Ryan is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Birmingham.
In the days leading up to that beautiful #2popesaints moment of history this weekend, I read for the first time Saint John Paul II’s (how wonderful to use that title!) Letter to Women. I can only summarise it briefly here, but I’d really recommend reading it in full.
Saint John Paul II begins his letter by gazing upon the “mystery of Woman”. Gazing and beholding seem to be the right response to the “mystery of Woman”. It’s certainly present, with gentleness, in the Scriptures.
Gazing into the depths of the mystery of femininity I can’t help but think of those words from the Book of Daniel: “Blessed are you who look into the depths from your throne on the cherubim…to be praised and highly exalted forever…” (3:54). God beholds his creation, his women. They are held in his eyes.
How many women must have prayed these words of Psalm 17:8: “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings…”? Women want to be beheld by the God that made them. There are more words of beholding in the Gospel of John, with those three words that have spoken into our understanding of Mary: “Behold, your mother!” (19:27).
Think how far this beholding, this gazing, differs to the story of Susanna (Daniel 13:10-12) where “both were overwhelmed with passion for her, but they did not tell each other of their distress, for they were ashamed to disclose their lustful desire to possess her. And they watched eagerly, day after day, to see her.”
There is a beholding that desires to possess and a beholding that desires to protect.
As a man, hearing those words “mystery of woman” I hear echoes of our culture’s search to know ‘what women want’. I think of all those so called men’s magazines that make claims of revealing the mystery of womankind. Women are deprived of their mystery in these magazines. They are exposed. In using that phrase the Pope is entering into a completely different realm of thinking. The mystery of Woman is not something to be ‘solved’ in a 21st century rehash of an Agatha Christie novel. Rather, your mystery, women, is something that us men can only behold and never possess.
Before the mystery of Woman it seems the first response is thankfulness. What follows is a litany of thanks. You women deserve to hear it in full:
“Thank you, women who are mothers! You have sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and travail.”
“Thank you, women who are wives! You irrevocably join your future to that of your husbands, in a relationship of mutual giving, at the service of love and life.”
“Thank you, women who are daughters and women who are sisters! Into the heart of the family, and then of all society, you bring the richness of your sensitivity, your intuitiveness, your generosity and fidelity.”
“Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life-social, economic, cultural, artistic and political.”
“Thank you, consecrated women! 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.”
“Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world's understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.”
This list of thanks is more than an Oscar style winner’s speech of adulation. This list, a prayer of thanks in itself, is a powerful assertion of the role of women. There we have it; there’s not a single of mention of the shape or size of a woman’s body, nor hair colour, number of twitter followers, latest fashion, twerking and so on. You know the pressures.
Put simply, I think the Pope’s message is this: don’t let worldly pressures be a daily litany for you. Place yourself confidently within this litany of thanks, bathe in the glory of being a woman of God. It is this reality that you are called to.
I remember at university a view that was often expressed about Christianity and womanhood is that there are only two role models for women: Mary the Virgin or Mary Magdalene, less of a virgin. We know that the church is not interested in such a binary. We know how Jesus ‘dared’ to be touched by women lovingly, how he spoke into their lives and told them of their worth. We know that Mary is more than the Virgin, she is the Mother of God. Mary Magdalene sinned, yes, but we know that our sinning is not the end of the story. Don’t allow history to write your status for you.
Forget pressures, Saint John Paul II is far more interested in that other ‘p’ word: precious. In this light he turns specifically to our mother Mary, “the highest expression of the ‘feminine genius’”.
Saint John Paul II, however, doesn’t stop at thanks: “I know of course that simply saying thank you is not enough”. He then examines the scandal of conditions that have harmed women and have written women out of the world’s history, for: “how can we not mention the long and degrading history…?” For men, this is our embarrassment and shame. We have perverted our gaze. We looked down upon you and you always had to look up to us. We looked at you in terms of meeting our desires and needs.
Men, we should be more like Simeon in Luke’s Gospel, turning to bless Mary and her new family [see this beautiful beholding of Simeon by Rembrandt]. He beholds her and speaks into the heart of Mary’s calling: “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (2:35).
Or perhaps take on the silence of Zachariah as he awaits the promise of God to be fulfilled in his daughters of Jerusalem: “And behold, you shall be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Luke 1:20).
Similarly, we might gaze upon the mystery of women from the silence of Simon of Cyrene, carrying the cross with Jesus, seeing his face and seeing the face of the weeping women of Jerusalem (Matt. 27:32, Mark 15:21 and Luke 23:26).
We think too of Lazarus in his dying days living in peace with Martha and Mary, who must have been filled with the promise of God, hearing how Mary had “anointed the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair…” (Jn. 11:2). We recall our moments of doubt and failed responsibility before the people of God, particularly our failure towards women. Here we might think of Moses and Aaron by the waters at Meribah where: “the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them’” (Numbers 20:12).
Saint John Paul II ends his letter by entrusting all women to Mary: “May Mary, Queen of Love, watch over women and their mission in service of humanity, of peace, of the spread of God's Kingdom!”
Women, we say thank you. Women, we ask for forgiveness, too, so that we can enter into a process of healing and allow your healing also.