the way in which all women (and men) are called to self-giving love in a particular way, be it as husband, wife, priest, religious brother or sister.

One of the lines that stood out the most was a quote from Gaudiem et Spes: “man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” This quote seemed to follow me as Jesse and I studied Theology of the Body together while we dated/while we were engaged. The world tells us to pursue our own ends, do what we want, chase after what makes us feel good–and yet the world is still so empty, because it keeps searching for fulfillment in sex, money, and materialism. Perhaps it’s because we are only filled up by emptying out ourselves and making room for Christ and for our neighbor.

John Paul wrote that we reach our “definitive and transcendent destiny,” the “final goal” of our lives, “by fidelity to [our] vocation.” This really put faith and life into focus for me: I was put on this earth to love in a certain way, in a certain vocation. And fidelity to my vocation is what “directs earthly labours of men and women alike”. In other words, we find purpose in our vocation.

One of my favorite quotes from the entire letter is found in the second to last paragraph:

Necessary emphasis should be placed on the “genius of women”, not only be considering great and famous women of the past and present, but also those ordinary women who reveal the gift of their womanhood by placing themselves at the service of others in their everyday lives. For in giving themselves to others each day women fulfill their deepest vocation. Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see the person with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out and help them.

Authentic womanhood is making a gift of ourselves to others–no matter our state in life or our vocation. And this self-gift “fulfills our deepest vocation.”

In short, the Letter to Women made an indelible mark upon me in the midst of my conversion and it continues to do as I reread it several years later. Take a minute to read it in its entirety — I hope it reminds you of your dignity, worth, and of our vocation to love 🙂

Pope St. John Paul II, pray for us.

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