Going against the prevailing custom of choosing biblical phrases to mark the papal insignia, John Paul II chose “Totus tuus” (I am completely yours, O Mary), a Marian supplication, as the motto of his papacy. And it is not just a motto that marks his insignia as pope. It has become as it were a credo that permeates the teachings and pastoral activities of the pope, giving his papacy a distinctive Marian character. His encyclicals and letters almost always have a reference to Mary and always ends with an invocation to the Mother of God. For the pope this deep Marian devotion “not only addresses a need of the heart, a sentimental inclination, but that it corresponds to the objective truth about the Mother of God . . . the new Eve, placed by God in close relation to Christ.”(Be not Afraid) Thus in every reflection and in every activity the Pope turns to her with admiration and respect. And when John Paul II reflected on the dignity and vocation of women (Mulieris Dignitatem) he once more turned his glance on this woman of the gospel which “all generations will call blessed”.
The pope looks on Mary the “woman” of Nazareth as the “archetype of humanity.” She is the figure of the church, the people of God, for she “precedes everyone on the path to holiness, and in her person, the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle.” Mary is called the new Eve, ‘the woman,” restored as woman was intended to be in the creation before the fall, through the redemption by Christ. Through her Son she received the “fullness of grace” which ennobled her total person including her femininity. Through her consent she became the Mother of God attaining for herself a union with God that exceeds all expectations - a union which in time, through the death and resurrection of Jesus is granted to every human being. And finall, in total self giving this “handmaid of the Lord” offered herself totally to the cause of the Kingdom by bringing Christ into the world - a service which she will continually affirm throughout her life.
This is what John Paul II refers to when he looks on Mary as the complete expression of the dignity and vocation of woman. Through her union with God, has has reached “the perfection of what is characteristic of woman and of what is feminine.” Thus in the eyes of the Pope, Mary is not just the pre-figurement of the new humanity redeemed and whose dignity is restored by Christ, but more specifically “Mary is the new beginning of the dignity and vocation of women, of each and every woman.”
The restoration of the dignity of all humanity in Christ exemplified by Mary brings us back to the creation of human being before the fall - the human being not yet disfigured by sin; the human being in the mind and intention of God when he created them.
“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.(Gen. 1;27-28)” Man is a person, male and female and “both are human beings to an equal degree and both are created in God’s image.”
In the second account of creation (Gen 2;4b ff.) this equality is affirmed when God not wishing that man remain alone (in biblical language this “aloness” is equivalent to death) created a helper suitable for himself from his rib. When man recognized woman he recognized her as “flesh of my flesh and bone of his bones” and for this “she shall be called woman (‘issah) because she was taken out of man (‘is).” This passage recognizes the essential equality of man and woman in their humanity.
This second account of creation however speaks more than just equality between sexes. It also speaks to us of our vocation as male and female. Humanity “can only exist as a unity of the two and therefore in relation to another human person.” They are called from the beginning “not only to exist side by side or together but they are called to exist mutually ‘one for the other’.” The woman must help the man and the man in turn must help the woman. One could not do without the other. There has to be mutual self giving wherein one gives himself for the other. Thus, to be human is to be called to an “interpersonal communion” - a communion so like the life of the Trinity on whose likeness man and woman were created. This is the basis of marriage, the mutual giving of husband and wife. And specifically to the woman, this is the basis of motherhood and consecrated virginity - vocations specifically drawn from her dignity as woman. The Pope calls these the “two particular dimensions of fulfillment of the female personality” wherein woman gives herself to her child as mother or to Christ in the service of her fellowmen in consecrated virginity. In this Mary, the virgin-mother is an exemplar.
Created to be a unity of the two, man and woman though equal “are distinct, yet at the same time they complete and explain each other.” The pope calls this “the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman.” Their unity and their equality do not in anyway cancel their diversity and their originality as male and female. Man and woman have distinct and original resources, and the personal resources of femininity is no less than the resources of masculinity. For the Pope “they are merely different, and distinct.” The divine intention of creating the unity of the two calls then to reciprocity and complimentarity, living together as a community in mutual self-giving. They exist on equal footing not to compete, neither to dominate but in the complimentarity of roles that enhances and completes the femininity of woman and the masculinity of man. Man and woman need each other, “they are made for each other.” (CCC #372)
This is particularly emphasized by the pope because a brand of feminism is on the rise wherein women in their valid demand for equality with man sometimes take the extreme position of appropriating to themselves male characteristics which are contrary to their own feminine originality. It leads to what the pope calls the “masculinization” of women. For him, the woman, her femininity is simply irreplaceable if we have to complete the image of God in the face of humanity. And by “masculinizing” her, the “woman will not ‘reach fulfillment’, but instead will deform and lose what constitutes her essential richness,” the richness of her femininity.
In conclusion the pope in this encyclical is emphasizing firstly the need today to recognize the equality of the sexes: that man and woman are created equal in the image of God. We have to recognize the fact that there still exists today in our modern society forms of discrimination and exploitation of women where they are treated as “objects of pleasure” and other stereotyped images which degrade their dignity and equality with men. Women are exploited in the media. Thousands of women because of economic reasons which includes the lack of equal opportunity in the work places are driven into the flesh trade as prostitutes, bar girls and GROs. Still others suffer in silence because of rape, wife beatings or as abandoned single parents. Most often it is women who suffer most because of the irresponsibility of man. And there exists too a dire need today to harness the feminine qualities of women whose influence must be felt in the structures of decision making in the church and in society. In these situations the pope reminds us that “whenever man is responsible for offending a woman’s personal dignity and vocation, he acts contrary to his own personal dignity and his own vocation.” Man by degrading women degrades also himself.
Secondly, in this encyclical the Pope is emphasizing that inherent in the equality of male and female is their diversity of roles. They are called to compliment each other rather than compete. They are called to reciprocate in mutual self-giving rather than vie for a dominating position. In this the pope calls to mind the irreplaceable vocation of woman to motherhood. True, women have a full right to become actively involved in all areas of public life which for centuries have been denied them (an effect of our inclination to sin, distorting the image of God in us). This fact should be guaranteed through appropriate legislation. However, this should not detract women from the unique role within the family. As mothers their contribution to the welfare of society may not be sufficiently appreciated, but it is truly incalculable (Women, Teachers of Peace by John Paul II).
Parenthood however should not be understood as the solely the mothers domain. Man-woman relationship, husband-wife relationship must be understood as a partnership. Man and woman need and should aid each other and these includes decisions, chores and parenting. However, mothers have a singularly important role which she could not relinquish to any other. The primary and special relationship between mother and child especially in his earliest years could have lasting effects on the child, in his self-identity, in the way he relates with others and with God. For the Pope the denial of this important role and vocation of woman “finds its roots in the absence of true respect for women.” Human rights and specifically the rights of women are rooted in her dignity as woman, a dignity accorded to her and to her alone by God. For this the Pope looks on Mary the Mother of God from which every woman discovers their true dignity, the dignity of feminine humanity.