A papal letter published three decades ago is still as timely today as it was back then, say a group of women studying St. John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem, better known by its subtitle: “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.”

“It is super relevant, especially because my generation was taught that Catholic Church is oppressive and doesn’t recognize women’s values. It’s really shocking that it’s precisely the opposite,” Atiaia Barreto told The B.C. Catholic.

Barreto is one of 30 women meeting in Vancouver once a week for a faith study by Endow, a Catholic educational non-profit. The women, ranging from their mid-20s to mid-60s, have been carefully reading Mulieris Dignitatem and using it as a springboard to talk about their lives and the contemporary challenges they face.

Marna Omichinski, who is retired, said the document has the women discussing abortion, transgenderism, and gender identity – terms not even mentioned in the original document.

“I’ve tried to read encyclicals before and they’re too much,” she said. But this papal letter, with the accompanying group discussions, has come to life and offered new relevance to her.

“(The Pope) goes right back to Genesis and says how important it is to understand where we came from,” she said. “It brings up all sorts of topics to do with what’s happening with women.”

She’s found input from younger women in the group inspiring. One has post-secondary studies in gender issues; others are working their first full-time jobs or are recent immigrants to Canada.

“Every once in a while, I’ll look at one of the younger ones and say: ‘What do you think? Do you think we’re off about this? Is this just old people talking?’”

Sister Angela Marie Castellani, FSE, (second from right) leads the faith study.

It’s not “just old people talking.” Young adult Magdalena Kasprzak said she joined Endow looking for a place to dig deeper into her faith and into St. John Paul II’s writings.

“The document was written 30 years ago, but I think that to say that its year of publication renders it irrelevant to our times would be like saying that Copernicus’ model of the universe is no longer relevant in 2019 because it was formulated in the 1500s,” she said.

“That’s the beauty of truth; it is timeless and universally relevant regardless of the era in which our human minds finally wrap themselves around it.”

Like Copernicus, who turned previous discoveries on their heads when he placed the sun at the centre of the universe, the late Polish pontiff shattered previous perceptions when he defined the special roles of women in creation, Kasprzak said.

“In reducing gender differences to an arbitrary result of social conditioning, our culture strips the person of a key expression of his or her humanity,” she said.

“The deeper we dive into the Endow study, the more I am convinced that St. John Paul II’s writing on the Theology of the Body is to the understanding of the human person what Copernicus’ discovery was to our understanding of the universe.”

This study by Endow was created to run for eight weekly sessions. Local organizer Sister Angela Marie Castellani, FSE, said she hopes to run another women’s faith study in January 2020, though the topic has not yet been decided.

“My hope is to multiply the faith studies,” which “go deeper into the teachings of the Church that are often so unknown,” said Sister Castelani.

She hopes to encourage the 30 women in the current group to host their own groups at home or in their parishes with materials from Endow or other Catholic organizations.

Barreto has been so moved by the discussions that she hopes to write articles on what she’s learned for Paraclitus, a Catholic news site based in Brazil.

“I think especially over the past 30 or 40 years, women never thought that we are more than just what the secular world tells us,” said Barreto.

“We have a dignity that’s beyond our careers, family status, or choices we make. If we don’t go back to the origin of that, which is God, we won’t understand our dignity.”