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The missional gift of the Feminine Genius

In 1639, Ursuline sisters bravely crossed the Atlantic Ocean to become the first religious women to bring the Gospel to North America. In 1793, peasant Frenchwomen risked their lives to organize underground Masses and religious education during the French Revolution’s bloody Reign of Terror. In 1941, the resilient women of World War II kept the faith alive without the support of their husbands, sons and brothers, who were across an ocean fighting to protect their nation. Noticing female acts of heroism such as these, Pope Benedict XVI once proclaimed, “It is women, in the end, who even in very desperate situations, as attested by history past and present, possess a singular capacity to persevere in adversity, to keep life going even in extreme situations, to hold tenaciously to the future.”1

History proves that faithful women have always risen to proclaim and safeguard the Church, no matter the circumstances.

The Role of Women

If you took a random survey asking people to define the role of women in the Church, you would yield some pretty polarizing answers. Some would want to talk about their hopes for a female pope. Others would want to stop talking about the role of women in the Church because, outside of domestic duties, they don’t believe there is one.

In the end, however, the fundamental role of women in the Church is no different from men. We are all called to grow in holiness. We are all called love our neighbor. We are all called to make disciples of all nations.

Still, in recent decades, the Church has placed a particular emphasis on the unique call of women in what has been called “the genius of woman.” This “feminine genius,” which can be described as a woman’s person-oriented disposition, was spoken of often by Pope St. John Paul II, who called it “vitally essential to both society and the Church.”2

With their Hearts

According to John Paul II, women have a unique capacity to see people as people. Not as objects for personal gain or “less than” because they are not useful in the world’s eyes. Instead, women tend to see people as souls with worth, value, and dignity. As he explained it, “Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts.”3

The capacity to “see people with their hearts” gives women a particular sensitivity towards the needs of others. It allows them to fight for the people God has entrusted to them. It gives them the strength to live generously and not give up in difficult times. It pushes them to proclaim and safeguard the Church for future generations.

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While the threat of a guillotine is currently not looming in our city centers, recent years have found Catholics navigating fresh challenges in a post-Christendom society. To meet these challenges, the genius of woman will be necessary in both our homes and world.

The Home: Family First

When my husband proposed to me, he took me to a vacant field that our archdiocese had recently purchased for a new parish. Pointing out to the emptiness, he told me, “One day, they are going to build a church out there. I don’t know what the process is going to look like. I don’t know what kind of hardships and joys will come with it, but I do know that’s where I want to be — building the Church. And, Lisa,” he said, turning to me, “I want to know if you will build the Church with me as my wife?” My Catholic heart swooned.

At the time, I envisioned this “building the Church” to mean evangelizing the world for Christ. Speaking, teaching, mentoring — whatever would spread the Gospel is what we would do. Admittedly, we have filled our lives building the Church together. However, what I didn’t see at the time of Kevin’s proposal was that the most important church we would build together was not the church outside of our home but the domestic church within our home.

Writing on women, Pope St. John Paul II declared, “God entrusts the human being to her in a special way.”4 Here he was referencing a woman’s unique capacity to mother. As experience has shown us, mothers tend to take this entrusting very seriously. Of all the people mothers can share their person-oriented genius with, their children are often their top priority.

Above all others, children need their mother’s “capacity to see people with their hearts.” They need her recognition of their worth, value, and dignity. They need her sensitivity towards their spoken and unspoken needs. They need her perseverance that proclaims and safeguards the Church in the most difficult of times.

Yet, while physical motherhood is the most apparent expression of maternity, Pope St. John Paul II frequently reminded us that it is not the only expression of maternity. Single women, married women without kids, professed religious women — all women have the gift of maternity in what is called “spiritual motherhood.”

“Spiritual motherhood takes on many different forms,” wrote John Paul II, “it can express itself as concern for people, especially the most needy.”5 It is for this reason that John Paul II stressed the importance for women to be present in all spheres of society.

The World: All Spheres

In bringing their genius to the Church and world, women humanize plans, policies and decisions. They ensure that each person is seen, valued and given dignity.

For these reasons, John Paul II frequently invited women to “increasingly play a part in the solutions of the serious problems of the future.”6 Or he began a speech by saying, “I would like to stress the importance of a greater involvement of women in public life.”7 And in a variety of ways, he asked people, “How can we fail to see that, in order to deal satisfactorily with the many problems emerging today, special recourse to the feminine genius is essential?” (emphasis mine).8 Echoing his sentiments, Pope Francis recently declared, “When we treat a problem among men we arrive at a conclusion, but if we treat the same problem among women, the conclusion will be different: it will go on the same road, but it will be richer, stronger, more intuitive.”9

This means that bringing the feminine genius into the world extends beyond baking cookies for church fundraisers or bringing in flowers to brighten up a space. While these types of beautiful feminine touches are small acts of love that truly humanize life, they are not the only way women can use their genius.

In addition to these small acts of love, the feminine genius will be vitally essential to the Church as she addresses life in a post-Christendom world. The person-oriented voice of women will be necessary to ensure new strategies are sensitive to the needs of those in our communities. Women’s intuitive conclusions will be critical in decision-making. The spiritual maternity of women will be vital in recognizing how to best educate and pass on the faith to future generations. In all of these challenges and beyond, as in the past, I have no doubt that women will rise to the occasion, no matter the circumstances.

This article is based on Lisa Cotter’s newest book, Reveal the Gift: Living the Feminine Genius, out now via Ascension Press. Visit ascensionpress.com/revealthegift for more information.

  1. Joseph Card. Ratzinger and Angelo Amato, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, 13. 
  2. John Paul II, “Angelus,” (July 23, 1995) in John Paul II Speaks on Women, ed. Brooke Williams Deely, (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2014), para. 2. 
  3. Letter to Women, 12 
  4. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 30. 
  5. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem (August 15th, 1988), 21, vatician.va 
  6. John Paul II, Letter to Women (June 29,1995), 4, vatican.va. 
  7. John Paul II, “Angelus, (August 27, 1995) in John Paul II Speaks on Women, para. 1. 
  8. John Paul II, “Angelus,” (August 20, 1995) in John Paul II Speaks on Women, para. 1. 
  9. https://angelusnews.com/news/us-world/pope-francis-reminds-christians-to-have-a-festive-faith/ 
Lisa Cotter
Lisa Cotter
Lisa Cotter is a leading Catholic speaker and author known for her practical insights on relationships, femininity, and living life with excellence. She served with FOCUS missionaries for over 10 years, created and hosted the popular “How-to Catholic” podcast, authored Dating Detox and Reveal the Gift, and has traveled widely as a presenter at SEEK, Steubenville conferences, NCYC, and more. Lisa resides in Denver, Colorado, with her husband, Kevin, and their four children.

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