Adapted from a speech given at the 2012 Catholic Woman of the Year Awards: ‘Forward in Faith Called to be Saints’ Delivered by Edmund Adamus
One of my great heroes in the faith, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, told a story of how he attended a grand banquet where he was seated next to the guest speaker. As the speaker was being introduced, the Archbishop noticed his wife seated opposite, slip him a little note on which he could see the letters “K I S S”. The Archbishop discreetly leaned towards the man and said: 'How nice of your wife to give you such a message of encouragement just when you need it.' To which the guest speaker replied; 'Oh it’s not what you think it means Father. What she means is "keep it short stupid"!' Well I apologise that my wife isn’t able to be with me here today on this our 7th wedding anniversary to give me the same sage advice so I hope I am not too long. Staying with Archbishop Sheen, it was on the very subject of womanhood that he said the following:
'To a great extent the level of any civilization is the level of its womanhood. When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.'
In short, I suppose what he is saying is that when women are at their best, they bring the best out in men. And by the same token of course when men [especially husbands and fathers] lay down their lives in service and love of the women in their lives, then women are more likely to respond with reciprocal generosity.
I rejoice in initiatives like the Catholic Women of the Year Luncheon and all the authentic feminism that lies behind it because it allows us to pause and reflect on what we all instinctively know to be true [but can so often take for granted or have drowned out by the noise of the popular culture around us] that the complementarity of the sexes is fundamental to our survival as human beings and furthermore that the male female difference is ordained by God as the kernel upon which His plan for creation and salvation rests.
The theme chosen for this year was ‘Called to be Saints’, which really is the heart of our Christian faith and what our entire relationship with God and with one another is all about. the fact that we are each made in the Imago Dei (in the image and likeness of God) and that we are capax Dei (we have the capacity for God) and that by virtue of this likeness to God – we are capable [hard as it may seem to feel and believe of ourselves at times] capable of sacrificing ourselves for one another out of love.
Now I know most of us don’t even want to consider ourselves as being saint-making material. However the truth of the matter is that it is the very raw material of who we are as men and women, the very fact of our human sexuality, it is in and through the very things which make us tick as women and men [different but equal] that God draws us close to Himself because our sexuality – literally, our sexual difference is what delights God most of all – why? Because it is precisely that difference yet complimentarity through which God makes His Trinitarian presence felt and real in the world. And of course we see this most vividly displayed in the matrimonial union of a man and a woman.
Those of you who have known me especially in and through my work in the Diocese of Westminster these last 8 years will be aware of my particular focus, perhaps a passion if you like, for the vision and teaching of Blessed Pope John Paul II and his theology of the body. And that liberating vision he had of human sexuality with its captivating emphasis upon personal dignity is not an inappropriate lens through which to gaze our appreciative eye over the achievements of those to whom we pay tribute today.
Theology of the body in shorthand means serving the communion of persons. We serve that communion by making a sincere gift of oneself for others. It is what John Paul would call ‘a disinterested gift of self’. In other words, that Gospel truth of going the extra mile, laying down one’s life for one’s friends, giving with no expectation of anything in return.
There is no other way we can view such heroic virtue but with a sense of it being a theology of the body. After all, do we not speak of performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy? We serve others precisely in and through our embodied selves – it is our eyes, ears, mouths, hands, feet and hearts with which Christ reaches out to others to see, hear, comfort, heal, approach and love. And yes acknowledging the Divinely-created sexual difference of masculinity and femininity on an occasion which singles out the specific glory of and witness to womanhood is a fitting thing to do. Why? Because we must seize upon every opportunity to remind the world obsessed with its own version of equality that difference matters? Yes, but also because without our own firm grasp of that sense of difference but God-inspired equality of the sexes, we cannot celebrate fully the achievements of either women or men. Why do I say this? Well it’s because there is another useful shorthand to define theology of the body based on John Paul II’s writings and it goes something like this:
“The vocation of every man is the dignity of every woman. The calling of every woman is the integrity of every man.”
That is to say women have an absolute right [as John Paul would say] to their dignity simply by being women. And men by virtue of their manhood are capable of the most noble and highest virtues and women have a right to remind them!
I read somewhere that on average a woman only needs to hear the Gospel a few times for the message to sink in but that men need to hear it many times before it starts to take. If it’s a physiological fact that women on average need to speak about 30,000 more words a day than men, then it must be because God ordains the very feminine psyche to be of an indispensable significance in the communication of God’s love and grace to others. This is part of what John Paul would call – ‘the feminine genius.’
In other words, each of us in our own way through our manhood and through our womanhood must strive to truly recognise and see the very presence of God in the other, precisely because she is a woman and specifically because he IS a man. None of us can avoid, ignore or deny the reality of the masculine and the feminine. Why would we? It is how God chose to crown His creation. It is how He furthers His work of redemption now. And its universality means we are all called to honour it whether we are married, single, consecrated religious or ordained.
And it is in the home – the Christian household, the heart the Church that the theology of the body is lived and experienced day in day out through the quality of our loving and the welcome we give to all who cross that threshold as well as those to whom we reach out beyond its boundaries.
The place where fraternal love, compassion for the needy, in short the corporal and spiritual works of mercy is taught is the sanctuary of the home and its altar where so much love and fellowship is exchanged time and time again is the kitchen table. The kitchen table receives more tears per square inch than any other item of furniture. Young children meet their mothers there with their bleeding knees, banged elbows and scratches. Older children may spill some tears on their pillows, but, if they want someone to listen (and they usually do), they roam in to the kitchen table. The kitchen table also is the scene of more laughter than any other place in the home, because that's where the people are. It's a place where one can learn from early childhood values of fraternal outreach, where prayers are said, plans are made, joys and sorrows are shared, memories relived. It's a place for arguing but hopefully not quarrelling.
Finally, just over two years ago during the Hyde Park vigil on the eve of the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman the Holy Father reminded us of Newman’s insight to discern the call to ‘some definite service’
Well there is no mistaking the definitive nature of the service these three ladies have given and in so doing are true icons of the presence of God among us by their love. I wish my final words however to be those of Blessed John Paul II (who despite losing his own mother as a child learned to love all the women he encountered by his deep manly intimacy with the Perfect Woman – the Queen of Heaven) And so in his great letter on the dignity of women, Mulieris Dignitatem, he wrote:
'Therefore the Church gives thanks for each and every woman: for mothers, for sisters, for wives; for women consecrated to God in virginity; for women dedicated to the many human beings who await the gratuitous love of another person; for women who watch over the human persons in the family, which is the fundamental sign of the human community; for women who work professionally, and who at times are burdened by a great social responsibility; for "perfect" women and for "weak" women - for all women as they have come forth from the heart of God in all the beauty and richness of their femininity; as they have been embraced by his eternal love; ..The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine "genius" which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness.'