Where was God in the 20th century? As in all centuries, the Spirit hovered over creation during that often dark period. Where the door was open, the Spirit entered. In the horrors of the concentration camps, He stirred a Polish Franciscan and a German Carmelite to put others before themselves even unto the offering of their lives. In solitary confinement in the prisons of Vietnam, He inspired an unjustly imprisoned bishop to love his enemies and to pray for those who persecuted him. Amidst the scourge of war and human trafficking, he strengthened a Sudanese former slave to forgive and pray for her torturers. In the midst of ongoing battles against the sacredness of love and life, He moved a simple preteen to withstand rape even at the cost of her life; and a doctor, wife, and mother to risk her own life to save the child in her womb. In the opulence of wealth, He called a Philadelphia heiress to place her life and her fortune at the service of those marginalized because of race and poverty. In the fierce anti-clericalism of Mexico, He strengthened a humble, fun-loving Jesuit to proclaim Christ as King and to love His people even in the face of the firing squad that ended his short life of service. And in Rome, He inspired the College of Cardinals to elect the son of Italian sharecroppers and, later, a poet and playwright from Poland, to lead His Church. These men and women are among the saints of the twentieth century: Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein, Francis Xavier Van Tuan, Josephine Bakhita, Maria Goretti, Gianna Molla, Katherine Drexel, and Miguel Pro. Now, to their number, two humble and visionary servants of God and His people are added.
With the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the Church celebrates their holiness, a holiness marked by a wholeness and breadth of vision. These two saintly popes, notably attuned to the things of earth while they fixed their hearts on heaven, shared many aspects of a common vision. Among these was an appreciation of the fact that in the many revolutionary changes shaping society in the tumult of the twentieth century, one of the most significant and important was a growing awareness of universal human dignity, even as this dignity was challenged on many fronts. They both knew that essential to a renewed awareness of human dignity was a profound commitment to promoting the dignity of women, especially in light of the opportunities and challenges of the second half of the 20th century.
Only a few months before the opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII wrote a Letter to Women Religious, asking their powerful intercession for the upcoming council. In this letter (Il Tempio Massimo, July 2, 1962), he affirmed the irreplaceable value of their prayers “for real human progress and human peace.” Praising not only the spiritual gifts of women religious, but also the value their works bring to the world and the Church, especially in the areas of education, charity, and social service, he encouraged their ongoing study and attainment of degrees, expressing the hope that “in addition to your merited and proven capability, you may be better appreciated also for your spirit of dedication, patience and sacrifice.” He likewise affirmed the great importance of women serving the Church and the world in secular institutes, writing, “The consecrated souls in the new secular institutes should know also that their work is appreciated and that they are encouraged to contribute toward making the Gospel penetrate every facet of the modern world.”
In the encyclical Pacem in Terris, which Pope John XXIII published on April 11, 1963, after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, it was apparent that the recognition of the dignity of women was part of his growing awareness that there could be no foundation for peace in the world until every person’s dignity was appreciated and respected. In this encyclical, Pope John observed that peace can only be achieved when a just social order is established. Such an order can only be built upon the truth that each human is a person endowed with intelligence and free will, and possesses, by nature, rights and duties which “are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable” (no. 9). To the natural basis for universal human dignity, the pope added the supernatural basis: that all are ransomed by the blood of Jesus Christ and by grace made the children and friends of God, as well as heirs to eternal glory (no. 10).
In delineating the rights of human persons, Pope John XXIII most often included all people without distinction, but in two cases within Pacem in Terris he made particular reference to women – in relation to family and work. With profound respect for the fact that vocation is a call from God for the good of individuals and of society, he wrote, “Human beings have also the right to choose for themselves the kind of life which appeals to them: whether it is to found a family—in the founding of which both the man and the woman enjoy equal rights and duties—or to embrace the priesthood or the religious life” (no. 15). Beyond the question of one’s state in life, the pope recognized the importance of the work each undertakes. Sensitive to the often conflicting demands on the time and energy of women, he stated, “Women must be accorded such conditions of work as are consistent with their needs and responsibilities as wives and mothers” (no. 19). To understand this observation, it is helpful to note the pope’s direct reference to the changes in society regarding women and the workplace. In his section on characteristics of the modern age, he noted that “the part that women are now playing in political life is everywhere evident” (no. 41). His comments on this expanding role showed the decidedly positive light in which he saw this change. He wrote, “Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons” (no. 41).
Pope John XXIII’s call for a greater recognition of human dignity, and especially of the dignity of women, reached a rich maturity in the thought of Pope John Paul II. While a renewed vision of man and woman and their call to communion with God and one another can be traced throughout the teachings of John Paul, in Mulieris Dignitatem a new emphasis emerged in magisterial teaching. Mulieris Dignitatem is so profound a meditation on women and their dignity and vocation that it serves as the reference point for all major Catholic thought on women since. Grounding human dignity in the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God, Pope John Paul II posited the fundamental equality of persons, while nonetheless affirming the unique and complementary gifts that men and women possess. In the final two sections of the document, the Holy Father pointed out that the dignity and vocation of women center on the great gifts of love and life. He said of woman in relation to God, “The Bride is loved: it is she who receives love in order to love in return…the dignity of women is measured by the order of love, which is essentially the order of justice and charity” (no. 29). He later attested, “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way” (no. 30). As much as human woundedness at times turns men and women in on themselves or against one another, the pope upheld the grace of Christ as the key to healing, and mutual self-gift as the path to true fulfillment.
In March 1995, Pope John Paul II offered a particular challenge to women in his powerful encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Considering the monumental task of working to build a culture of life, he noted the extraordinary role women must play if such a transformation is to occur. He wrote, “In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a ‘new feminism’ which rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination’, in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation” (no. 99).
Later that year, in his 1995 Letter to Women, Pope John Paul II applied the theological insights of Mulieris Dignitatem more explicitly to concrete social situations. After words of gratitude for women’s contributions in every vocation and relationship key to human life, he called the Church to “a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision” which he stated is best reflected in “the attitude of Jesus Christ himself. Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. In this way he honoured the dignity which women have always possessed according to God's plan and in his love” (no. 3). Lamenting the historical undervaluing of women and their dignity, the Holy Father cited an “urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State” (no. 4). He asserted that the presence of women is necessary throughout society to counter overemphasis on efficiency and productivity, and to bring more human responses to pressing concerns in areas such as medicine, health care, migration, and ecology.
Speaking of the importance of a Church in which both men and women flourish and aid one another on the path to holiness, Pope John Paul II wrote, “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” (Letter to Women, no. 8). To both Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II the restoration of the dignity of every person, created by God, redeemed by Christ, and drawn into communion by the Holy Spirit, was urgent and central to realizing the mission Christ entrusted to the Church. Human dignity, they knew and taught, would only be promoted and respected when women and their gifts were recognized and valued alongside the equal dignity and complementary gifts of men. On their two paths to the one Lord, they both looked to the woman to whom God entrusted His Son, and to whom Christ entrusted the Church. Pope John XXIII wrote to the women religious whose intercession he asked, “May the Mother of Jesus and Our Mother fire you with new fervor!” Pope John Paul II closed Mulieris Dignitatem with the prayer, “May Mary, who ‘is a model of the Church in the matter of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ,’ obtain for all of us this same grace” (no. 31).
Where was God in the 20th century? As in all centuries, the Spirit hovered over creation. Thankfully, Pope Saint John XXIII and Pope Saint John Paul II opened the doors wide, and the Spirit entered to restore the dignity of each person made in God’s image, and thereby to renew the face of the earth.
The Joy of Being a Woman of the “John Paul II Generation”
Years ago I was studying women’s literature as part of my graduate studies in English. Having sensed a somewhat uncomfortable tension with the professor, I was strangely relieved when she pulled me aside and voiced her frustration. “I don’t understand women like you. How can you serve a male-dominated Church? Why doesn’t your generation have more passion for working for women’s rights?” I could only answer from my thoughts as shaped by life experience. I had not experienced a Church in which I was not valued. I had not felt as though my rights were denied. I had wonderful opportunities to pray, study, work, serve, and pursue my dreams both in the Church and in the world. The interaction gave me a chance to express my sorrow that she had not had such an experience and my gratitude for the women and men, like our new saints, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, who prayed and worked to shape a more just society.
A few years later, as a teacher of moral theology to young women, I first read and taught Pope John Paul II’s letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieris Dignitatem. It was beautiful, rich, and deep. What I had experienced in many situations growing up as part of the “John Paul II generation” made sense in light of the profound theological and spiritual message of the document. Equality was not a mere political buzzword, but the plan of a loving Creator from the beginning, a plan distorted by selfish disobedience but restored in the radical, self-giving love of Jesus Christ. The more I delved into the teachings of Pope John Paul II, the more I appreciated the call to restore communion between God and humanity and between men and women.
I had always agreed that women deserved, like men, to be respected and offered opportunities for education, religious liberty, and fair wages and working conditions. I had always thought that women have a place in decision-making and leadership. I had, however, an instinctive distaste for a worldview that favored the supposed advancement of women by disparaging men or by denying the importance of motherhood. So when I first read Evangelium Vitae and heard Pope John Paul II asking for a “new feminism” this struck a chord in my mind and heart. When I read repeatedly in his writings about the complementary gifts of men and women and the need for the “feminine genius” to be valued, I was drawn by the beauty of truth.
When God’s call brought me from the classroom in America to Australia and New Zealand, I experienced the power of Pope John Paul’s teaching even more profoundly. I was sent to prepare for World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney. I welcomed the opportunity to serve all who would benefit from this dynamic encounter between youth and the pope. My work began with the recruitment and spiritual formation of the generous volunteers who came to serve from all over the world. To my surprise, needs arose that brought me to the role of Assistant to Bishop Anthony Fisher, a task that involved collaboration with heads of the Church and the government in ways I could never have foreseen. Daily it became obvious to me that the creative collaboration of men and women, clergy and laity is essential to the mission of the Church.
During this time, I was invited to offer talks and courses on many aspects of Church teaching, but the Holy Spirit showed me that the special ministry to which I was called was to share the message about the dignity and vocation of women. One talk led to invitations for many more. I never realized how hungry people are for this message. What I witnessed was the liberating power of truth. Women had profound experiences of conversion by hearing the truth about their dignity, Christ’s love, the Church’s gratitude for the gift of who we are and what we contribute. Some women found healing of wounds of anger as they realized that reserving the priesthood to men has theological meaning never meant to negate the part or devalue the contribution of women in the Church. Other women found healing of wounds of materialistic views they had unconsciously accepted that led them to value themselves only if their pay or status was high. Some found the courage to seek new types of relationships that respected their dignity and values. They discovered the truth of who they are as persons, as daughters cherished by a loving Father, as women loved by Christ and the Church and valued for the rich variety of gifts they have and are called to share. They came to understand that their gifts enable them to give of themselves and receive the gifts of others, that men and women are called to complement one another rather than compete, invited to collaborate creatively.
My journey Down Under led me to Rome where I have had the opportunity to live, pray, and study at the heart of the Church. In these years I have learned through closer contact with the saints how rich a history the Church has of recognizing the holiness of both men and women and seeing in their collaboration a life-giving fruitfulness for the Church and the world. Who would Saint Augustine be without the prayers and teaching of Saint Monica, his mother? Saint Francis knew better than anyone the spiritual strength he derived from the support and friendship of Saint Clare. Blessed Raymond of Capua gave spiritual direction to Saint Catherine of Siena, who in turn advised not only Raymond but also the pope. Saint Gianna found in the love of her husband Pietro the courage to offer her life that their child might live. The list and the story go on.
My studies of history and theology have shown me that the riches I received through the life and teachings of Pope John Paul II flow from a long tradition, from a Church founded by Jesus Christ and willed by our Father in heaven, Who created us in love in His image, male and female. As I read Pope John XXIII’s writings in preparation for his upcoming canonization, I discovered that even before the opening of Vatican II, in his letter to women religious, and later in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, he articulated the already-present vision in the Church of a need for a deeper respect for human dignity, including the necessary fostering of the dignity of women. Toward the end of his Letter to Women of 1995, Pope John Paul II wrote, “The life of the Church in the Third Millennium will certainly not be lacking in new and surprising manifestations of ‘the feminine genius.’” Noting the need for a greater welcoming of the exceptional gifts of women, such as their exceptional ability to attend to persons and to reach out to help those in need, he went on to say, “In this way the basic plan of the Creator takes flesh in the history of humanity and there is constantly revealed, in the variety of vocations, that beauty-not merely physical, but above all spiritual-which God bestowed from the very beginning on all, and in a particular way on women.” Perhaps it springs from their profound Marian devotion, maybe from their selfless service of Christ’s Bride, the Church, but in our two new saints, Pope Saint John XXIII and Pope Saint John Paul II, we see this spiritual beauty – the splendor of those who radiate God’s love to all and who invite us to do the same.