February 23, 2014
On August 15, 1988, Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem - The Dignity and Vocation of Women.

The title is apt, and encompasses a question many of us have: what does it mean to be a woman, and does it really matter? The Holy Father explores the beautiful role of Mary, how women are made in the image and likeness of God, the message of Jesus to women, the roles of motherhood and virginity, the Church as the Bride of Christ, and the mission we have to love.

For the next seven weeks, we will post installments of the letter along with reflections.  The text of the document is taken from the Vatican's website, while supplementary material is taken from these two sources:
On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, Anniversary Edition, with Commentary by Genevieve Kineke (Boston : Pauline Books, 2013)

The Dignity and Vocation of Women, Twentieth Anniversary Edition (St. Anthony, MN. : Together!, 2007)

We hope you'll join us!


Venerable Brothers and dear Sons and Daughters,
Health and the Apostolic Blessing.

A sign of the times
1. THE DIGNITY AND THE VOCATION OF WOMEN - a subject of constant human and Christian reflection - have gained exceptional prominence in recent years. This can be seen, for example, in the statements of the Church's Magisterium present in various documents of the Second Vatican Council, which declares in its Closing Message: "The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at his moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling".1 This Message sums up what had already been expressed in the Council's teaching, specifically in the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes2 and in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity Apostolicam Actuositatem.3
Similar thinking had already been put forth in the period before the Council, as can be seen in a number of Pope Pius XII's Discourses4 and in the Encyclical Pacem in Terris of Pope John XXIII.5 After the Second Vatican Council, my predecessor Paul VI showed the relevance of this "sign of the times", when he conferred the title "Doctor of the Church" upon Saint Teresa of Jesus and Saint Catherine of Siena,6 and likewise when, at the request of the 1971 Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, he set up a special Commission for the study of contemporary problems concerning the "effective promotion of the dignity and the responsibility of women".7 In one of his Discourses Paul VI said: "Within Christianity, more than in any other religion, and since its very beginning, women have had a special dignity, of which the New Testament shows us many important aspects...; it is evident that women are meant to form part of the living and working structure of Christianity in so prominent a manner that perhaps not all their potentialities have yet been made clear".8
The Fathers of the recent Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (October 1987), which was devoted to "The Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the Church and in the World Twenty Years after the Second Vatican Council", once more dealt with the dignity and vocation of women. One of their recommendations was for a further study of the anthropological and theological bases that are needed in order to solve the problems connected with the meaning and dignity of being a woman and being a man. It is a question of understanding the reason for and the consequences of the Creator's decision that the human being should always and only exist as a woman or a man. It is only by beginning from these bases, which make it possible to understand the greatness of the dignity and vocation of women, that one is able to speak of their active presence in the Church and in society.
This is what I intend to deal with in this document. The Post-Synodal Exhortation, which will be published later, will present proposals of a pastoral nature on the place of women in the Church and in society. On this subject the Fathers offered some important reflections, after they had taken into consideration the testimonies of the lay Auditors - both women and men - from the particular Churches throughout the world.
The Marian Year
2. The last Synod took place within the Marian Year, which gives special thrust to the consideration of this theme, as the Encyclical Redemptoris Mater points out.9 This Encyclical develops and updates the Second Vatican Council's teaching contained in Chapter VIII of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium. The title of this chapter is significant: "The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and of the Church". Mary - the "woman" of the Bible (cf. Gen 3:15;Jn 2:4; 19:16) - intimately belongs to the salvific mystery of Christ, and is therefore also present in a special way in the mystery of the Church. Since "the Church is in Christ as a sacrament... of intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race",10 the special presence of the Mother of God in the mystery of the Church makes us think of the exceptional link between this "woman" and the whole human family. It is a question here of every man and woman, all the sons and daughters of the human race, in whom from generation to generation a fundamental inheritance is realized, the inheritance that belongs to all humanity and that is linked with the mystery of the biblical "beginning": "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them"(Gen 1: 27).11
This eternal truth about the human being, man and woman - a truth which is immutably fixed in human experience - at the same time constitutes the mystery which only in "the Incarnate Word takes on light... (since) Christ fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear", as the Council teaches.12 In this "revealing of man to himself", do we not need to find a special place for that "woman" who was the Mother of Christ? Cannot the "message" of Christ, contained in the Gospel, which has as its background the whole of Scripture, both the Old and the New Testament, say much to the Church and to humanity about the dignity of women and their vocation?
This is precisely what is meant to be the common thread running throughout the present document, which fits into the broader context of the Marian Year, as we approach the end of the second millennium after Christ's birth and the beginning of the third. And it seems to me that the best thing is to give this text the style and character of a meditation.
Union with God
3. "When the time had fully come, God sent forth his son, born of woman". With these words of his Letter to the Galatians (4:4), the Apostle Paul links together the principal moments which essentially determine the fulfilment of the mystery "pre-determined in God" (cf. Eph 1:9). The Son, the Word one in substance with the Father, becomes man, born of a woman, at "the fullness of time". This event leads to the turning point of man's history on earth, understood as salvation history. It is significant that Saint Paul does not call the Mother of Christ by her own name "Mary", but calls her "woman": this coincides with the words of the Proto-evangelium in the Book of Genesis (cf. 3:15). She is that "woman" who is present in the central salvific event which marks the "fullness of time": this event is realized in her and through her.
Thus there begins the central event, the key event in the history of salvation: the Lord's Paschal Mystery. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to reconsider it from the point of view of man's spiritual history, understood in the widest possible sense, and as this history is expressed through the different world religions. Let us recall at this point the words of the Second Vatican Council: "People look to the various religions for answers to those profound mysteries of the human condition which, today, even as in olden times, deeply stir the human heart: What is a human being? What is the meaning and purpose of our life? What is goodness and what is sin? What gives rise to our sorrows, and to what intent? Where lies the path to true happiness? What is the truth about death, judgment and retribution beyond the grave? What, finally, is that ultimate and unutterable mystery which engulfs our being, and from which we take our origin and towards which we move?"13 "From ancient times down to the present, there has existed among different peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which is present in the course of things and in the events of human life; at times, indeed, recognition can be found of a Supreme Divinity or even a Supreme Father".14
Against the background of this broad panorama, which testifies to the aspirations of the human spirit in search of God - at times as it were "groping its way" (cf. Acts 17: 27) - the "fullness of time" spoken of in Paul's Letter emphasizes the response of God himself, "in whom we live and move and have our being" (cf. Acts 17:28). This is the God who "in many and various ways spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days has spoken to us by a Son" (Heb 1:1-2). The sending of this Son, one in substance with the Father, as a man "born of woman", constitutes the culminating and definitive point of God's self-revelation to humanity. This self-revelation is salvific in character, as the Second Vatican Council teaches in another passage: "In his goodness and wisdom, God chose to reveal himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will (cf. Eph 1: 9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man has access to the Father in the Holy Spirit and comes to share in the divine nature (cf. Eph 2:18; 2 Pt 1:4)".15
A woman is to be found at the centre of this salvific event. The self-revelation of God, who is the inscrutable unity of the Trinity, is outlined in the Annunciation at Nazareth. "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High" - "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" - "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God... For with God nothing will be impossible" (cf. Lk 1: 31-37).16
It may be easy to think of this event in the setting of the history of Israel, the Chosen People of which Mary is a daughter, but it is also easy to think of it in the context of all the different ways in which humanity has always sought to answer the fundamental and definitive questions which most beset it. Do we not find in the Annunciation at Nazareth the beginning of that definitive answer by which God himself "attempts to calm people's hearts"?17 It is not just a matter here of God's words revealed through the Prophets; rather with this response "the Word is truly made flesh" (cf. Jn 1:14). Hence Mary attains a union with God that exceeds all the expectations of the human spirit. It even exceeds the expectations of all Israel, in particular the daughters of this Chosen People, who, on the basis of the promise, could hope that one of their number would one day become the mother of the Messiah. Who among them, however, could have imagined that the promised Messiah would be "the Son of the Most High"? On the basis of the Old Testament's monotheistic faith such a thing was difficult to imagine. Only by the power of the Holy Spirit, who "overshadowed" her, was Mary able to accept what is "impossible with men, but not with God" (cf. Mk 10: 27).
4. Thus the "fullness of time" manifests the extraordinary dignity of the "woman". On the one hand, this dignity consists in the supernatural elevation to union with God in Jesus Christ, which determines the ultimate finality of the existence of every person both on earth and in eternity. From this point of view, the "woman" is the representative and the archetype of the whole human race: she represents the humanity which belongs to all human beings, both men and women. On the other hand, however, the event at Nazareth highlights a form of union with the living God which can only belong to the "woman", Mary: the union between mother and son. The Virgin of Nazareth truly becomes the Mother of God.
This truth, which Christian faith has accepted from the beginning, was solemnly defined at the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.).18 In opposition to the opinion of Nestorius, who held that Mary was only the mother of the man Jesus, this Council emphasized the essential meaning of the motherhood of the Virgin Mary. At the moment of the Annunciation, by responding with her "fiat", Mary conceived a man who was the Son of God, of one substance with the Father. Therefore she is truly the Mother of God, because motherhood concerns the whole person, not just the body, nor even just human "nature". In this way the name "Theotókos" - Mother of God - became the name proper to the union with God granted to the Virgin Mary.
The particular union of the "Theotókos" with God - which fulfils in the most eminent manner the supernatural predestination to union with the Father which is granted to every human being (filii in Filio) - is a pure grace and, as such, a gift of the Spirit. At the same time, however, through her response of faith Mary exercises her free will and thus fully shares with her personal and feminine "I" in the event of the Incarnation. With her "fiat", Mary becomes the authentic subject of that union with God which was realized in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, who is of one substance with the Father. All of God's action in human history at all times respects the free will of the human "I". And such was the case with the Annunciation at Nazareth.
"To serve means to reign"
5. This event is clearly interpersonal in character: it is a dialogue. We only understand it fully if we place the whole conversation between the Angel and Mary in the context of the words: "full of grace".19 The whole Annunciation dialogue reveals the essential dimension of the event, namely, its supernatural dimension (***). Grace never casts nature aside or cancels it out, but rather perfects it and ennobles it. Therefore the "fullness of grace" that was granted to the Virgin of Nazareth, with a view to the fact that she would become "Theotókos", also signifies the fullness of the perfection of" what is characteristic of woman", of "what is feminine". Here we find ourselves, in a sense, at the culminating point, the archetype, of the personal dignity of women.
When Mary responds to the words of the heavenly messenger with her "fiat", she who is "full of grace" feels the need to express her personal relationship to the gift that has been revealed to her, saying: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord" (Lk 1:38). This statement should not be deprived of its profound meaning, nor should it be diminished by artificially removing it from the overall context of the event and from the full content of the truth revealed about God and man. In the expression "handmaid of the Lord", one senses Mary's complete awareness of being a creature of God. The word "handmaid", near the end of the Annunciation dialogue, is inscribed throughout the whole history of the Mother and the Son. In fact, this Son, who is the true and consubstantial "Son of the Most High", will often say of himself, especially at the culminating moment of his mission: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve" (Mk 10:45).
At all times Christ is aware of being "the servant of the Lord" according to the prophecy of Isaiah (cf. Is 42:1; 49:3, 6; 52:13) which includes the essential content of his messianic mission, namely, his awareness of being the Redeemer of the world. From the first moment of her divine motherhood, of her union with the Son whom "the Father sent into the world, that the world might be saved through him" (cf. Jn 3:17), Mary takes her place within Christ's messianic service.20 It is precisely this service which constitutes the very foundation of that Kingdom in which "to serve ... means to reign".21 Christ, the "Servant of the Lord", will show all people the royal dignity of service, the dignity which is joined in the closest possible way to the vocation of every person.
Thus, by considering the reality "Woman - Mother of God", we enter in a very appropriate way into this Marian Year meditation. This reality also determines the essential horizon of reflection on the dignity and the vocation of women. In anything we think, say or do concerning the dignity and the vocation of women, our thoughts, hearts and actions must not become detached from this horizon. The dignity of every human being and the vocation corresponding to that dignity find their definitive measure in union with God. Mary, the woman of the Bible, is the most complete expression of this dignity and vocation. For no human being, male or female, created in the image and likeness of God, can in any way attain fulfilment apart from this image and likeness.

Theotokos "signifies the fullness of the perfection of 'what is characteristic of woman,' of 'what is feminine'" (MD 5). Why does it matter that Mary is the mother of God, and that her son, Jesus, is both fully human and fully divine? What does it tell us about her and about our own call to motherhood? (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women Anniversary Edition, Genevieve Kineke, pg. 18)

God of creation, I ask for the grace to trust in what you have revealed through Holy Mother Church. Amidst the cacophony of the world, let me seek the stillness of soul that will allow me to penetrate your holy wisdom, which is the very grounding of my vocation. Despite the confusion that reigns in much of the contemporary world, let me be attentive to God's own truth, which is simple, edifying -- and liberating! Made in your image, I want to understand how you see me and what I must do to be holy in your sight. I humbly ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen (Ibid., pg. 8)

Take some time to find a picture of Our Lady that speaks to your heart, and put it in a place where you will see it often. Speak to her as your mother, and indicate your willingness to be led as her own precious child. (Ibid., pg. 8)

Please feel free to share your thoughts or questions.


  1. Union with God

    3 "When the time had fully come, God sent forth his son, born of woman". With these words of his Letter to the Galatians (4:4), the Apostle Paul links together the principal moments which essentially determine the fulfilment of the mystery "PRE-DETERMINED in God"


    4 The particular union of the "Theotókos" with God - which fulfils in the most eminent manner the supernatural PREDESTINATION to union with the Father which is granted to every human being (filii in Filio) - is a pure grace and, as such, a gift of the Spirit. At the same time, however, through her response of faith Mary exercises her free will and thus fully shares with her personal and feminine "I" in the event of the Incarnation.

    Thought it important to underscore the use of the differing terminology "predetermined" in speaking of God's ultimate salvific plan as opposed to the use of "predestination" in speaking of the union of the Theotokos's free will or fiat in God's ultimate salvific plan.

  2. Hi Matthew, thanks for the comment. I'd never considered the difference in terminology before. What do you think is the significance in using those two different words?

  3. Hey Tess.

    Sure. In reflection on the divine will by JP2 as pertaining to the Theotokos we can see in St. Paul's writings as well as others like Augustine a burgeoning of what the Council of Trent would refer to as a "hidden mystery." This having its culmination in the latter Thomistic doctrines in which the Catholic Church and JP2 have adopted at least in part. Important to note JP2 was a brilliant philosopher and writes from the Thomistic school of predestination or divine election as we can see here in his preface to this masterful work.

    It would be a very long exhortation to delve into the exact meanings of the numerous theological terms and schools that comprise divine election. What I personally see so far is a very organic and systematic choice in terminology either by purpose or even providence. On the one hand you can understand that which determined the fulfillment of the mystery "pre-determined in God" as a starting off point into and for the more personal and subtle "union of the "Theotókos" with God - which fulfils in the most eminent manner the supernatural predestination to union with the Father."

    I think the reason why we see this is because of the fact that the very nature of predestination is most fully realized in the Mother of God's assent to the divine will. Where Mary herself being predestined before all time and eternity undoes the divine rejection of Eve in her disobedience by the supreme act of obedience in her fiat. This of course has larger implications which JP2 shows us when applied to all women and men Mary being the most perfect of these.

    Great apostolic letter.

    1. It makes me think of the line in (I think it's the) Easter Vigil liturgy, "Oh happy fault of Adam".
      I like the phrase "divine election" though it, along with predestination are tricky to understand and easily misunderstood. For years I had a hard time with Mary, thinking that she was made perfect, that her holiness had less to do with her free yes than with her being chosen by God. In other words, God made her perfect and she just drifted through life.
      It's taken me a long time to let go of that bias against Our Lady. This letter was a big help along the way.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Matthew. I hope you read along with us as the weeks go on!

  4. Here's this first part of MD in my own words (because it doesn't make sense to me unless I do this):

    My first thought in reading this section of the letter was that femininity, at it's fullest and best, is one gigantic "YES" - meaning, we choose to be open and receptive to God, and then through Him, to others, just as Mary did. From our personal and unconditional yes - which is always asked of us, never forced upon us, as "Grace never casts nature aside or cancels it out, but rather perfects and ennobles it" - we gain union with God, just as Mary did from her fiat. What gets me is the thought that "what is characteristic of woman" or "what is feminine" is the "fullness of grace". Women (and men too?) were made to be grace-filled - and therein is where our personal dignity lies.

    One more thing - loved this:

    "service constitutes the very foundation of the Kingdom in which 'to serve….means to reign'. Christ, the "Servant of the Lord" will show all people the royal dignity of service, the dignity which is joined in the closest possible way to the vocation of every person."

    SO…femininity and service are linked, as is evident in Mary's choice of the word, handmaid. Yet there is dignity within service, not only for women, but for all people of every vocation.

    Hmmmm….I doubt many radical feminists would like these ideas, but they certainly do ring true for me.

    1. Sarah, you hit on some of the same phrases that struck me, particularly that what is feminine is full of grace. So many of the questions we discuss, when looked at in this light, certainly have very clear answers, eh? "Is this modest?" Well... does it add to, or detract from, your inborn grace? "I don't like pink and I don't know how to decorate. Am I still feminine?" Yes... because you are full of grace. Find how, in your life, through what you DO like to do and are good at, that grace is evident.
      I also like being reminded that grace perfects nature, it doesn't cancel it out. We can only ever be made more perfectly who we are meant to be. God doesn't want to diminish us or ignore who we are.
      Your comment about the radical feminists made me laugh, because it's true - ironically. Most liberals (and I'd hazard a guess that most radical feminists are also political liberals) believe in the goodness of "giving back", charitable giving, and volunteerism. Just seldom to the point of what true service is - denial of self!

    2. I love that - "I don't like pink and I don't know how to decorate. Am I still feminine? Yes…because you are full of grace. Find how, in your life, through what you DO like to do and are good at, that grace is evident". Well said Tess!!

  5. Yes. I will be keeping up with the letter for sure it's interesting to see what each person takes away from it. How certain words pop out for each person is cool thats the Holy Spirit at work in every member to bring us all to a deeper understanding using our own individual talents. For me its always the theological terms coming from that background they really pop out!



What is a woman? What does it mean to be feminine? There is softness and hardness, compassion and ferocity. There is contentment and adventure, freedom and service. We're conundrums, especially to ourselves, but we all, in some way, possess beauty, creativity, intuition and love. We were made for love, and we are loved, cellulite and all. Here we aim to show every woman the richness and beauty of her own femininity and explore current issues relating to women in our world. We also wish to share our own experiences - exploring the joys and challenges of stay-at-home moms and single professionals and everyone in between. Welcome! So glad you're here!


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