Mainstream feminists dismiss Pope John Paul II’s writings about the “new feminism” on the dignity and vocation of women as an absurd message that will never catch on. But the message has caught on, thanks, in part, to the work of a Denver-based Catholic apostolate, Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women (Endow).
Endow offers a series of studies starting with John Paul II’s “Letter to Women” and Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), which form a basis for women to “sink their teeth into the truth of the Catholic faith and be stretched intellectually,” says Brigid Sweeney, the group’s marketing coordinator.
“It’s created to reach out to the woman in the pew who’s incredible, talented, educated, but she needs something more to continue her own formation. And society benefits from that,” she says. “They are transformed, and they transform their family and workplace, their children, their community.”
The program was created in 2003 by Betsy Considine, Marilyn Coors and Therese Polakovic, who were inspired by Pope John Paul II’s writings about the feminine genius. Polakovic was recently awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross by Pope Benedict XVI for her extraordinary generosity and skill in serving the Church.
Through word of mouth alone, Endow has grown from 30 facilitators in the Archdiocese of Denver to more than 800 facilitators in 84 dioceses, as well as five international dioceses.
The program has had a profound impact on Michelle Schultz of St. Mary’s Parish in Hudson, Ohio, a self-described “cradle Catholic” whose faith was “not a priority” in her adult life, especially after her two sons received the sacraments. When her oldest, Patrick, started showing more interest in the faith through a Life Teen program, and then wanted to enter the seminary, Schultz and her husband were taken aback.
“It looked like he was getting hypnotized into something, and I was afraid of losing my son to a seminary,” she recalls. “I really got angry at the priest and the (Life Teen) director.”
Still, Schultz hungered for the same enthusiasm she saw in her son. Intrigued by the Christ-centered focus of the Endow study group, she signed up.
“It certainly taught me the value of me as a woman and God’s plan of family. It was something I couldn’t close my eyes to anymore: things I knew to be true that John Paul II wrote about, what Jesus taught us about the dignity and vocation of women and God’s plan for us. I wish I had had this before I got married, when I was younger,” says Schultz. “I can’t watch talk shows anymore because I find myself yelling at the TV or ‘The View,’ ‘No, that’s wrong. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.’”
Schultz says she understands more fully now why abortion and contraception — the two pillars of mainstream feminism — cause so many problems: because that’s not how God designed us to be.
“Those things were on my radar, but I just didn’t think about it. I never put my thoughts together with my faith that I was born and raised with because I wasn’t living it — I wasn’t living with any real conviction or belief in God,” she says. “I’m a different thinker because of having taken these classes, and I don’t look at the world the same way.”
Jen Ricard, who introduced the program at St. Mary’s, was hoping 12 women would sign up for the initial class in 2008, but she got 43. She is now facilitating five classes for more than 60 participants, plus a teen class for girls called “True Beauty Revealed.” Those further along in the series will be studying St. Thomas Aquinas, Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from Vatican II), Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer, by John Paul II) and Edith Stein. The most common response that Ricard gets is: “Why didn’t anyone tell me this stuff before?”
“There’s no question that a recognition of the truth and beauty of femininity and masculinity is part of the solution to all the confusion about ‘gay marriage’ and the push in some corners to recognize five or more genders,” says Ricard. “We see it in the first pages of Genesis — God created us men and women — and there is a beauty and purpose in that.”
Ricard is particularly encouraged by the wide range of age groups Endow attracts. Ellarita Wolfe, 80, says she has had a hunger to know the truth about Church teaching on femininity and marriage since Vatican II and had a desire to know more about Pope John Paul II’s teachings.
“As I look back there wasn’t anything for women, per se. There was a great lacking in my experience in the Church regarding sexuality and married life,” says Wolfe. “I didn’t have the opportunity to understand God’s truth in theology of the body, so that’s a great gift. The more I read and learn, the hungrier I become.”
Wolfe says she is seeing a resurgence of young women and mothers who are renewing the Church and the culture, and she hopes her four children and six grandchildren will get this kind of teaching earlier in life than she did.
After the Endow study, Brittany Tortorete, 23, a first-year graduate student at Franciscan University of Steubenville, facilitated the high-school study at St. Mary’s. Endow opened her eyes to how pro-woman the Church really is, and she wanted to share that with the younger generation.
“The Church gets a false rap of being against womanhood and feminism, but when you look at the words of John Paul II, the Church is here to lift up women in the way that God designed them, not to bring them down or suppress them as the culture does,” says Tortorete.
Endow also offers a middle-school study called “Girl Genius” — and created day retreats after the moms requested a resource for their early-teen daughters.
“There is a real hunger [for the truth], in general, for all humanity,” says Sweeney. “They are recognizing that the lies of the world are not satisfying them. Endow is just another organization that helps bring this truth to the woman of the 21st century.”
Barb Ernster writes from Fridley, Minnesota.