Every year in March we have a "Women's Day" at St. Remy: a morning of reflection, with Mass, confessions, adoration, a talk and then brunch. Here's my talk from today.
The title of my talk is, “You are worth more than you think.”
I prepared for this by re-reading Pope St. John Paul II’s letter
on the dignity of women, called MULIERIS DIGNITATEM, from 1988.
As you may recall, Pope John Paul would develop things
up from the foundation – so in this letter,
he starts out with the Book of Genesis.
And if you have heard of his “Theology of the Body” –
that is, his exploration of the meaning of God’s decision
to create male and female – you will find some of it here.
It is amazing how much richness Pope John Paul
was able to draw from the first few lines of Genesis!
The other thing you will find in that letter is a lot about Mary,
for two reasons.
First, the pope wrote this letter as part of a year devoted to Mary;
and second, if he is going to talk about the dignity of women,
of course he is going to end up talking about Mary,
who is the woman of all women in human history,
because she was predestined and prepared, through all time,
to be the mother of the Savior, the Mother of God.
So, if we do as St. John Paul did, and begin with Genesis,
then we lay down a couple of very fundamental truths.
First: this world, and everything in it, is God’s special creation.
His work of art.
There is nothing about this world that is not part of his design,
that God does not call “good.”
And then, Pope John Paul reminds us
that at the apex of all this artistry is the human being,
which God designed as “male and female.”
To quote Pope John Paul:
[T]he woman is created by God "from the rib" of the man
and is placed at his side as another "I", as the companion of the man,
who is alone in the surrounding world of living creatures
and who finds in none of them a "helper" suitable for himself.
What does he mean there? He means,
the woman is just as much a person as the man.
But he goes on to say:
In the "unity of the two", man and woman are called from the beginning
not only to exist "side by side" or "together",
but they are also called to exist mutually "one for the other".
To say that man is created in the image and likeness of God
means that man is called to exist "for" others, to become a gift.
By “man” here, he means the human being; all of us.
And notice what he says: we are called to “become a gift.”
This is who we are before sin enters in – which, of course,
this same part of Scripture describes right after.
When the man and the woman sin,
everything about this harmony is messed up.
God asks the man – what happened? And he says:
“The woman whom you put here with me—
she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.”
And later God will tell them their relationship will be poisoned:
He will seek dominion over her;
And to the woman, God says, “your desire shall be for your husband":
Which St. John Paul takes to mean that the woman
will be “closed within her own instincts.”
What does he mean by that?
I think he means this:
That where the man is prone to misuse his power,
the woman is prone to be ensnared, and trapped,
precisely in terms of her qualities of nurturing and loving.
And this makes sense, because in recent times,
the movement for “liberation” of women
has often taken the direction of “freeing” women
from their own special qualities and gifts.
Pope John Paul called this “masculinizing” women.
We can see many examples of this.
For many years there was a “double standard.”
Men would be impure and unchaste in their behaviors,
and people would wink at it, saying, oh, boys will be boys!
But if women behaved similarly, they were shamed.
The so-called solution to this was not to demand
a higher standard of men;
but for women to lower their standards.
This was part of the so-called “Sexual Revolution.”
This was the context of the birth-control pill
being heralded as a great “liberation.”
The trouble is, women and men really are different;
and unchaste behavior – wrong for both –
has different consequences for each.
And it’s interesting how the words of Genesis play out:
Men, when they sin in this regard, tend toward power:
Domination and aggression.
And for women, they experience
a greater sense of betrayal and devastation.
Another “masculinization” of women is abortion.
A true liberation of women would be to treat
the uniqueness of women as something to honor and value.
But what do we do? We treat what is special about women
as something to be suppressed, as a sickness to be cured.
Three more examples of “masculinization” of women:
The idea that there is something wrong with a woman
who makes her children and family a priority.
Second, the push to have women in combat roles in the military.
And third, the notion that women are “lesser”
if they are not ordained as priests.
Let me quote Pope John Paul again:
In our times the question of "women's rights"
has taken on new significance in the broad context
of the rights of the human person.
The biblical and evangelical message sheds light on this cause,
which is the object of much attention today,
by safeguarding the truth about the "unity" of the "two",
that is to say the truth about that dignity and vocation
that result from the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman.
Let me repeat that phrase:
“the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman.”
This is an important truth that is almost lost in our society.
And Pope John Paul goes on to say that if, in order to remedy injustice,
Women try to “appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality,’”
The result will be to “deform and lose
what constitutes their” – that is, the woman’s – “essential richness.”
“Deform and lose!” And listen a little more to Pope John Paul:
It is indeed an enormous richness. In the biblical description,
the words of the first man at the sight of the woman
who had been created are words of admiration and enchantment,
words which fill the whole history of man on earth.
What were those words?
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”!
So with that foundation, let’s talk about more specific things.
St. John Paul talks a lot about the two most basic vocations
of a woman: motherhood and consecrated virginity.
Now, don’t misunderstand what he’s saying.
He’s not saying that women shouldn’t be doctors, artists,
athletes, lawyers, business owners, farmers, teachers, and the rest.
Instead, what he’s saying is that underneath these specific paths –
which arise out of our diverse gifts and opportunities –
there are more fundamental choices that are universal.
And as valuable and meaningful as these particular choices can be,
they aren’t as central to our identity as a man being a father,
or a woman being a mother.
To use myself as an example: I’ve been a student; a journalist;
I worked in politics; I worked in public relations; I did fundraising;
I worked in marketing research; I sold clothing at one point –
all before becoming a priest.
All these things I did were meaningful, and part of me,
but they don’t go to the heart of my own sense of purpose, of calling.
While I did all those things,
I was thinking also about being a husband and father.
For various reasons, I did not meet the right girl.
And at a particular point, the idea of being a spiritual father
was planted in me, and it grew, and one thing led to another,
and here I am.
Now: as a priest, guess what? Sometimes I am a student.
Sometimes I am a “journalist” – I write articles;
sometimes I raise money, and organize projects.
Sometimes I even have to “sell” things!
So it is for each of us.
And just as a man is always reflecting on what it means to be a father,
a woman reflects on what it means to be a mother –
even if we do not have our own children;
because you and I can still be fruitful and life-givers in other ways.
And if we never find those ways, that is the greatest sadness of all.
So Pope John Paul talks about motherhood bringing about,
on the woman’s part, “a special gift of self” – and, wow, WHAT a “gift of self”!
It is astounding to think of how warped we are as a society.
Women have this incredible gift and responsibility: to be life-bearer.
And look how we treat this miracle?
So often, this is something “in the way,” a “problem,”
something to be “fixed” or escaped.
Both in the order of nature, and later, in the order of grace,
notice how central the woman is!
Adam – and with him, each individual man –
can never transcend himself, be more than himself,
without the woman.
Obviously, both men and women
participate in the stewardship of human life.
Both a father and a mother can look at the child God gives them,
and say, “mine!” But the words, “This is my body,” “This is my blood,”
mean something only a mother can understand.
Eve understood that when she had her first child.
Mary understood that when she carried the Messiah.
And finally, when Jesus himself inaugurates salvation,
these are his words which we remember at every Mass.
The pope took a look at an episode in Scripture,
when someone cried out to Jesus,
"Blessed is the womb that bore you…” And Jesus responds,
Yes, but even more, “those who hear the word of God and keep it.”
And Pope John Paul points out that
The motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the Gospel,
is similarly not only "of flesh and blood":
it expresses a profound "listening to the word of the living God"
and a readiness to "safeguard" this Word,
which is "the word of eternal life.”
And then he says, “The history of every human being
passes through the threshold of a woman's motherhood.”
Now, the other fundamental choice is consecrated virginity,
that is, “renouncing marriage and thus physical motherhood.”
But according to Pope John Paul,
this “makes possible a different kind of motherhood:
motherhood "according to the Spirit" (cf. Rom 8:4).
He says further,
[I]t can express itself as concern for people,
especially the most needy: the sick, the handicapped, the abandoned,
orphans, the elderly, children, young people, the imprisoned
and, in general, people on the edges of society.
John Paul says this, too, is “spousal love,”
which “always involves a special readiness
to be poured out for the sake of” others.
So let’s make this more practical.
As a woman, you have a special vocation and privilege of nurturing life.
Both men and woman contribute to the giving of life,
but women have a special gift of nurturing it.
This is true no matter how old you are
or whether you are single or married.
So one thing you can say, as a girl or a woman: “I am a life-nurturer.”
As Jesus said, women have a gift of “receiving” the Word of God.
It is so often the case that women
have a special aptitude for spiritual things.
Women will more often sign up for a Bible study,
And if men come, it will be because the women bring them.
Even so, it is essential that the father provide leadership,
because if he isn’t there, the sons won’t be there.
Fair or not, that’s how it tends to work.
The result, I think, is actually a partnership,
with the father and mother, boyfriend and girlfriend,
brothers and sisters, reinforcing each other.
The harsh reality is that these truths
are not being reinforced by our larger culture.
And it is obviously true that many men
will be seduced by the values of the culture.
It is not fair, but girls, you have to insist.
You have to remember your value, even if the boy does not.
So many young men are consuming entertainment and imagery
that tells them that he should have what he wants when he wants it –
and you should give that to him.
So often, that boils down to particular pleasures,
and to attention focused all on him.
Original sin makes all of us selfish.
A lot of our culture reinforces this.
And if a boy or a girl, a man or a woman,
gets drawn into fantasy and the imagery that drives it,
then that selfishness goes absolutely crazy.
This is wrecking marriages and families.
What happens is that a husband and a father
gradually becomes enmeshed in a fantasy world –
which he thinks is secret.
In that fantasy world, he is king – the Emperor!
Everything goes exactly as he likes.
Little by little, how he looks at everything,
and other people in particular, becomes skewed.
It’s all about what they can do for him.
Even someone who is otherwise a good guy
will become distorted by this mindset,
and he won’t even realize how selfish he really is.
You know how I know this?
I read an account of a father who had a terrible habit
of viewing ugly materials online. He thought no one else knew.
But he knew it was wrong, and he sought help.
Thankfully, he was able to get away from it.
Then something amazing happened.
He was driving somewhere with his young son,
And his boy turned to him, in the car, and said:
“You know what? I like the new daddy!”
That man was stunned. He had no idea
how much he’d been twisted by that secret vice.
Now, the cultural messages I referred to, that encourage men
to be all about self and pleasure and right now, are aimed at you, too.
And they tell you that this will make you happy;
And that people like me and your parents who tell you not to listen,
Are trying to spoil your fun.
Your value does not lie in making men happy,
but in being who God created you to be.
One of the flaws of men –
made much worse by our culture –
is that we tend to value only a few of the gifts women have to give.
And if we men get them too easily, we don’t value them very much.
So here’s my dating advice:
You hold out for a man who values you across the board!
That will not only be better for you, but far better for him.
Here’s some more advice – and I say this as a son, and a brother,
and in my own way, a father:
Don’t ever let any man treat you with disrespect!
That doesn’t mean you have to have to strike back,
either with words or in a physical way.
All of us have been insulted or been treated rudely,
and we all know the value of keeping cool and turning the other cheek.
My point is that too often, women get the idea
that they’re just supposed to take it. That this is normal.
No, it’s not.
It occurs to me that maybe I could be more helpful.
If you think so, I’d be grateful for anyone here
who came to me and said, “here’s how you can help.”
I’m open to ideas of how I as a priest, and our parish,
can be part of the solution.
To draw this to a close, let me say this.
If you want to know what Christ thinks of women,
Look at the role he gave to his own mother.
God the Father came to her, through the Archangel Gabriel:
Her “yes” opened the door to the Messiah.
She was there at every moment of his life,
Above all, at the Cross and at the tomb.
She was there when the first Christians
were praying for the Holy Spirit.
And when her life on earth came to a close,
Jesus desired her to be with him, body and soul, in heaven.
And now, notice how much he has entrusted to her.
We can pray any way we want. No one is required to pray with Mary.
Yet look what has happened over the centuries.
Mary has quietly become the mother of us all!
Helping us in so many ways: keeping us company,
comforting us, praying for us, praying with us,
showing us how to come to her son.
Doesn’t this tell us everything we need to know
About what God thinks about the role and dignity of women?