John Paul II and women

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Ana Cristina Villa Betancourt

From a very young age Karol Wojtyla was characterized by a special sensibility towards woman and the feminine world; a sensibility that captured the world’s attention many times throughout his pontificate. As Pope John Paul II he demonstrated his finesse, attention and receptivity towards women on innumerable occasions. It is perhaps important to remember that this sensibility was no mere sentimentalism but the fruit of his profound and rich anthropological reflections, reflections which remain a vital part of the Church’s heritage and magisterial teaching.

It would be no exaggeration to say that these anthropological reflections – which grew out of his deep rooting in the faith of the Church, his philosophical formation, his intense spiritual experience and his openness and sensitivity to the human drama of our times – constitute one of the richest threads in John Paul II’s magisterial teaching. With this in mind it is clearly no accident that the most cited phrase in his writings comes from the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes, number 22: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light…Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

John Paul II was profoundly attuned, not only to the “feminine genius,” but to the mystery of the human being as such and wanted to help his contemporaries encounter the mystery that each one of us is, in the light of Christ. Aware that the Church is the guardian of a wealth of truth concerning the mystery of our identity and vocation, and aware of her duty to bring the truth to the men and women of our times, John Paul II energetically undertook the service of spreading this truth. The deep anthropological reflections present in his Magisterium were a ray of light in the confusion of our times and provided the framework without which it is impossible to fully understand the richness of his reflections on the identity and vocation of woman. He spoke of woman because he spoke of all that is human, because nothing of what is human was alien to him.

In his Magisterium the new Blessed reflected deeply upon the truth of the creation of the human being in the image and likeness of God, created sexually differentiated and with equal dignity, created for communion. In the second creation account God affirms that man’s originary solitude was not “good” for him, and thus the need to offer him an “adequate help”: “help” not only in the physical or psychical sense, but rather in the ontological sense, a reciprocal help proportioned to him in order that he could achieve the full realization of being man and woman. Sexuality is the strongest sign of human relationality, transcending the level of mere genitality as well as that of corporeality and embracing the whole person who – because of his or her sexed character – is structurally open to relation and the gift of self, according to the modality proper to masculinity or femininity.

In his 1995 Letter to Women we find a key passage in this regard: “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… woman and man are marked neither by a static and undifferentiated equality nor by an irreconcilable and inexorably conflictual difference. Their most natural relationship, which corresponds to the plan of God, is the ‘unity of the two’, a relational ‘uni-duality’, which enables each to experience their interpersonal and reciprocal relationship as a gift which enriches and which confers responsibility.” (John Paul II, Letter to Women, 7-8).

The passage is about the understanding of the human condition according to the Plan of God; masculine and the feminine cannot be understood in terms of categories of inferior and superior, nor categories of competition and conflict, imitation and standardization. “Called to exist mutually one for the other” (John Paul II, Mulieris dignitatem, 7) each must be aware of his own identity as a gift which,  entrusted to his freedom, needs to be welcomed and developed in the donation of self to the other, in love.

In this framework John Paul II exalted the feminine genius, signalling Mary, the handmaid of the Lord, the Mother of God, the Woman, as its maximum expression. It was through her obedience and receptivity, her service of love, that “Mary was able to experience in her life a mysterious, but authentic ‘reign’” (Letter to Women, 10), lived in the constant gift of herself to others. In this she is a model for all of us, especially for women.

We would like to thank God, rich in mercy, for the immense gift of Pope John Paul II and the richness of his anthropological reflections, a precious legacy that allows us to firmly face the challenges of our times. In his Letter to Women he thanks us for the fact of being women and, as women, for living and participating in the world and the Church. As women today we are grateful for his secure and paternal guidance, we thank him for having helped us understand and welcome the beauty and dignity of our vocation.

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