By Teresa Tomeo
Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic letter on women, offered keen insights into our culture.
Earlier this month, I had the blessing and honor to be chosen as one of more than 250 women from around the world to attend an international summit marking the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s profound apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem ("On the Vocation and Dignity of Women").
It was a jam-packed three-day event in Rome filled with dynamic presentations from Church leaders, Bible scholars, theologians and experts in the fields of politics and health care (see related story, Page 5).
It was a unique opportunity to delve into the teachings of the Church, with an emphasis on the keen insight of the late pope. One of the presenters, Cardinal Antonio Canizares, the archbishop of Toledo, Spain, told participants that Pope John Paul II carried Mulieris Dignitatem with him since his childhood. It was a result of his love and respect for his own mother and other women in Poland who were confronted with many hardships. The apostolic letter also shows how aware the pope was of the culture war that was raging against the Church and the true dignity of women.
Topics such as gender neutralization, the masculinization of women, abortion and the exploitation of women through pornography and the entertainment media certainly could be taken right from today’s headlines but Pope John Paul was writing about them 20 years ago. Then and now, the culture was telling women that they had the right to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted and with whomever they wanted. Sex, power and money were all there for the taking and should have no limits, even if reaching for that brass ring meant sacrificing marriage and family.
Pope John Paul had a keen insight as to what was happening to women and what would continue to happen if the culture continued on its destructive course.
"Women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality.’ There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not ‘reach fulfillment’ but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness" (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 10).
I went to college in the late 1970s and, unfortunately, bought into a lot of the lies being sold to women through radical feminism, including the lie that Jesus was an oppressor of women and the Catholic Church was where most of the oppression occurred. I think that’s why one of my favorite parts of the document is section five, which focuses on Jesus and women in the Gospels. I relate to so many of them, including the woman at the well, and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. Pope John Paul tugged at my heart in describing Jesus as a true liberator of women.
"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 marveled that he was talking with a woman’ (Jn 4:27) because this behavior differed from that of his contemporaries" (No. 13).
Pope John Paul’s apostolic letter is cause for plenty of prayer, reflection and pondering, especially during Lent. I hope that, after reading Mulieris Dignitatem, you too will come away as I did with a renewed love for Jesus and the Gospel message along with a deeper appreciation for this amazing vicar of Christ, Pope John Paul II.
Teresa Tomeo writes from Michigan.