POPE FRANCIS—A woman kissed Pope Francis’ hand as he greeted guests during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
I came across this quote from Pope Francis again yesterday, and it caused me to reflect on the gift of women in my own life,
We talk about whether they can do this or that: Can they be altar boys? Can they be lectors? About a woman as president of Caritas, but we don’t have a deep theology of women in the Church.
Thanks especially to the witness and influence of my wife and my daughters, I have discovered over the years in a much more profound manner the “splendor of truth” contained in what Bl. John Paul II called in his 1988 Apostolic Letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, ingenii muliebris, the “feminine genius.” That genius, the Pope argues, manifests itself in a great diversity of ways and it’s hard to cross-culturally name this or that personal characteristic as a uniquely feminine one. But, he says, there are some universally recognizable, God-given dispositions marked deep in the soul and body of each woman, and at the very core of that “mark” is the woman’s tender solicitude and loving concern for the personal dimensions of each human life — especially in its most weak and fragile state. Human life has been entrusted by God in a primal and particular way to the woman.
Let me offer four examples — two very simple examples of the soul-shaping epiphanies of the feminine genius in my own life, and then two examples from two acquaintances of mine.
1. Whenever we have a guest come to our home, my wife’s all-consuming passion is to make our home beautiful and welcoming. Flowers in the guest bedroom, fresh towels and scented candles in the guest bathroom, candles and flowers on the dining room table, and libations and hors d’oeuvres in plenteous supply. In St. Edith Stein’s essay,“The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace,” she argues that the “natural feminine concern for the right development of the beings surrounding her involves the creation of an ambiance of order and beauty conducive to their development.” That’s my wife.
2. Every weekday morning, my youngest daughter, as I drive off with my sons to drop them off at school, is relentlessly committed, whether it’s raining or cold, to standing at the end of our driveway to wave goodbye to us. Why? “Because I don’t want you to feel sad that you’re leaving home.” The boys are always puzzled, while I feel each time a deeper heartache as her tender love draws out from me something better. I am ever-more redeemed as a man, as a dad, each time I watch her wave to me in my rear view mirror.
3. A man I know who serves in the military was telling me with great pride about his eleven year old daughter’s many academic and sport achievements. In particular, he shared with me a story that, he said, illustrated a fundamental difference between his daughter and his sons.
For two years, she was the only girl to receive the highest academic achievement award in her grade. But this year she had to share the award with another girl. When I asked her if it was hard for her to not be top dog this year, she said, “No, but I’m excited that we get to get out of first period tomorrow and have donuts together!” She was more excited to share donuts with her friend! My boys? They’d be ticked and mope, just like their dad.
4. A priest I know ministers to the faithful who live on economically depressed rural farms, and he shared with me a powerful story I will paraphrase here.
I was called on one day to give last rites to a man who was dying of mouth cancer. His wife called me. He was a younger man, in his late 40s, and he and his wife had two children — a son in his late teens and a daughter in her mid teens. When I arrived at the farm house, the son was outside tinkering with a truck engine. I asked him, “Is your dad inside?” He said, “Yup.” I continued, “Don’t you want to come in while I anoint your father and pray with him?” He wouldn’t look at me, and said without emotion or hesitation, “Nope.” So I went inside. The man was in bed, in real pain, and his daughter was quietly weeping in the corner of the room. His wife stood over him with a strong and quiet look on her face. She said, “Thanks for coming, Father.” She turned to her husband, held his hand, and said with remarkable strength, “Father’s here to bless you.” Then she disappeared from the room.
I took my oils out, knelt next to his bed and began to pray. He was groaning in pain. Suddenly the door opened and the wife walked in with her son, dragging him by the arm. She pulled him next to his father and said, “Now you say goodbye to your father! Tell him you love him!” The boy began to sob and, on his knees next to his dad, he told him he loved him and said, “Goodbye, Dad” The room was filed with a feeling of solemnity. Even the angels would have stopped singing. The boy then got up and his mom walked him out of the room and closed the door.
I could never have done that. Only she could have. A mother’s love is fierce. Only she could break through his hardness, his fear and open his heart toward his father. As I anointed the man, I felt that I was offering a sacrament after witnessing a sacrament — the sacrament of married love, of a mother’s love that can soften the hardness of even the hardest man.
John Paul II expressed this mother’s genius well,
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. — Mulieris Dignitatem #12
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
So, men, today renew your gratitude for the women in your life who humanize you; who call forth from you a certain noble greatness; who remind you of the primacy of love; who proclaim by their very being that, before we are human-doings, we are human-beings created to be loved and to 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.. — Bl. John Paul II, Letter to Women #2
Here are the three feminine geniuses who brighten our domestic church…