This year marks the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. I’ve found myself rereading the council documents, since they are a treasure trove of insights about the liturgy, Scripture and the universal call to holiness, among other topics.
I never ceased to be stirred when reading the opening lines of “Gaudium et Spes”: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”
But it’s a text from the closing of the council with which I’m preoccupied these days, and one that underscores Pope Francis’ characterization of St. Paul VI as prophetic.
In 1965, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Paul VI penned an address to women, summoning them to meet the challenges of the modern world: “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.”
The pope was not referencing a worldly power, as if he were calling for more female world leaders or C-suite executives.
The church would, in the decades after the council, advocate for women’s equal dignity and treatment and insist that their gifts be welcomed into every social, political and economic sphere. And the church would even apologize for the ways in which it was complicit in women’s oppression throughout history.
But the power and influence the pope referenced was to be like our Lord’s. It was to be leadership for the sake of others. It was an explicit call to women to “reconcile men with life” and help all people understand both the fullness of their humanity and our common destiny.
One glance at today’s headlines shows that our work is still cut out for us.
Take the steady number of women who face an unplanned pregnancy each year. With the question of abortion now open for debate in America, women have a critical role in persuading men and women against taking the lives of their children.
Because women are “present in the mystery of a life beginning,” they have an intimate knowledge that can inform their arguments. They know firsthand what challenges are present in pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing, and can work to eliminate the obstacles that create the demand for abortion.
Women, with their “love of beginnings,” can help other women be reconciled with the new life growing inside of them.
Or take the growing number of people seeking assisted suicide. One recent news report chronicled the story of a Canadian mother who happened upon her 23-year-old son’s appointment to die at the hands of a doctor. Afflicted with diabetes and blindness, her son filled out an online application for “medical assistance in dying.”
As of 2021, more than 30,000 Canadians died this way, many meeting the minimum criteria of having a condition that is “intolerable to them,” terminal or not.
Women often intuit when others are silently suffering or feel like a burden. They can play a crucial role in helping those in distress to be reconciled with their own lives, no matter the painful physical, psychological or social difficulties that they might be facing.
Last, consider the growing number of men who are opting out of education, work and relationships, who spend more time in front of screens than with other people.
Women who seek justice need not dream of a world without men, or one in which they are optional but unnecessary. Women must summon these men to be better, dream bigger and find a place in families and society at large.
Men must be reconciled with life in its fullness — with adventure and courage — and not be content to pass their days listlessly or without purpose.
Many people in our midst struggle to recognize God’s presence in life’s tribulations. It is more important than ever that women, with their capacity to make the “truth sweet, tender and accessible,” share the good news that our God is a God of the living.
In so doing, they will do as Pope Paul VI encouraged and “save the peace of the world.”
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Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and a columnist for Catholic News Service.