Feminine Genius: A modern-day application of Pope John Paul’s letter

Danielle Burr was inspired by the example of strong Catholic women in her life. In turn, she vows to model this to the students who enter her classroom.

Katie Morgan '22

Danielle Burr was inspired by the example of strong Catholic women in her life. In turn, she vows to model this to the students who enter her classroom.

Catherine Alaimo, Club Writer

The term “feminine genius” may connote a domestic meaning, an image of a harried mother bustling around to cook breakfast for her husband and to sweep up her children’s messes. Pope John Paul II indeed touches on the unique tendency that women have toward caring for their family in his 1995 “Letter to Women.” However, he emphasizes that the true and rare gift they possess is “a service of love.”

Pope John Paul II coined the phrase “feminine genius” in this letter to women, meant to show gratitude toward women for all they had accomplished and meant to guide them with unifying values and roles. This service of love can manifest itself in a different and deeply personal way to every woman. “To me, the term ‘Feminine Genius’ refers to the unique gifts and talents God has given women to share with the world to build up His Kingdom…in a way that men cannot,” said Danielle Burr, a sophomore theology teacher and the organizer of the Kairos retreat. 

“Women are the hearts of society. They are truly the ones who move the world forward by not only their ability to bring life into the world, but to nurture life and see the world in a more compassionate and genuine way,” explained Burr.

Gina Iker, a junior theology teacher, agreed and added that “women have a unique dignity that is complementary to that of men.” 

Brianne Sanford, the Xavier campus minister, defined feminine genius as “living out knowledge and truth and living fully with the awareness of our God-given dignity, beauty and worth.” She acknowledged Pope John Paul II’s controversial point about women being distinct in their ability to nurture their children, saying that being a woman means being “a lifegiver and co-creator.” 

She added that this is not just in the literal manifestation of being a mother, but “by bringing forth new life through the way we act, speak and love and care for each person entrusted to our care, and by cooperating with the Holy Spirit to co-create and make the world more human, we are more whole, and holy.”

Pope John Paul II cites Mary as the “highest expression of the feminine genius” for the Church, and as a sort of role model for all Catholic girls and women. After all, she unquestioningly followed God’s plan for her, lovingly raised her son, and stayed by him as he died, caring for his disciple John. Beyond Mary, the three members of Xavier’s religion staff have their own intimate paragons of the feminine genius. 

“I have been raised and formed by some of the most godly, faith-filled and courageous women,” Burr proclaimed. “Along with my childhood principal Sister Raphael Quinn, my mother is the epitome of a woman who is strong and leads for Christ.” Beyond her own circle, “the great St. Teresa of Calcutta’s life and legacy” have impacted Burr’s faith in “ways [she] cannot fully express.” 

Burr said these female leaders influenced her character and her faith with their “steadfastness and courage that made me want to stay the course of faith and life, when turning back seemed easier.” 

Iker looks to the more distant past of the Roman Empire for her own role models. “I find St. Philomena so interesting and inspiring because we know so little about her…we don’t know why she was martyred, but the miracles [that occurred posthumously] speak to the reality of Christ working through her. And that’s really the vocation of a Christian, to be a conduit of Christ’s love and grace.”

Sanford reveres a wide spectrum of influential women ranging from religious ones like Mary and St. Joan of Arc to historical figures like Harriett Tubman to current presences in her life like her best friend, Sister Caeli. “A common theme in each of these women is that they lived lives of great generosity and heroic love with God and for the good of others,” she concluded. Like Burr’s relationship to the women she admires, these leaders inspire Sanford because “they gave their lives in full trust and confidence to our Lord by saying yes to Him even when things were scary and unknown.” 

When analyzing Pope John Paul II’s letter in a modern light, it is crucial to remember that his original message was meant to empower women, and to portray the aspects of the feminine genius as “powerful gifts, not weaknesses.” After all, “women are the crown of creation,”  Sanford professed. They act as the strong-willed and empathetic emotional compass meant to keep the universe on path and to help others navigate their own lives.