Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Pope John Paul II, Mary, and authentic feminism

"Women's Rights!" the headlines roared in Sunday's Hartford Courant. The story detailed political speakers and activists who were speaking at a rally on Saturday. Sunday's Editorial page had another hostile op-ed piece against the Catholic Church alleging discrimination of women. In the midst of a political season where the "war on women" appears to be the phrase of "choice" (pun intended) perhaps we can re-examine just what the Pope teaches about the role of women in the church and the importance of Our Lady as the "woman" par excellence. Today is May 1. It also happens to be the first anniversary of Pope John Paul II's beatification. On August 15, 1988, Pope John Paul II released an Apostolic Letter titled "on the dignity and vocation of women". It is brilliantly written. He points out, right at the beginning, that at the center of salvation history is a woman. I guess, you may say even more dramatically, all of salvation history was dependent upon the answer of "this woman-Mary." Here are his words: "A woman is to be found at the center of this salvific event. The self-revelation of God, who is the inscrutable unity of the Trinity, is outlined in the Anunciation at Nazareth. 'Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High...''How shall this be, since I have no husband?...''The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God....For with God nothing will be impossible.' (Lk 1: 31-37. It may be easy to think of this even in the setting of the history of Israel, the chosen people of which Mary is a daughter, but it is also easy to think of it in the context of all the different ways in which humanity has always sought to answer the fundamental and definitive questions which most beset it. Don we not find in the Anunciation at Nazareth the beginning of that definitive answer by which God himself 'attempts to calm people's hearts?' It is not just a matter here of God's words revealed through the prophets; rather with this response 'the word is truly made flesh'(Jn 1:14). Hence Mary attains a union with God that exceeds all the expectations of the human spirit. It even exceeds the expectations of all Israel, in particular the daughters of this Chosen People, who, on the basis of the promise, could hope that one of their number would one day become the mother of the Messiah. Who among them, however, could have imagined that the promised Messiah would be 'the Son of the Most High'? On the basis of the Old Testament's monotheistic faith such a thing was difficult to imagine. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit, who 'overshadowed' her, was Mary able to accept what is 'impossible with men, but not with God' (Mk 10:27)" Hence, Mary has been put right at the center of the human drama. Extraordinary! Hence, too, as Pope JP II notes at the end of this letter, "the church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the'feminine genius' which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations, she gives thanks for the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness." I don't think too many people have read this letter. If not they would not be so quick to throne stones at the church. Jesus was radical in his treatment of women and the church is still radical: He and the church uphold the inviolable dignity of women. As the Pope notes in the letter "It is universally admitted-even by people with a critical attitude toward the Christian message-that in the eyes of his contemporaries Christ became a promoter of women's true dignity and of the vocation corresponding to this dignity. At times this caused wonder, surprise, often to the point of scandal. 'They marvelled that he was talking with a woman.' (JN 4:27), because this behavior differed from that of his contemporaries. Even Christ's own disciples 'marvelled.' The Pharisee to whose house the sinful woman went to anoint Jesus' feet with perfumed oil 'said to himself, if this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner' (Lk 7:39) Even greater dismay, or even 'holy indignation' must have filled the self-satisfied hearers of Christ's words. 'The tax collectors and the harlots go into the Kingdom of God before you.'" (Mt 21:31)." Whether it was his conversation with the samaritan woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery Jesus always and everywhere challenged the status quo. The church still does so today. Holiness is the radical challenge to the world's view of feminism. It was a woman, a mystic, St. Catherine of Siena, who was able to make peace between the Popes in Rome and Avignon. We all know the great story of the warrior Joan of Arc. Who does not marvel at the strength of St Teresa of Avila or more recently the heroic witness of St. Gianna Beretta Molla-a doctor, an enthusiastic lover of outdoor sports, and a mother who heroically said to the doctors treating her for a tumor-"Save the child!" How about the words of another saint, St. Therese of Lisieux: "Like the prophets and doctors of the Church, I should like to enlighten souls. I should like to wander through the world, preaching your Name and raising your glorious cross in pagan lands. But it would not be enough to have only one field of mission work. I should not be satisfied unless I preached the Gospel in every quarter of the globe and even in the most remote islands. Nor should I be content to be a missionary for only a few years. I should like to have been one from the creation of the world and to continue as one till the end of time. But, above all, I long to be a martyr. From my childhood I have dreamt of martyrdom, and it is a dream which has grown more and more real in my little cell in Carmel. But I don't want to suffer just one torment. I would like to suffer them all to be satisfied. Like you, my adorable Jesus, I want to be scourged and crucified. I want to be flayed like St. Bartholomew. Like St. John, I want to be flung into boiling oil. Like St. Ignatius of Antioch, I long to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, ground into bread worthy of God. With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia, I want to offer my neck to the sword of the executioner and, like Joan of Arc, murmur the name of Jesus at the stake. My heart leaps when I think of the un-heard tortures Christians will suffer in the reign of Anti-Christ. I want to endure them all. My Jesus, fling open that book of life in which are set down the deeds of every saint. I want to perform them all for you!" Hardly sounds like the woman who has become known as the "little flower"! What about St. Margaret Cliterow, the pearl of York? She was executed in York, England for inviting Catholic priests into her home to say mass during the penal laws under Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Her only words when she refused to recant " My desire is to die as a member of the Catholic Church. My cause is God's, and it is a great comfort to me to die in His quarrel; flesh is frail, but I trust in my Lord Jesu, that He will give me strength to bear all troubles and torments which shall be laid upon me for His sake." Where did these women get their strength? They looked to Jesus. This is the source of all true liberation. It is where men discover who they are as men and women discover who they are as women. As the Second Vatican Council noted: "Jesus Christ fully reveals man to Himself." This is how Mary models for each of us Christian discipleship. I will close with the words of Fr. Dwight Longenecker, author of More Christianity: Finding the Fullness of the Faith. Fr Longenecker is a convert. Like all converts Mary can sometimes be a stumbling block. They believe that Catholics somehow diminish Jesus by praying to Mary. Here are his words: "Catholic Christianity is More Christianity, not mere Christianity. Time and again I have showed that Catholics do not believe differently than other Christians. We affirm everything other Christians affirm. We simply cannot deny some of the things they deny. When it comes to the Blessed Virgin Mary, this is especially true. All traditional Christians affirm the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. We all believe he really was true God and true man. This is 'mere Christianity' if you like. Catholic Christians affirm the Incarnation too, but we also pay devotion and honor to that singular and extraordinary young girl through whom the Incarnation became possible. Because of the Incarnation we honor Mary, and by honoring Mary we praise God for the Incarnation. Without her yes to God our Lord would not have been born. As a result we not only give thanks to God for her, but we also realize that because of her submission to God's will each one of us has a Savior....In solidarity with most Christians everywhere, and in all times, Catholics are joyful in our homage to Mary. We are not ashamed to call her the Mother of God, because in that title we recognize her son as God incarnate. We delight to call her blessed because as we do we join with the Saints who also recognized her as uniquely filled with the grace of God. We ask for her prayers and call on her as our mother because Jesus himself gave her that role from the Cross. In honoring Mary we honor her son, and through her prayers and love we come to know her son better." From the time of Jesus through today the Catholic church has honored and valued the "feminine genius" of women. The Church models an "authentic feminism" which is rooted in Christ and sees true liberation as liberation from sin. Mary is the role model par excellence. In this month devoted to Mary why not take some time to get to know her better. Like all the saints, she is not some dead figure. She is truly alive! Let her be your Mother!


  1. Thank you so much for writing about these things, Father. You know, that apostolic letter changed my life. I was relatively newly married and only 20 years old... God's grace working through JPII's hand saved me from many sorrows. I wrote a little about it a few years back. Here's the link if you'd like a gal's perspective. :) http://mamaslittleditty.blogspot.com/2009/02/feminine-genius.html

  2. Thank you Melody for the affirmation. I loved your link and really enjoy your blog! You actually have pictures and video and color! I guess I am a blogging neophyte. Thank you for your beautiful witness as a mother. Peace! Fr Nagle