Tag Archives: Sisters of Charity

Elizabeth Seton, January 4

Elizabeth Seton 1804

Today’s the feast of St. Elizabeth Seton (1774-1821), a woman born at the time of the American revolution and a founder of the American Catholic Church.

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults sees her as an example of a woman in search of God.  We find God through Jesus Christ, but also through creation, through human relationships and through various circumstances of our lives.

Elizabeth Seton was a woman who found God in all those ways. As a little girl after her mother’s  death she was neglected by her father and at odds with her stepmother, and  she found God in the beauties of nature, in the fields around New Rochelle, NY,  where she played as a child.

Then, as a young woman, she married a prominent New York business man, William Seton.  They had five children and Elizabeth enjoyed a happy married life, lots of friends; she was active in her Episcopal church, Trinity Church, on Wall Street in New York City.

She lived in a new country, in a city inspired by the optimism and principles of the Enlightenment, a movement that saw life as a pursuit of human knowledge and progress, more than as a pursuit of the knowledge of God. Alexander Pope sums up her time in his famous couplet in “An Essay of Man” (“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan/The proper study of mankind is man”)

In a society and a church largely influenced by those values, Elizabeth felt drawn to Jesus Christ, whom she searched for in the scriptures and found in the care of the poor. 

Her life changed when her husband’s business failed. When his health also failed, Elizabeth took him to Italy to see if a better climate could revive him. As they arrived in Livorno, Italy, he died in her arms in a cold quarantine station at the Italian port.

Some Italian friends took Elizabeth and her daughter into their home and there she began to think about becoming a Catholic. Her conversion after her return to New York City caused her to lose old friends and left her to face hard times as a widow with small children.

She moved to Baltimore, then Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she opened her first  Catholic school and gathered other women to form a religious community. She is one of the great saints and founders of the American Church. She’s also an important witness to the major role women played in establishing the Catholic Church in America.

Her quest for God was many sided, touched by sorrows and joys.  She’s a good example of how our relationship with God is formed by creation, by the people around us, and the varied circumstances we face as we go through life and the times in which we live.

People like Mother Seton show how faith grows in us. That’s why the new U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults sees her as an example of how we find God in real life. More important than books, people tell us what believing means. They’re good catechisms.

Happy Feast Day to all her daughters throughout the world who continue in her spirit. They are following her and their journey isn’t over.

A biography of Mother Seton:  http://emmitsburg.net/setonshrine/

St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660)

The opening Mass prayer for St. Vincent’s feast day describes succinctly what made him a great saint:

O God, for the relief of the poor

and the formation of the clergy

you endowed the priest St.Vincent De Paul

with apostolic virtues.

grant, that afire with the same spirit

we may love what he loved

and put into practice what he taught.

God gave Vincent de Paul grace to reach out to the poor and form the clergy. Once Vincent met a Protestant, whom he invited to convert to Catholicism. The Protestant said:

“You told me, Monsieur, that the Church of Rome is led by the Holy Spirit, but I find that hard to believe because, on the one hand, we see Catholics in the countryside abandoned to pastors who are ignorant and given over to vice, with so little instruction in their duties that most of them hardly know what the Christian religion is. On the other, we see towns filled with priests and monks who are doing nothing; there are perhaps ten thousand of them in Paris, yet they leave the poor country people in this appalling state of ignorance in which they are lost. And you want to convince me that all this is being guided by the Holy Spirit! I’ll never believe it.”

That’s a picture of the French church in Vincent’s time. One reason for its sad condition was that the French crown appointed bishops and they, in turn, appointed men from important French families who supported them. Political considerations largely influenced church appointments.

As a result, the priesthood in France was badly off, priests had little education, some could hardly read or write. For financial support, they looked for benefices, usually found in the larger cities among rich families, where they could say Mass and celebrate the sacraments. As a young priest, Vincent himself was chaplain for a wealthy family in Paris.

The decision to become a priest was mostly a family’s decision, which might designate one of its sons as its “offering” to God. The priesthood became a way  to get a son some education and some social standing. Vincent’s own family, who were peasants, were influenced by motives like these. For many the priesthood was a job and not a call.

What Vincent did was to appeal to priests, religious, and even bishops, to begin to look spiritually at their roles. They were called by God to a vocation, not a job or career,  They had a  sacred mission to follow Jesus Christ. Vincent, in fact, called the community he founded the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians), because they were to go to those who were neglected. He encouraged, not only priests, but communities of women to care for the poor, without living the usual cloistered life of that time. Vincent’s network embraced laypeople too, who worked for those Jesus called “the least.”

Through the efforts of this saint communities of Sisters of Charity,  Societies of St. Vincent de Paul, are found throughout the world today.

The following reading for Vincent’s feast captures his powerful message:

Although in his passion he almost lost the appearance of a man and was considered a fool by the Gentiles and a stumbling block by the Jews, Jesus showed them that his mission was to preach to the poor: He sent me to preach the good news to the poor. We also ought to have this same spirit and imitate Christ’s actions, that is, we must take care of the poor, console them, help them, support their cause.Even though the poor are often rough and unrefined, we must not judge them from external appearances nor from the mental gifts they seem to have received. On the contrary, if you consider the poor in the light of faith, then you will observe that they are taking the place of the Son of God who chose to be poor.

Since Christ willed to be born poor, he chose for himself disciples who were poor. He made himself the servant of the poor and shared their poverty. He went so far as to say that he would consider every deed which either helps or harms the poor as done for or against himself. Since God surely loves the poor, he also loves those who love the poor. For when one person holds another dear, he also includes in his affection anyone who loves or serves the one he loves. That is why we hope that God will love us for the sake of the poor. So when we visit the poor and needy, we try to understand the poor and weak. We sympathise with them so fully that we can echo Paul’s words: I have become all things to all men. Therefore, we must try to be stirred by our neighbours’ worries and distress. We must beg God to pour into our hearts sentiments of pity and compassion and to fill them again and again with these dispositions.

It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible. If a needy person requires medicine or other help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer. Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God. Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity. Since she is a noble mistress, we must do whatever she commands. With renewed devotion, then, we must serve the poor, especially outcasts and beggars. They have been given to us as our masters and patrons.”

More on St. Vincent de Paul

A Divine Guidance System (DGS) ?


Angels play an important role in St. Luke’s gospel and its continuation, the Acts of the Apostles, which we read during the Easter season. Angels appear to Zachary in the temple announcing the birth and name of John, but the priest rejects the angel’s message and loses his speech. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, announcing the coming of Jesus and she welcomes his message and breaks into song as the Holy Spirit comes upon her. Angels announce the birth of Jesus to the poor shepherds and send them off to Bethlehem to see the newborn Child. Later in the gospel, an angel appears to Jesus to strengthen him as he prays in Garden of Gethsemane.

Besides angels, the Holy Spirit is important for Luke. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus announces in the synagogue of Nazareth, “to bring glad tidings to the poor.” As he ascends into heaven he tells his disciples “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”

Notice in Luke’s accounts, how often angels and the Spirit of the Lord tell people to go somewhere. “Go to Bethlehem,” “Go to Egypt,” “Go to Nazareth.” In one of our readings last week an angel tells Philip to get up and head south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, the desert route.” Then, after Philip meets the Ethiopian official and baptizes him, “the Spirit of the Lord snatches him away” and sends him on the road to Azotus and then to Caesaria.

It sounds like a GPS system. “Go here, turn right, head for this place or that.” Actually, a GPS system is a good analogy for what Luke wants to say. He believes that there’s a divine guidance system for our world and it’s up to us to listen to the signs we’re given and follow God’s instructions. God has a plan for this world and for each of us. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leads us.

I had to drive out to Greensburg, PA, last week to conduct a retreat for the Sisters of Charity there. Most of the way I know, but I never drove to Greensburg so I decided to use a simple GPS system I have in my IPhone .

I never used it before, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t trust it. The GPS said to take Route 66 after you get off the Stanton exit; get off at route 30 and a quarter of mile after that you will be there. I followed it, but then I saw a sign for route 130 and I said to myself, “This thing is wrong, It must mean route 130.” I got off at 130 and I was wrong. The GPS was smarter than I was. So I had to call the convent and say, “ Sister, I’m lost, can you come and get me.”

No matter who we are, we need to pray for guidance and listen to the ways the Lord speaks to us. God is smarter than we are.

Today is Mothers’ Day. I think the smartest mothers, like the smartest fathers, the smartest anybodys, are those who know they need the guidance of God and pray for it every day. A mother I know wrote this prayer some years ago. Here she is, a mother praying for angels and the grace to hear them:

O Lord, I need your help today.
I want to care
for those you’ve sent into my life,
to help them develop the special gifts
you’ve given them.
But I also want to free them
to follow their own paths
and to bring their loving wisdom
to the world.
Help me
to embrace them without clutching,
to support them without suffocating,
to correct them without crushing.
And help me
to live joyfully and playfully, myself,
so they can see your life in me
and find their way to you.
(Virginia Burke Phelan)

The Catholic Church in the Bahamas

One nice thing about preaching missions in different parts of the country and beyond is that you see the church beyond where you live. Here in the Bahamas there are about 50.000 Catholics in a population of about 314,000. There are 25 priests, 14 deacons and 12 religious sisters.

Significantly, the archdiocese has 4 high schools and 8 elementary schools.  Because of its investment in education, the church through it members and those it has educated, has an important role in the Bahamas.

The New York Sisters of Charity and the Benedictines from Collegeville, MN contributed much to this church and they’re recognized in the Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier and Sacred Heart Church where many tourists off the ships visit.

Fr. Tom Brislin renovated Sacred Heart a few years ago and he made sure the “living stones” of that church were remembered.