A look at St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women
By Billy Beauchesne (Rated PG)
Through many challenges and much prayer, spiritual direction, contemplation, and questioning, I have realized that although many situations seem to be very complex, they are also extremely simple at the same time. Hours of prayer, thought, and reflection have been poured into this writing with hopes that it will be received as a gift by whoever reads it with love, with an open heart and with an open mind. My sole intent lies in the hope that it will help you better understand true love, God’s love, in the eyes of God.
This piece was written at the completion of reading a life-changing document. Its English title is Apostolic Letter of the Supreme Pontiff – John Paul II – On the Dignity and Vocation of Women on the Occasion of the Marian Year. My piece is written as if the reader has previously read St. John Paul II’s letter and has a firm grasp of his intricate, yet beautifully simple explanation for his admiration and profound respect for women.
St. John Paul II’s understanding of love, family, relationships, sexuality, and young adults on such a deep biblical, spiritual, biological, and human level is nothing short of extraordinary. In 1997, a series of teachings on these topics by St. John Paul II were published in a book titled Theology of the Body (TOB), which will be referred to throughout this piece. Theology of the Body is a life changing, timeless text that has and continues to persuade many to revisit their perspective on chastity and True love.
This writing is a result of a deep struggle of the heart. It sprang from driving in a car tearfully begging and pleading with God for an answer to such confusion caused by an enormous conflict regarding the concept of family and the true role of a man and woman as mother and father, as defined by God. The conflict was derived from the view of what family looks like through the eyes of society and today’s culture. Whether or not we realize it, we are all seekers of Truth. Truth may not bring the answers that we desire to hear, but fulfillment is only achieved through Truth, Truth with a capital T meaning the Truth of God (Natural/Absolute Truth).
St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter explains, in his own words, the type of love and appreciation that is True love. Many times we try expressing this love, but because of our fallibility, faults, and weakness as human beings, we aren’t able to show it in the way that we want. JPII’s Apostolic Letter and Theology of the Body speak so much about woman at the time of creation, Mary, and what God created us all to be. The love, appreciation, and respect he has for women is extraordinarily unique and beautiful. Both texts summarize that, contrary to popular culture, there is nothing in this world that a woman could accomplish or achieve that would in any way increase her true value as a woman. Hopefully all women can begin to understand how the world should have an incredible appreciation for them, their value, their dignity, and their life.
PROPERLY ORDERING ONE’S LIFE
Many times we have such great fear as we enter into a relationship, that the relationship, marriage, and family will not be properly ordered in our partner’s life; that it would not be a true priority. In a relationship, both people must agree about how to prioritize their lives. God should be number one and Family (relationships, marriage, children, and other family) should be number two. Everything else comes after that. Within a relationship, an individual may feel that the other person does not equally understand and value the foundational structure of a family in the eyes of God, namely, what True love is or the importance of death to self to exalt another. It is imperative that all healthy relationships are properly prioritized and do not come secondary to anything of this world, aside from a relationship with God.
WHAT IS LOVE?
This can be explained by St. John Paul II’s description and definition of what love is, as stated in his Apostolic Letter:
The fact that man “created as man and woman” is the image of God means not only that each of them individually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a “unity of the two” in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one divine life. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God through the unity of the divinity, exist as persons through the inscrutable divine relationship. Only in this way can we understand the truth that God in himself is love (cf. 1 Jn 4:16).St. John Paul II
Our earthly understanding of love has been shaped by both the love and hurt we have received throughout our lives. Because we have all been hurt, our human understanding of love is incomplete. Our wounds do not allow us to truly give and receive love as God describes it.
Many insecurities do not allow us to receive love in a proper way. These insecurities, however, do not define us as a person and are not permanent parts of our lives. Our wounds and insecurities did not exist when we were created by God. They are a result of past hurts and wounds, which all heal with time.
St. John Paul II describes love in this way; “…that man only finds fulfillment when he lives in a relationship of mutual self-giving, living not for himself, but for the other person.” He also says, “A human being, whether male or female, is a person”, and therefore, “the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake”; and at the same time this unique and unrepeatable creature “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.” St. John Paul II stated that, “…man does not completely realize this essence [the essence of love]. He realizes it only by existing with someone’ – and even more deeply and completely – by existing for someone.” He talks about how we were not created to be independent creatures quoting Genesis 2:18, “It is not good for man to be alone.” St. John Paul II continues to explain this Bible verse by saying at the point of creation, man was not actually alone. He was surrounded by many different animals and creatures, yet none were like him. Because man was the only one that had the ability to think and love, he was not able to fully love through a complete gift of self. There was no other human with a soul to receive the gift. In response to Adam’s solitude, God creates another human person, Eve, to be his wife. Adam was able to give the gift of life to Eve, from a rib taken from his own body. From this point forward, he was able to live out the law of self-gift and begin to truly love. The common theme throughout St. John Paul II’s description of love is not living for oneself, but living for the other and that love is the gift of self.
During a meeting, a priest from Pure in Heart was explaining a part of Theology of the Body. He was explaining the concept of love, through talking about death and life. He explained that in order to understand love, we need to understand that from death comes life. The first example that the priest spoke about was relationships and marriage. Prior to any relationship, each person has his or her own independent life. Once those two people enter into a relationship, each person must then put the desires of the other person in front of his or her own desires. He described that as death to self and death to his or her own personal desires. From this death to self-desires, comes the life of the relationship and the love. Once that couple is married and chooses to have a child, this process happens once again. When the child is conceived, the couple’s relationship “without children” then dies, and what is born is a child and a new type of love and relationship between the married couple and between the parents and child. The most incredible thing is that the priest broke this concept down to the biological level. He said that when creating life, the sperm from the male and egg from the female must unite to create life. In order for a human life to begin to develop, the sperm must die and the egg must die. They no longer exist as sperm and egg. Thus the body biologically prepares for the potential of creation of life, which is only brought to completion through the infusion of the soul, by God, who gives life and soul to the child. The priest’s final explanation of understanding love and life through death was by reminding us how Jesus died on the cross. From His death came our eternal life.
Death to self is completely necessary in order for the life of the relationship to blossom. In order for there to be a relationship, each person must die to their own independence. They need to be considerate of the thoughts and feelings of the other person. We are so often tremendously hurt by the failure of achieving this concept. Many times people can be extremely independent and there may seem to be no consideration for the thoughts or feelings of the other individual. We must remember to love and accept that each person needs alone time to grow, reflect, and to breath, but it cannot become an extreme between the couple.
It is imperative to try, at all times, to be in the moment and present to each other. Narcissism is shown in our society by our excessive use of phones and social media. We so often carry our phones around wherever we go. We have become so connected to it that it seems to have become a life source for many. We are so consumed with our own lives, responding to texts, Facebook posts, checking news, sports, etc. Why do we do that when Jesus Christ should be our source of life and the Bible should be the text which we should rely upon? How different our society would be if we were not so narcissistic and into ourselves. How amazing would it be if others felt that we were one hundred percent present in our love and life, and they felt truly valued and important. How much richer our friendships and relationships would be if we were not so self-consumed. This is something that our culture has made acceptable, but it has taken so much away from our ability to fully love, be present, and show others how important they are in our lives.
With the expectation of a partner dying to oneself and his or her own independence in order for a relationship to properly blossom and grow, we are posed with a powerful question. If we are asking the person to die to himself or herself, are we willing to die to ourselves? And what would death to ourselves look like?” This mind blowing question immediately brings clarity to all proper expectations within a relationship.
In a relationship, death to self means dying to choices that benefit only one person involved. Often we desire these choices because they will provide affirmation or a sense of value, to compensate for past failures, wounds, and hurts. We must love without expectations of our partner; however, there must be a mutual commitment to vulnerability and a desire to spend time together and grow in love of God and love for one another. Love is a gift. A gift is something that is given, not taken. Love cannot be taken from another; it must freely be given.
One of our culture’s most intense debates is the concept of a woman as a stay at home mom vs. having a career. One must have an open heart and view both sides objectively, keeping in view what God has taught us about the True value and role of a man as a father, a woman as a mother, and family as a whole, through the Bible. One must completely open up his or her heart to God, keeping an open mind. Ultimately we all seek Truth and peace. The Apostolic Letter leads to a conclusion that is viewed by society as oppressive and chauvinistic, yet in reality is ultimately one of the most empowering, liberating conclusions, essentially placing women above all others throughout the world. The concept of a wife and mother staying home to raise the children relates directly to having a properly ordered life. Men that desire a woman to stay at home and raise the family are often challenged by society, stating a woman’s career must be their priority. So often is the case that the relationship, family, and children come secondary after the woman’s independence; whether that be career or other self-desires. True Godly fulfillment within a marriage can only be achieved if through both the woman and man’s actions, God and family always came before the career and self fulfillment. Both man and woman serve a distinctly different role within the structure of the family, as defined through St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter.
DIGNITY OF WOMAN
All women are an incredible creation from God. Although we are all made in the image and likeness of God, women have the special gift of also being a clear reflection of the Queen of the Universe, our beautiful blessed Mother, Mary Most Holy. With all women reflecting the beauty of Holy Mary, only then can we truly explain the admiration and respect that all women deserve. In his Apostolic Letter, St. John Paul II talks about women and Holy Mary and states that the dignity and vocation of woman, which was instilled by God at the point of creation, does not change, regardless of the “…cultural context in which she lives, and independent… of her spiritual, psychological and physical characteristics.” Throughout the world, many cultures have developed their own standards and expectations for family structures. Throughout history, cultures have made adaptations to what is “acceptable” and what is not. St. John Paul II explains that when viewing women, we must not look to anything except for the beginning of creation, to fully appreciate the true importance of a woman. There is only one True culture and that is the culture of God. How peaceful and beautiful would the world be if we all understood and lived by this simple concept.
To describe true love and life the Apostolic Letter explained how we are all created in the image and likeness of God. We are given the beautiful example of the Holy Family. As human beings, when we are married, we have an incredible opportunity to take part in something that is the basis of creation. When we were created, God first created man. God then created woman. God created both with an eternal soul and in the image and likeness of God. Someday, when we have an opportunity to bring life into this world with our spouse, we too, with the help of God, get to act as God. We get to help create life. We get to help create a soul. We get to help create a human being, in the image and likeness of God. How incredible is that? What a beautiful gift!
There is no more important job in the world than to create life. The most incredible feat within the history of the world was that Mary, through the help of God, carried Jesus who is God. A human being carried God in her womb. All of salvation rested upon Mary’s openness to accept the will of God, give birth to, and raise Jesus. From birth to death, Mary raised Jesus and the salvation of the world rested upon his shoulders. As parents someday, what would we do if all the salvation of the world rested upon giving birth to and raising our child? Would our priorities be different? Would we look at our vocations as parents differently?
In the Apostolic Letter, St. John Paul II speaks about Motherhood. He talked about how Mary bore Jesus and she, through faith, shared in the amazing mystery of Jesus’ giving his life for our salvation. The faith of both the mother and son need to be so extremely strong as she stands at the foot of his Cross, while He is dying for our sins and our eternal life. While reading this, a passage from the Divine Mercy Chaplet came into memory; “O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fountain of Mercy for us, I trust in you!” From the “self-emptying” of Jesus’ Blood and Water comes eternal life for all of humanity. Then what was illuminated by the light of Christ was the most beautiful comparison. At the time of childbirth, the womb of a mother gushes forth blood and water, from which also comes life and an eternal soul. As a mother, there is no greater gift in the world to be able to share in the pain and agony of the passion of Jesus Christ, to bring life into this world. Jesus, I trust in you.
THE CONNECTIONS: TYING IT ALL TOGETHER ON A PERSONAL NOTE
Only God could align such an incredibly powerful series of events, leading up to the point of this writing. As I continued to pray and reflect, this story tied together in such a beautiful way where God’s hand can be seen in every detail throughout my adult life, tying together everything from my marriage, divorce, annulment, meeting Shalom, my trip to Poland, founding JESUS aCROSS the Border, my trip to Portugal, and entering into and out of relationships that truly challenged my faith, prompting me to question and develop a more true, complete, solid foundation of what a healthy relationship should look like, what the role of a man and woman looks like within a marriage, and what a family structure should look like, as defined by God himself. I am also astounded by the direct connection with St. John Paul II and Holy Mary, Our Lady of Fatima. The blessings and miracles that have happened in my life through the teaching, readings, and life of St. John Paul II are beyond explanation.
The first amazing component of this story has to do with my discovery of this Apostolic Letter which was written by St. John Paul II, and immediately spoke directly to my heart. This Apostolic Letter was written in 1987 during what is called a Marian year and I discovered it in, which was the first Marian year since 1987. A Marian year is a year that is decided upon by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church that is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. 2017 was named a Marian year because it was the 100 year anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima. I had an opportunity to visit Fatima, to kneel and pray in front of the actual Our Lady of Fatima statue in Fatima, on Ash Wednesday during March of 2017. Prior to my trip to Portugal, I didn’t know much about Our Lady of Fatima and her focus on family. I also did not know of the amazing connections between St. John Paul II and Our Lady of Fatima.
For those that don’t know much about St. John Paul II, he is the saint that is most closely related to love, relationships, sexuality, family, and young adults. His writings and teaching on families came during the midst of the sexual revolution of the world, beginning in the 1960’s prior to his appointment as Pope and continuing through his Papacy in the 1970’s, 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s. During the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, society had starting attacking family life and the value of family through the introduction of birth control, acceptance of sex outside of marriage, and openness to same-sex relationships. St. John Paul II’s writings have had such an incredible impact on demonstrating the importance of family and how it should be valued within the world today.
St. John Paul II was also the Pope that instituted World Youth Day, an event which changed my life forever. Much of my life and healing has been through what I believe are miracles from St. John Paul II. I was able to visit his homeland, Poland – the land of mercy – during the Year of Mercy. I attended World Youth Day, which he had instituted decades before, and spent time with the Pope on the date that my annulment became finalized. I was also able to spend time in front of the actual Image of Divine Mercy; the image which was related to my final most powerful connection to Motherhood and the Passion of Jesus Christ in front of Blessed Sacrament before I started writing this letter.
St. John Paul II also healed my life through his teachings of chastity from Theology of the Body, through the Pure in Heart Catholic young adult organization. For those that have not had much of a chance to explore his life, it would greatly be worth your while. St. John Paul II had such beautiful relationships with women and a love and admiration for women. Many of his writings focus on the importance of women within our world today. He referred to his mother as “the soul of home”. He also had powerful, beautiful, and rich relationships with other women, especially Our Blessed Mother.
Prior to my trip to Portugal to visit Our Lady of Fatima, I decided to dive deeper and learn more about the apparitions of Mary. Two things stand out to me about these apparitions, which ties all of this together, from difficult discussions about family and vocations, to me finding this Apostolic Letter. The first thing that stood out is this quote from Fr. Shenan Boquet that I found from May 13, 2017:
Today the universal Church remembers and celebrates the 100th Anniversary of the miraculous events at Fatima, recalling the wondrous appearance of Our Heavenly Mother and the life-giving message she brought. In considering the meaning of Our Lady’s message as it pertains to us today, I am reminded of something Sister Lucia wrote in a letter to Cardinal Caffarra, from Our Lady: “[T]he final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid, she added, because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue… however, Our Lady has already crushed its head.]”Fr. Shenan Boquet
Our Lady revealed that the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Clearly, in our culture and society today, family is under tremendous attack.
The second thing that stands out to me is this incredible event that occurred, tying Saint John Paul II to Our Lady of Fatima. There were three secrets revealed by Our Lady of Fatima. Two of the secrets were revealed immediately, but the Our Lady told Lucia not to disclose the third secret. Finally, on May 13, 2000, the third secret of Fatima was revealed. This secret was that Our Lady had shown her a vision of the Holy Father (the Pope) being killed with other religious priests and lay people. This secret was revealed in 2000. The most amazing part of this was that nineteen years before the secret was released, on May 13, 1981, the anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady of Fatima, there was an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. The Pope was shot and critically wounded. The assassin shot the pope in the abdomen and perforated his colon and small intestine multiple times. On the way to the hospital, the pope lost consciousness. Even though the two bullets missed his arteries and abdominal aorta, he lost nearly three-quarters of his blood. He underwent five hours of surgery to treat his wounds. Surgeons performed a colostomy, temporarily rerouting the upper part of the large intestine to let the damaged lower part heal. When he briefly regained consciousness before being operated on, he instructed the doctors not to remove his Brown Scapular during the operation. The pope later stated that Our Lady of Fátima helped keep him alive throughout his ordeal. Pope John Paul II said, “For in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet.”
Because the Pope credits Our Lady of Fatima with saving his life, the actual bullet from this assignation attempt is placed in the crown of the Our Lady of Fatima statue, which I saw when I went to Fatima. With everything that the Pope wrote about of love, relationships, and families after his assassination, this assassination attempt was a direct attack on family.
As I read the Pope’s Apostolic Letter The Dignity and Vocation of Women, it spoke my heart and expressed my heart in a way that my own words could not express. The Apostolic Letter is related to one of the most difficult challenges we face in the world today; the structure of family and value of the vocation of a woman as a mother.
Pope John Paul II’s legacy is defined by his understanding of family, love, and life. Had the Pope been assassinated, he would not have been able to complete all of these works, therefore not being able to share the Truth on family, love and relationships. Our Lady of Fatima protected his life. By doing so she placed her mantle over family life, love, and relationships. Our Lady said that the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. This assassination attempt was literally an attack on family. Our world was mere millimeters from losing Pope John Paul II whose Truth in writings has provided a foundation and clearer understanding of family love. The Truth that he shares from God defies what society and culture presents to us as acceptable.
I know that through my own words I was still not able to convey these thoughts in the way I would have liked to, but when you read the Apostolic Letter it explains it so clearly and succinctly. When you understand God’s respect for women, you will be able to understand even one of the most difficult debates in society about the freedom of women. When choosing freedom in the eyes of the world, each woman essentially forgoes her true freedom and sets distinct limitations on her capability of achieving her highest potential as a woman. If success is gauged through the perspective of society, the dignity and value of women is lost by trying to eliminate differences between men and women, when in reality the only true equality is inequality and the appreciation that God has created each one of us in the image and likeness of Himself. We all have immense value as we have been created by God. God holds women in such esteem and high regard. Many may not believe this or understand this, but this Apostolic Letter can describe Truth better than any person ever could in his or her own words. This perspective has nothing to do with trying to take away independence, be oppressive, or be controlling. It is quite the contrary, where this perspective liberates woman from the shackles of societal views and limitations.