The theological and spiritual aspects of the Church's teaching on Mary, which have been amply developed in our century, have recently acquired a new importance from the sociological and pastoral standpoint, due also to a clearer understanding of woman's role in the Christian community and in society, as we see in many significant interventions of the Magisterium.
The message to women addressed by the Fathers at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council on 8 December 1965 are well known: 'But the hour is coming in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved' (Enchiridion Vat., I, 307).
I confirmed these affirmations a few years later in the Encyclical Mulieris dignitatem: 'The dignity and the vocation of women—a subject of constant human and Christian reflection—have gained exceptional prominence in recent years' (n. 1).
The role and dignity of woman have been particularly championed in this century by the feminist movement which has sought to react, sometimes in forceful ways, against everything in the past and present that has hindered the full appreciation and development of the feminine personality as well as her participation in the many expressions of social and political life.
These demands were in large part legitimate and contributed to building up a more balanced view of the feminine question in the contemporary world. The Church, especially in recent times, has paid special attention to these demands, encouraged by the fact that the figure of Mary, if seen in the light of her Gospel life, is a valid response to woman's desire for emancipation: Mary is the only human person who eminently fulfils God's plan of love for humanity.
Every woman shares in Mary's sublime dignity
This plan is already manifest in the Old Testament, with the creation narrative that introduces the first couple created in the image of God himself: 'So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them' (Gn 1:27). Thus woman, no less than man, bears God's image in herself. This means that, since her appearance on the earth is a result of the divine action, she too is appreciated: 'God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good' (Gn 1:31). According to this view, the difference between man and woman does not imply the inferiority of the latter nor her inequality, but is a new element which enriches God's plan, and is 'very good'.
However, God's intention goes well beyond what is revealed in the Book of Genesis. In fact, in Mary God created a feminine personality which greatly surpasses the ordinary condition of woman as it appears in the creation of Eve. Mary's unique excellence in the world of grace and her perfection are fruits of the particular divine benevolence which seeks to raise everyone, men and women, to the moral perfection and holiness which are proper to the adopted children of God. Mary is 'blessed among women'; however, every woman shares in some way in her sublime dignity in the divine plan.
God's respect for women
The remarkable gift to the Mother of the Lord not only testifies to what we could call God's respect for woman, but also emphasizes the profound regard in God's plans for her irreplaceable role in human history.
Women need to discover this divine esteem in order to be ever more aware of their lofty dignity. The historical and social situations which caused the reaction of feminism were marked by a lack of appreciation of woman's worth; frequently she was relegated to a second rate or even marginal role. This did not allow her to express fully the wealth of intelligence and wisdom contained in her femininity. Indeed, throughout history women have not infrequently suffered from scant esteem for their abilities, and sometimes even scorn and unjust prejudice. This is a state of affairs that, despite important changes, unfortunately continues even today in many nations and in many parts of the world.
God's high esteem for women
The figure of Mary shows that God has such esteem for woman that any form of discrimination lacks a theoretical basis.
The marvelous work which the Creator achieved in Mary gives men and women the possibility to discover dimensions of their condition which before were not sufficiently perceived. In beholding the Mother of the Lord, women will be able to understand better their dignity and the greatness of their mission. But men too in the light of the Virgin Mother, will be able to acquire a fuller and more balanced view of their identity, of the family and of society.
Attentive consideration of the figure of Mary, as she is presented to us in Sacred Scripture as read in faith by the Church, is still more necessary in view of the disparagement she sometimes receives from certain feminist currents. The Virgin of Nazareth has, in some cases been presented as the symbol of the female personality imprisoned in a narrow, confining domesticity. Mary on the contrary, is the model of the full development of woman's vocation, since, despite the objective limits imposed by her social condition, she exercised a vast influence on the destiny of humanity and the transformation of society.
In Mary all are called to trust the Lord
Moreover Marian doctrine can shed light on the multiple ways in which the life of grace promotes woman's spiritual beauty. In view of the shameful exploitation that sometimes makes woman an object without dignity, destined for the satisfaction of base passions, Mary reaffirms the sublime meaning of feminine beauty, a gift and reflection of God's beauty.
It is true that feminine perfection, as it was fully realized in Mary, can at first sight seem to be an exceptional case and impossible to imitate, a model too lofty for imitation. In fact, the unique holiness of her who from the very first moment received the privilege of the Immaculate Conception is sometimes considered unreachably distant.
However, far from being a restraint on the way of following the Lord, Mary's exalted holiness is on the contrary, destined in God's plan to encourage all Christians to open themselves to the sanctifying power of the grace of God, for whom nothing is impossible. Therefore in Mary all are called to put total trust in the divine omnipotence, which transforms hearts, guiding them towards full receptivity to his providential plan of love.
John Paul II
General Audience of November 29, 1995