Some Reflections: On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, Apostolic Letter of Pope Saint John Paul II

The timeless words of the apostolic letter of Pope Saint John Paul II titled Mulieris Dignitatem, the Dignity and Vocation of Women, released on the Solemnity of the Assumption, August 15, in 1988, is well worth reflecting on during our times.  Relying mainly upon the Sacred Scriptures, the Saint explores the meaning of the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman “in the image and likeness of God.” Seeing the Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, as the central event of human history, the Mother of God is properly understood as she who was elevated to supernatural life by her union with God in Jesus.  This letter of the Saint looks at both the exalted humanity that conceived the Son of God, and the Divinity that revealed Itself to men and women “made in the image and likeness of God” as a unity of persons, the Blessed Trinity.

 Woman-Mother of God (Theotokos)

As Saint John Paul writes in Chapter 2 of The Dignity of Women, it is Saint Paul who links the Mother of Christ with the Genesis 3:15 account of “the woman” who crushed the head of the serpent, now known as the Immaculate Conception, by his words in Galatians 4:4: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman.”

“Thus there begins the central event, the key event in the history of salvation:  the Lord’s Paschal Mystery (MD 2:3).”  

What does this event mean for human beings?  The Saint, always sensitive to the searching of people of other religions, makes clear that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the response of God Himself to man’s searching.  “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 …. A woman is to be found at the center of this salvific event (MD 2:3).”

“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’?  [See Nostra aetate, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, 2].”

“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 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 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 for men, but not for God’ (Mulieris Dignitatem 2:3).”

Writes Pope Saint JPII: “[Mary] represents the humanity that belongs to all human beings, both men and women.  On the other hand, 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 …. 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.


“The particular union of the ‘Theotokos [Mother of God]’ – with God, which fulfills in the most eminent manner the supernatural predestination to union with the Father which is granted to every human being (filii in filio, sons in the Son) – 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.

“Therefore the fullness of grace that was granted to the Virgin of Nazareth, with a view to the fact that she would become ‘Theotokos (Mother of God)’ 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 (Mulieris Dignitatem 2:5).”

Behold the Handmaid of the Lord

The Annunciation event is a dialogue between God and this woman who is “full of grace.”  It is a dialogue between God the Father and His creature.  Mary’s response to God’s self-revelation as the Father of the divine Son Jesus Who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High” and Whose “kingdom will have no end (Luke 1:32-33)” takes expression as an act of humility, calling herself “the handmaid of the Lord (Luke 1:38).” 

The word “handmaid” was familiar to ancient Israel as a female servant whose task was to carefully watch the hands of her master for indications of his will.  Without the burden of speech, certain movements of the hands conveyed certain meanings to her.  Placing herself at the feet of her Master, Mary assumed the role of a servant in her acquiescence to the divine plan of God.  She would be a handmaid, a silent partner whose response would be immediate and fully cooperative.  Unlike her predecessor Eve, who refused to serve her God, Mary’s entire demeanor is one of service. 

The willingness to serve is seen also in the humanity of her divine Son, Who said of Himself, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve (Mk 10:45).”  Christ is the fulfillment of the “suffering servant” prophecies of Isaiah as the Messiah Who would be the Redeemer.  His kingship, as He said in the Gospel, “is not of this world (John 18:36).”

Mary’s willingness to serve, calling herself “the handmaid of the Lord,” places her in union with her Son’s messianic mission as Savior of the world.  She assumes this role in complete freedom.  It is this willingness to serve, and the kingly power of Christ that accompanies her, that sets her apart as “blessed among women (Luke 1:42)” and as the model for all men and women whose vocation is to follow in the footsteps of Christ. 

“Thus, by considering the reality of “Woman – Mother of God,” we enter in a very appropriate way into this [Marian] 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 fulfillment apart from this image and likeness (Mulieris Dignitatem II, 5).”

In the Beginning

The biblical “beginning” as recorded in the Genesis account of creation is, according to Saint Pope John Paul II and the Tradition of the Church,  “the revealed truth concerning man as the image and likeness of God (Mulieris Dignitatem III, 6):”

 “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:27).”

A later account in Genesis 2:18-25 describes the woman as taken “from the rib” of the man, who finds in her a “helper,” another “I” or person of equal value who will “help” him in his God-given task of subduing the earth.  Men and women are the only rational creatures, and are thus capable of subduing the earth.  Their companionship is the first marriage, capable of “being fruitful,” according to the divine command.  There is no inequality implied: however, there is a mystery to the existence of the woman that is difficult to translate from the original language.  Having been taken “from the rib” of the man, she is described as is – ‘issah:  “She shall be called woman [‘issah] because she was taken out of man [is] (Genesis 2:23).”

“In the unity of the two, man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist side by side or together, but they are also called to exist mutually, one for the other (Mulieris Dignitatem III: 8).”

In creating man in His image as male and female, each called to the total gift of self in service of the other, God reveals something about His own inner life as a unity of persons in the Trinity. The self-revelation of God Who created man “in His image and likeness” is seen in the marriage of the man and the woman, a marriage that is a unity of the woman and the man in mutual self-giving.  In the Annunciation we see as in a mirror the woman taken from the rib of man elevated to supernatural life in her union with Christ, particularly in her cooperation with His mission at the Cross where the Church is born from His wounded side.  It is here that her consent to serve, calling herself the “handmaid,” is fulfilled in the accomplishment of Christ’s messianic mission.

“The Father is greater than I (John 14:28).”

These words of our Lord may seem puzzling at first.  Is it simply a matter of Christ speaking from His humility, re-assuming His original and eternal act of obeisance as “the servant of the Lord?” Or is this also a glimpse into the essence of the Divinity as beyond all human comparisons?  Saint Pope John Paul II explains that the language of the Bible is of necessity anthropomorphic, meaning that it attributes human characteristics to God.  At the same time, since God created man “in His image and likeness,” God must resemble His creature in some way. 

However, “… the language of the Bible is sufficiently precise to indicate the limits of the ‘likeness,’ the limits of the ‘analogy.’ For biblical Revelation says that, while man’s ‘likeness’ to God is true, the ‘non-likeness’ which separates the whole of creation from the Creator is still more essentially true. Although man is created in God’s likeness, God does not cease to be for him the one ‘who dwells in unapproachable light’ (1 Timothy 6:16):  He is the ‘Different One,’ by essence the ‘totally Other.’”

“From the womb, before the dawn, I have begotten You (Psalm 110:3).”

“This characteristic of biblical language – its anthropomorphic way of speaking about God – points indirectly to the mystery of the eternal ‘generating’ which belong to the inner life of God.  Nevertheless, in itself this generating has neither masculine nor feminine qualities.  It is by nature totally divine.  It is spiritual in the most perfect way, since ‘God is Spirit’ (John 4:24) and possesses no property typical of the body, neither feminine nor masculine.  Thus even fatherhood in God is completely divine and free of the masculine bodily characteristics proper to human fatherhood.  In this sense the Old Testament spoke of God as a Father and turned to Him as a Father.  Jesus Christ – Who called God “Abba Father’ (Mark 14:36), and Who as the only-begotten and consubstantial Son placed this truth at the very center of His Gospel, thus establishing the norm of Christian prayer – referred to fatherhood in this ultracorporeal, superhuman and completely divine sense.  He spoke as the Son, joined to the Father by the eternal mystery of divine generation, and He did so while being at the same time the truly human Son of His Virgin Mother.”