As women, we are told that we must be beautiful, intelligent, artistic, refined and emotionally mature. We must know how to lead without being domineering and have it all together all the time. Our makeup should never smear, and our hair is never frizzy.
When the world insinuates this is what we need to be in order for someone to acknowledge the essential dignity and relevance of our womanhood, do we just capitulate? Coming from a girl with explosively curly hair, two surgically-scarred knees and a serious deficiency in drawing stick figures, there had better be more to this. Thankfully, Pope St. John Paul II has something else to say.
A hundred years after his birth, it’s clear that John Paul II’s life and pontificate left a permanent mark on the Church. As we turn to this holy father during May, the month of Our Lady, it is particularly fitting to contemplate his reflections on womanhood. John Paul II chose as his papal motto totus tuus. “Totally Yours.” That is, he consecrated his papacy to a woman, Our Blessed Mother, because he understood her pivotal role in the life and the heart of the Church. Similarly, John Paul II rejoiced in, elevated and gave thanks for the role of all women in the world. In reflecting with John Paul II on the true meaning of our femininity, we can rediscover a profound appreciation for the unique, unrepeatable women God has created us to be.
In fact, the pope wrote a whole apostolic letter in 1988 called Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the Dignity of Women”). He understood the feminine role in the Church as beautiful, essential and worthy of the deepest respect, and he proclaimed that truth throughout his papacy. Now I could attempt to wax poetic, or I could just let his words soak into your hearts — because, let’s be real: He said it better than I could.
Who you are
The pope wants to tell you directly: You have a genius. You are genius. Your genius is not because you are Einstein; it is because you are a woman. It is because of your unique capacity to see people and to serve people with love. The Church needs your genius.
“It is thus my hope, dear sisters, that you will reflect carefully on what it means to speak of the ‘genius of women.’ … Necessary emphasis should be placed on the ‘genius of women,’ not only by considering great and famous women of the past or present, but also those ordinary women who reveal the gift of their womanhood by placing themselves at the service of others in their everyday lives. For in giving themselves to others each day women fulfil their deepest vocation. Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them. In this way the basic plan of the Creator takes flesh in the history of humanity and there is constantly revealed, in the variety of vocations, that beauty-not merely physical, but above all spiritual-which God bestowed from the very beginning on all, and in a particular way on women” (“Letter to Women,” No. 10, 12).
What you bring
You have a unique womanly capacity for sensitivity, strength and holiness. Your feminine witness is a gift to the Church. You teach others what it means to live in relationship with Christ.
“From the beginning of Christ’s mission, women show to him and to his mystery a special sensitivity which is characteristic of their femininity. … Holy women are an incarnation of the feminine ideal; they are also a model for all Christians … an example of how the Bride must respond with love to the love of the Bridegroom” (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 16; 27).
You are also called to be a mother. Every woman, single, consecrated or married, has a share in spiritual motherhood, and that motherhood breathes life into your corner of the world, big or small.
“The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way — precisely by reason of their femininity…” (Mulieris Dignitatem, No. 30).
Who you are not
In a world that champions diversity, too many women believe that they have to be more like men to be successful. That is a lie. You are not a man. You do not have to be like a man. Listen, ladies: As a woman who can throw a spiral in heels and knock out 60 push-ups in a skirt, I’m not talking about stereotypes one way or the other, and I’m not negating the ways in which women can “compete” with men. I simply repeat: You do not have to be like a man, and your womanhood does not make you one fragment less worthy than a man. Being a strong woman does not amount to being less “feminine” and more “masculine.” That would be a rejection of womanhood and a denial of the essential dignity of your identity as a woman. Being a strong woman means embracing the fullness of femininity: true femininity. The world is richer with you in it, a richness that John Paul II praised again and again.
“As most women themselves point out, equality of dignity does not mean ‘sameness with men.’ This would only impoverish women and all of society, by deforming or losing the unique richness and the inherent value of femininity. In the Church’s outlook, women and men have been called by the Creator to live in profound communion with one another, with reciprocal knowledge and giving of self, acting together for the common good with the complementary characteristics of that which is feminine and masculine” (“Letter to the Secretary General of the Fourth World Conference on Women of the United Nations,” No. 3).
You are worth celebrating
While society may idolize an incomplete and reductive vision of the feminine ideal, John Paul II understood that perfection is not what constitutes a woman. Time and again, he gave thanks for the singular beauty and unique contributions of each feminine vocation.
“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, 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” (“Letter to Women,” No. 2).
This truth is powerful. Society would not be the same without you. Your family would not be the same without you. The Church would not be the same without you. You are treasured. That is the truth of what it means to be a woman.
As John Paul II wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem, “Therefore the Church gives thanks for each and every woman … for ‘perfect’ women and for ‘weak’ women — for all women as they have come forth from the heart of God in all the beauty and richness of their femininity; as they have been embraced by his eternal love” (,No. 31).
May his words of gratitude awaken in your heart a renewed awareness of the truth of your identity and the gift of your femininity.
Maria Mellis is a high school English teacher in Clarkston, Michigan, as well as a pianist and parish music director. She has spent time living and teaching in Poland and loves to bake, to play soccer and volleyball, and to write poetry in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. She is passionate about the daily opportunity that each one of us has to encounter God in the most ordinary of moments and is continually inspired by the incredible teens she has the privilege to teach.