Teaching John Paul II’s ‘New Feminism’ — 1 Woman at a Time

An interview with Terry Polakovic, who recently received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross from Pope Benedict XVI.

Terry Polakovic received one of the highest papal honors that a layperson can receive. In November, Pope Benedict XVI awarded her the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross (For the Church and Pontiff) for her work as executive director of Endow (Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women).

Endow is active in more than 80 dioceses. Last year alone, some 3,785 women were involved in an Endow study group.
Polakovic spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from her office in Denver.

What was it like to receive the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Cross?

It was a total surprise and meant so much to me. It was a beautiful thing for Archbishop [Charles] Chaput to do. He has been a wonderful spiritual father to me through this whole thing. It meant a lot to me and for Endow. There have been so many people who have poured out their hearts for this organization.

Where are you from originally? Tell me about your family.

I’m a native of Denver. I’m the oldest of five children. My father died when I was 4. My mother remarried and had three more children. She stayed at home raising the children. My stepfather was an investment banker.

Have you always been Catholic?

Yes. I went to Catholic schools and a public high school. I spent two years at a Catholic college and two at a state college. My parents were very devout. They were daily communicants and set a beautiful example for the rest of us. While I was always Catholic and never left the Church, I never really joined it either. I didn’t really take it to heart until Endow came along.

I married when I was 30. Within a couple of weeks, my younger brother died, and a couple of years later my parents died. I kept God at arm’s length. I was pretty distant emotionally from the Church at that time. Once I was introduced to the writings of Pope John Paul II, I had a total reconversion.

Do you have a favorite Catholic memory from your childhood?

I have great affection for religious sisters. They were always a part of my life. I didn’t have religious sisters teaching me, but both of my parents went to boarding schools. My father was raised in an orphanage. My mother, who was the youngest of 10, was raised by the Ursuline nuns. When my mother died, an 80-year-old nun came out for her funeral.

I also served as volunteer director for a Catholic hospital here in town and worked for a sister there. The Religious Sisters of Mercy have been our mentors for Endow. My daughter joined the Religious Sisters of Mercy a year and a half ago and is in the first year of her novitiate.

Even though I wasn’t very active in the faith, we grew up in a very Catholic home. We prayed novenas and did all those kinds of things. That’s reassuring to people whose children aren’t in the faith right now, because I wasn’t either. When you lay the seeds, it’s hard to get rid of that. After my parents died, none of my siblings went crazy [with grief] because the Catholic values had been instilled.

How were you introduced to the works of Pope John Paul II?

I was married and had children. I had been in nonprofit work. One of my jobs was as executive director of Seeds of Hope — a diocesan inner-city scholarship program. One of my board members had been to a conference in Mexico City and had heard [former U.S. ambassador] Mary Ann Glendon speak about John Paul II’s “New Feminism.” She invited me and some others to lunch and shared what she had learned. That became the spark.

I had no idea what the Church taught about women, so three of us began to study and learn on our own. Because we were in the archdiocese and had a good relationship with the archbishop, we spoke with him. We told him that if we were raised Catholic and didn’t know anything about this, most of the women in the pew probably didn’t know anything about this. Chancellor Fran Maier helped us and encouraged us. The archdiocese gave us some office space. Providentially, some Religious Sisters of Mercy from Alma, Mich., moved here around the same time. Sister Prudence Allen, one of the world-renowned experts on Catholic feminism, was one of them, and we came to know her.

When I first went to visit Sister Prudence and asked for help, she said No. She had been asked to give up that work to come work at the seminary in Denver. Yet God brought that work back to her in a whole different way. She asked us to come back in six months and ask again. We did, and the sisters told us that Sister Prudence could teach us one class over the summer.

We didn’t know who to invite. Because we were so interested in it, that didn’t mean everyone was. I knew a lot of people in Denver, so I sent out an e-mail. The first day, 40 women showed up for class. Sister Prudence continued that class for five years. We went through Church document after document, unpacking the papal writings.

And that’s how Endow was born?

Yes. When I left my job at Seeds of Hope, I had enough funding for a salary for 18 months. We had some ideas but didn’t know what shape Endow would take. We were very uncatechized ourselves.

The three of us went through a great conversion. Most of our friends were culturally Catholic. In the end, I lost some friends, but I didn’t know what God would bring. I never could have imagined the women I’ve met and the places I’ve gone.

Explain what Endow does.

Endow stands for Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women. What we do is develop study guides for women to use in small study groups. All women start out reading John Paul II’s 1982 “Letter to Women.” Most women have never read a Church document. We think this is a great place to start. We have 10 additional studies, as well.

Endow forms the woman. We have women from age 18 to 80. Our idea is that women will stay together, like a book club. Usually the women study something in the fall and the spring and take the summer off. We have recently released our second study guide on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and we are getting ready to release a new study guide on Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). We release a study guide or two every year.

When we first started, we had a couple of college interns working with us. They did an end-of-summer project in which they designed a room inside a local church where they put up pictures of how women are portrayed in magazines, billboards and music, and took a group of high-school students through it. The high-school girls totally got it, but when they went home, some of their mothers rejected what we were teaching. That’s when we realized that we need to teach the mothers, so that they could form their daughters.

This year we’re focusing more on the middle-school and high-school programs. There’s a great need to reach girls younger and younger in our culture.

What do you find women need?

We try to attract the woman in the pew. We attract a woman who is interested in education. It’s not like a mom-and-tots group. A lot of the time, they’ve never read a Church document, and they may feel very insecure in their faith. They may not agree with the Church about many things.

The discussion needs to be open, kind and confidential. We tell them, “Everyone is on their own journey; we’re just here to teach you.” We’ve had tremendous conversions. Lives have been changed. A lot of women in our groups have children who have pursued religious life or the priesthood. Once a woman starts embracing the faith, it opens up the whole panorama. When they’re able to share with one another, they have an influence on the parish and the school.

How would you describe Pope John Paul II’s “New Feminism”?

It embraces a woman’s capacity for the other. It’s innately who she is. She’s a mother, whether she becomes one physically or not. It’s something that our world needs so much. With e-mail and texting you can go a long time without having an interpersonal relationship with someone. The woman is probably the one who does that best. She’s often the initiator and is looking out for the other person. This is what Pope John Paul II saw and what he wanted to motivate in women.

My sister works with several men in cardiology at a children’s hospital. Whenever they have bad news to give to a family, they always bring in my sister because she’s able to reach out to that mom. John Paul II wanted to say, “Cultivate that.” It’s needed in every area of life — teachers, doctors, lawyers. The whole world needs the compassion and empathy that a woman will bring.

It might seem odd that Pope John Paul II would use the word “feminism,” but Sister Prudence told us that that’s just like John Paul to open an old wound so that it could heal.

Register senior writer Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.