For Mother's Day: John Paul II's Reflections on Motherhood

From 1988 Apostolic Letter ‘Mulieris Dignitatem’

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In honor of Mother’s Day, celebrated today in many parts of the world, and on Sunday for other countries, here is a text from No. 18 of John Paul II’s 1988 Apostolic Letter «Mulieris Dignitatem» [On the Dignity and Vocation of Women].

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This mutual gift of the person in marriage opens to the gift of a new life, a new human being, who is also a person in the likeness of his parents. Motherhood implies from the beginning a special openness to the new person: and this is precisely the woman’s «part». In this openness, in conceiving and giving birth to a child, the woman «discovers herself through a sincere gift of self». The gift of interior readiness to accept the child and bring it into the world is linked to the marriage union, which – as mentioned earlier – should constitute a special moment in the mutual self-giving both by the woman and the man. According to the Bible, the conception and birth of a new human being are accompanied by the following words of the woman: «I have brought a man into being with the help of the Lord» (Gen 4:1).This exclamation of Eve, the «mother of all the living» is repeated every time a new human being comes into the world. It expresses the woman’s joy and awareness that she is sharing in the great mystery of eternal generation. The spouses share in the creative power of God!

The woman’s motherhood in the period between the baby’s conception and birth is a bio-physiological and psychological process which is better understood in our days than in the past, and is the subject of many detailed studies. Scientific analysis fully confirms that the very physical constitution of women is naturally disposed to motherhood – conception, pregnancy and giving birth – which is a consequence of the marriage union with the man. At the same time, this also corresponds to the psycho-physical structure of women. What the different branches of science have to say on this subject is important and useful, provided that it is not limited to an exclusively bio-physiological interpretation of women and of motherhood. Such a «restricted» picture would go hand in hand with a materialistic concept of the human being and of the world. In such a case, what is truly essential would unfortunately be lost. Motherhood as a human fact and phenomenon, is fully explained on the basis of the truth about the person. Motherhood is linked to the personal structure of the woman and to the personal dimension of the gift: «I have brought a man into being with the help of the Lord» (Gen 4:1). The Creator grants the parents the gift of a child. On the woman’s part, this fact is linked in a special way to «a sincere gift of self». Mary’s words at the Annunciation – «Let it be to me according to your word» – signify the woman’s readiness for the gift of self and her readiness to accept a new life.

The eternal mystery of generation, which is in God himself, the one and Triune God (cf. Eph 3:14-15), is reflected in the woman’s motherhood and in the man’s fatherhood. Human parenthood is something shared by both the man and the woman. Even if the woman, out of love for her husband, says: «I have given you a child», her words also mean: «This is our child». Although both of them together are parents of their child, the woman’s motherhood constitutes a special «part» in this shared parenthood, and the most demanding part. Parenthood – even though it belongs to both – is realized much more fully in the woman, especially in the prenatal period. It is the woman who «pays» directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul. It is therefore necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman. No programme of «equal rights» between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account.

Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman’s womb. The mother is filled with wonder at this mystery of life, and «understands» with unique intuition what is happening inside her. In the light of the «beginning», the mother accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb. This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings – not only towards her own child, but every human being – which profoundly marks the woman’s personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man – even with all his sharing in parenthood – always remains «outside» the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own «fatherhood» from the mother. One can say that this is part of the normal human dimension of parenthood, including the stages that follow the birth of the baby, especially the initial period. The child’s upbringing, taken as a whole, should include the contribution of both parents: the maternal and paternal contribution. In any event, the mother’s contribution is decisive in laying the foundation for a new human personality.

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