John Paul II’s 1995 “Letter to Women” was written to praise and encourage women to embrace the beauty that God gave them – the“feminine genius”- despite social and cultural messages telling them to become something different.
In contemporary society, the pope wrote, “women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity.”
The pope, on the contrary, encouraged viewing and valuing women from the perspective of their dignity, and the natural complementarity of men and women: “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.”
Rejecting women’s instinct for nurture and self-sacrifice is a part of a modern effort that “overcorrects” gender imbalances and discrimination against women, “by either repressing men and suggesting that men are bad and pushing them down… or on the other hand by trying to treat women as men,” said Michelle La Rosa, managing editor at CNA.
Careers and vocations based in self-giving are often looked down upon by a “feminist” society. Adding a family, or focusing on motherhood, can also be the source of criticism for some women in contemporary society.
But the Church lifts high the call for women to serve, regarding such selflessness with great respect and importance. John Paul II, speaking of Mary, wrote,“For her, ‘to reign’ is to serve! Her service is ‘to reign’!” The same can be said for every woman’s–and person’s–call, he said.
In light of that encouragement, some Catholic women have learned that lesson- “to reign is to serve.”
“Humanity itself owes much of its survival to the fact that women are nurturing,” said Amy Shupe, a teacher at Christian Brothers High School in St. Louis, Missouri.
Their talents in this area does not necessarily restrict them to one vocation. La Rosa and Ginny Kochis, a blogger on Catholic motherhood, both mentioned the life of Saint Zélie Martin–a woman who worked and raised a family with her husband, Louis Martin, who also worked.
“If a woman doesn’t want to work full time, if she wants to be a stay-at-home-mom, if men or women want to prioritize relationships and family above work, it’s almost seen as weakness and women are looked down upon if they can’t have it all,” said YouTuber Lizzie Reezay.
Two women shared their vocation stories with CNA—they are are wildly different, but both expressions of the “feminine genius” that John Paul II celebrated.
Women educating, raising generations to come
Amy Shupe felt a calling to dedicate her life to teaching a subject she never found easy. Her early years in school, she said, involved a lot of standardized test-taking. Seeing her poor results on such tests–particularly in math–discouraged her.
Her teachers’ reactions didn’t exactly uplift her, either.
“They didn’t point-blank,” tell her she couldn’t achieve higher scores in math, she said, but teachers would place a lot of weight on their students’ scores. “You kind of get the feeling that… it’s gonna be a real struggle for you, so maybe you should think about something else,” Shupe said.
In high school, though, she began to receive greater encouragement from her teachers. That’s when she discovered that she wanted to be that same source of encouragement for students who felt like they couldn’t do math.
“I have to help other people not feel the same way that I felt,” she said.
Now, Shupe is a high school teacher at Christian Brothers High School in St. Louis, Missouri. A 2017 recipient of a prestigious teacher’s award, the Distinguished Lasallian Educator Award, she invests copious amounts of her time and energy to the growth of her students.
“I work very hard at my job. I’m constantly thinking about it,” she said.
The role of a teacher can most certainly be taken on by men or women, but there’s something to be said for the emotionally intuitive side of women that lends itself to working with children, she said.
A mother of two children, Shupe exercises similar skills at work and at home.
“My number one role…is mom,” she said. “First, I’m a mother. I have two kids and I take care of them. And so then I think it easily translates into my classroom. You know, while those boys are not my flesh and blood, but I do know that… they have parents that are looking out for them,” said Shupe. Granted the trust of her students’ parents, she said, they are “put in my care day after day after day and I’m not there just to help them with math. I’m there to help them… learn about life… and have good influence on others.”
A Bride of Christ
What the world sees: a humble, quiet, unsuspecting woman. Not exactly the “ideal” successful, commanding businesswoman. Mental pictures of “The Sound of Music” abound.
What Christ sees: His bride.
Sister Maria of the Capuchin Poor Clares in Denver, Colorado grew up in a strong Catholic household, but she never thought she would commit to the consecrated life.
In her younger years, Sister Maria was never a very committed practicer of the faith, she said. She attended Mass and received the Sacraments not “out of my own conviction,” she said, but more “of out of duty” to follow along with her family.
Things began to change one summer when she attended a retreat–one priest’s homily on God’s love “struck” her.
“This priest, I remember very, very clearly… he was talking about the love of God and he said, you know, ‘God loves us all the time, every moment. If he would just stop to love this one moment, we would just stop existing!”
Astounded by the gravity of this statement, Sister Maria began her search for ways to serve the God whose love, she had found, allowed her very existence. The next summer, she went on a mission to a poverty-ridden mountain town in Mexico.
There, she said, she found the poorest–yet, the richest–people.
“They were so pure and simple and giving and generous and they treated us like we were angels from God… they offered everything they had, they took us into their homes,” she remembered. “This pure life!”
Inspired after the mission, Sister Maria began to frequent a monastery near her home. The sisters, she observed, had a strangely similar poor-yet-rich complex. It took her months to admit it to herself, but Maria finally decided to discern her calling to be a nun.
A strong woman, says the world, is independent. But what if there is strength in dependence–on God?
John Paul II, in expressing his thanks for consecrated women, wrote, “Following the example of the greatest of women, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, you open yourselves with obedience and fidelity to the gift of God’s love. You help the Church and all mankind to experience a ‘spousal’ relationship to God, one which magnificently expresses the fellowship which God wishes to establish with his creatures.”
This specific and crucial mission, to “help the Church and all mankind to experience a ‘spousal’ relationship to God” is one only women can fulfill. And, because of the world’s disdain for obedience and quietness, this noble mission is also often looked down upon.
Although Sister Maria lives behind closed doors, she lives pray for people outside those doors. “We are here for the world, for the sake of others,” she said.
To some women, a life like Sr. Clare’s might seem to impossible- too simple, too humble, not empowered.
Consecrated life, like motherhood, is sometimes regarded as less significant work than traditional employment.
“People are so afraid of permanent commitment,” said Sister Maria, adding that she has seen fewer and fewer vocations to the Poor Clares.
A strong woman, says society, is a woman who isn’t afraid to invest in herself and do what she pleases.
But a strong woman of faith, says God, is a woman who isn’t afraid to fully commit herself to Christ.
Not only do “feminists” disregard the gravity of such commitment, but they also constantly reach for ways to prove that they are not “different than men, instead of trying to compete or equal in their own way,” the nun said.
Even when it comes to roles in the Church.
“Some groups continue to demand priesthood for women,” she said, but this “doesn’t make much sense.”
Considering Mary, she said, there are many opportunities for women to have a strong influence on the church.
Mary “never claimed to be one of the apostles…. She had her own role, and continues to have it in the church,” she said. “Who can be more important… her role in salvation history… than Mary’s?”
Disclaiming that she did not encourage priesthood for women, she added, “In a way, Mary was a priest. She was the first one who carried Jesus… The body of Christ is Mary’s body. The Eucharistic Body, in a way, is Mary’s flesh.”
“Every Communion, you carry Jesus,” she said, and, quoting St. Francis, “You give birth to Jesus through your good works.”
Sister Maria referenced St. Clare’s teachings: “We can carry Jesus the same way that Mary carried him… Mary carried Jesus in her womb for nine months, but the faithful soul can carry him spiritually, always.”
Women, she said, should embrace the roles in the church that God has offered to them rather than scrambling for more roles. If man and woman were the same, she said, it wouldn’t be as beautiful.
Ultimately, each woman–and man, for that matter–is called to be vigilant of God’s wish for their life, said Sister Maria.
“It’s a journey that never ends. You will always be receiving the vocation from God every day and answering to a vocation every day,” she said. “Do not be afraid to give yourself to Christ.