“Thank you, women who are mothers!
“… Thank you, women who are wives!
“... Thank you, women who are daughters and women who are sisters!
“... Thank you, women who work!
“... Thank you, consecrated women!
“... 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.”
In his 1995 “Letter to Women,” Pope St. John Paul II thus illustrated the different vocations and walks of life that women are called to, celebrating them and giving thanks for them at the same time. Women, the Church teaches, may be called to marriage, motherhood, work, consecration, or religious life — but we are all called to live out what he called “the feminine genius,” following in Mary’s footsteps by “putting [ourselves] at God’s service” and, thereby, “put[ting ourselves] at the service of others: a service of love” (10).
This spring, two new books celebrated the diversity of this feminine genius by sharing women’s stories of their struggles, inspirations, and triumphs in living out their callings as Catholic women. A Place to Belong: Letters From Catholic Women (Pauline Books & Media) is edited by Corynne Staresinic, founder and director of The Catholic Woman. Letters To Women: Embracing The Feminine Genius In Everyday Life (Tan Books) is edited by Chloe Langr, host of the “Letters to Women” podcast.
These books include letters from stay-at-home moms, work-outside-the-home moms, married women without children, moms who have given birth and moms who have adopted, religious sisters, consecrated virgins, young women who are called to marriage but have not yet married, women from the United States and women from other countries, women of different races, women from different economic backgrounds, women with chronic health conditions or disabilities…
In short, these books illustrate the countless ways in which women live out the feminine genius every day. Here are a few themes their letters highlight.
The Feminine Genius Belongs in Every Profession
Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) wrote in “The Ethos of Women’s Professions”:
There is no profession which cannot be practised by a woman[…] The participation of women in the most diverse professional disciplines could be a blessing for the entire society[…] Every profession in which woman’s soul comes into its own and which can be formed by woman’s soul is an authentic woman’s profession. (Essays on Woman 49-57)
Accordingly, these books feature letters written by women in a variety of professions, and in both secular and Catholic organizations. In A Place to Belong, Fabiola Garza writes about her work as a character artist at Disney:
As I drew closer to God, I feared that I would have to stop making art that wasn’t explicitly religious. But he didn’t ask me to do that. I can draw Saint John Paul II and Mickey Mouse. The state of my soul and my care for others are what’s most important. (62)
Another creative, Anna Camacho (owner of CORDA, a Catholic candle company), believes that women are specifically called to creativity, whether in creative professions or not. “After all,” she writes in Letters to Women, “the truth that God has given women the immense privilege and responsibility to create is written into our very bodies and on our hearts” (84).
Sister Damien Marie Savino, FSE, Ph.D., offers her perspective as a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist who is also a scientist, pointing out the unique ways women can contribute to science:
Gradually the Lord guided me to see that I had something special to offer as a woman-engineer. Because of women’s unique capacity for relationship and integration, women can soften the hard edge of engineering design and process. We have the potential, as Saint John Paul II puts it, to put a human face on engineering, to safeguard creation from the inside out, from the heart, as a “service of love.” We bring warmth and humanity to situations marred by cold, utilitarian motivations. (A Place to Belong 97)
Writing about a different type of work, blogger and NFP advocate Emily Frase describes her discernment and transition from being a working mom to a stay-at-home mom: “That I had made the right decision wasn’t a question[…] It hadn’t occurred to me that just making the right decision wasn’t enough, that I would now have to own it and give an authentic and joyful witness to a world that saw my choice as a waste and a shame” (Letters to Women 158). She says that whether God calls a mom to work a traditional job or to stay home with her children full time, she will be “stretched […] and tested at the same time [that she will be fulfilled and blessed]” (159).
After all, our vocations and callings lead us to holiness — which means that we will find a cross to carry along the way. Indeed, immediately after Frase’s letter, JoAnna Wahlund (author of The Catholic Working Mom’s Guide to Life) ends her letter to working moms, “Keep your eyes on the cross because following Jesus will keep you on the right path” (Letters to Women 165).
The Feminine Genius Enhances Leadership
Elise Crawford Gallagher, president of marketing agency RINGLET and co-founder and co-president of Catholic Women in Business (disclaimer: I work with Elise at Catholic Women in Business), believes that her role as a business leader and entrepreneur is a way in which she lives out her spiritual maternity. In A Place to Belong, she writes that as a college student studying abroad in Rome and discerning religious life, she heard “a small, quiet voice speak to [her] heart, ‘You are my little mother’” (79). This voice, she says, led her to her vocation as a wife and mother — but also to entrepreneurship.
What an illustration of the unique ways the feminine genius can enhance leadership! After all, as Pope St. John Paul II writes, “The motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the Gospel, is […] not only ‘of flesh and blood’: it expresses a profound ‘listening to the word of the living God’ and a readiness to ‘safeguard’ this Word, which is ‘the word of eternal life’ (cf. Jn 6:68)” (Mulieris Dignitatem 19, emphasis in original). As spiritual mothers, all women are called to listen to God’s Word and bring it into the world.
FOCUS missionary Tracie Lynn Thiabult writes a letter directed to women who are unsure of how to bring the Word into the world, saying that key to sharing our faith is relationship: with Christ and with others. “Everyone needs to be invested in, to be loved, known, and cared for whether they know it or not,” she writes in Letters to Women (35). The feminine genius is uniquely suited to this type of leadership: the type that loves, knows, and cares for others, leading them to Christ through relationship.
In another beautiful example of feminine leadership, Shanel Adams, founder of Progressionista, describes her leadership style as aligning with St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Little Way.” She was reluctant to be a leader but found that God was calling her to be one, anyway. So, she found her own form of leadership in her relationship with St. Thérèse: “Moments of big speeches and media interviews occur,” she writes in A Place to Belong, “but much of my work involves little roses: lifting boxes of books, cooking a meal for a board meeting at my home, and promising parents that their daughters will be just fine” (133).
Mary Is Our Model
Many women wrote of Mary in these books, which makes sense, as she is meant to be our guide both as Christians and as women. After all, John Paul II wrote that “the Church sees in Mary the highest expression of the ‘feminine genius’ and she finds in her a source of constant inspiration” (“Letter to Women” 10, emphasis in original).
Worship leader and songwriter Sarah Kroger writes in A Place to Belong that when she is “consumed by fear,” she looks to Mary as “the world’s first true worship leader,” whose “entire life was a song that pointed to her Son” (152). “She leads us directly to Jesus’ Sacred Heart, [and] whether or not you’re a worship leader, all women have a unique calling and ability to lead people to the Heart of Christ.”
Similarly: “She is the star that never leaves me, the presence that is always by my side, guiding me over and over back to her Son when I run,” writes Jacque Anderson, a nonprofit professional and podcast host, in Letters to Women (50). She describes Marian consecration as igniting “a fiery, passionate, and deep love for Jesus” in her heart (49).
Emily Fossier, meanwhile, whose letter describes her struggle with depression as a mother, looks to Mary to guide her motherhood:
I now see that the model mother is not a pop-culture celebrity or social media star but a humble handmaid who lived two thousand years ago. When we embrace Mary as our Mother, she instructs us how to boldly reclaim our femininity and model receptivity[…] I no longer want to be a perfect mother, I want to be a holy one. A holy mother simply prays and sacrifices, and the more she sacrifices the more she loves. Isn’t that our universal calling as Christians no matter our vocation? (A Place to Belong 187)
Alexa Hyman, a single mother who works in financial services and volunteers to mentor women facing unplanned pregnancies, also writes of relying on Mary — in her case, during her own unplanned pregnancy: “I must have prayed the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary a hundred times, aching to understand Mary’s ‘yes.’ How did you do it? How did you brave the scrutiny? How did you tell your family? How were you so full of trust?” (A Place to Belong 192).
There are so many more themes I could share from these two books, filled with the wisdom of a beautifully diverse group of women, but I’ll end with a quote from Lizzy Grace Dowd, a writer and spina bifida advocate:
Give yourself permission to be freed from another woman’s calling; it was made for her, and you alone were made for yours. Never forget that you are a unique person too. Rest in the hope of his garden. There you can love courageously, live abundantly, and bloom gloriously. (Letters to Women 74)