Cardinal O'Connor's Homily

Holy Family Sunday

Cardinal O'Connor offers Mary, Mother Seton as 'women for all families'

This is the text of Cardinal O'Connor's homily at Sunday Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral Dec. 28.


A number of years ago Robert Bolt wrote a wonderful play that many of you are familiar with, "A Man for All Seasons," which became a magnificent movie. It is the story of Thomas More, who had been the exceedingly popular Chancellor of England and Henry VIII's favorite of all of his officials. Then Thomas More refused to countenance the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Even more, he refused to validate Henry VIII's claim that he was now the pope, the supreme spiritual and moral ruler in England and that he would determine what was right and what was wrong. For his pains, you will recall, Thomas More lost his head. He was executed after having been placed in the Tower of London, a "man for all seasons" so-called, of course, because of his applicability to every age. There are always those who have to fight the system and always those who have to stand up and say, "You are wrong. What you are doing is wrong."

But if Thomas More was the "man for all seasons," I would suggest that Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton was the "woman for all families," even though a number of you here may have never heard of her. There is a magnificent bronze statue of her attached to the main doors of this cathedral.

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a little bit closer to our time than Thomas More, and I would like to reflect on her life. I do not think there is any one of us born into any family who has not experienced some facet of her life, some phase of her disappointments, her sadness, her suffering and then her triumph.

Elizabeth Ann was born in 1774 to a father who was the best-known physician here in New York. Her father was very well educated, much more so than most in his day. The family walked in aristocratic circles. Elizabeth Ann was the second child, but her mother died when she was 3 years of age. Her father remarried, but that marriage did not go well at all, and Elizabeth Ann believed that her stepmother did not like her, and they were never simpatico.

Far more problematic for Elizabeth was that her father used to go frequently to London to study the latest developments in medicine--apparently the British at the time were far ahead of others. Elizabeth's father would stay for as long as a year or two years. Even though he called Elizabeth Ann his most beloved child, at times he failed to write to her for a year at a time. So Elizabeth felt very, very lonely. As a matter of fact, when she reached the age of 17, despite the fact that they were very well off financially, and they walked with the highest of society here in New York in those days, it appears that Elizabeth was very strongly tempted to commit suicide in her loneliness, in her sense of despondency that nobody cared, nobody really loved her.

A year later, at the age of 18, Elizabeth met a young man 24 years of age, William McGee Seton. She fell in love with him and married him a year later when she was 19 and he was 25. His father was a major shipowner, a very wealthy man who had ships sailing all the seas. Unfortunately, in those days piracy was rampant and wars were constantly going on so all merchant shipping was in jeopardy.

Nonetheless, for several years William and Elizabeth Ann Seton led almost charmed lives. They had five children. They were very well off, and everything seemed to be going beautifully. Then her husband's father died, lost everything through piracy, through shipwreck and whatnot, and young William simply did not have his father's business acumen, and things deteriorated very badly. Worse, William developed tuberculosis, for which in those days there was very little medical response.

Somehow William was convinced that the climate in Italy was much better for tuberculosis so, leaving their children behind very painfully, they went off to Italy. A so-called yellow plague had broken out here in New York and that fact was known in Italy. When they landed in Leghorn the Italian authorities would not permit William and Elizabeth to leave the area of the ship. They were quarantined for a month in a bitterly cold barracks where her husband, William, went from bad to worse, where he hemorrhaged constantly. After the month was up and they were released to go off to Pisa, William died.

There was a very wealthy family in Italy with whom the Setons had done a great deal of business, the Filicchi family, who befriended Elizabeth Ann. She was an Episcopalian, a very devout Episcopalian. Here is where she learned that God writes straight with crooked lines. Elizabeth lost her beloved husband. She was now penniless because he had failed badly in business and yet, through her four months in living with the Filicchi family, devout Catholics, she came in touch with their understanding of the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Elizabeth was stunned. She was captivated with the idea that Christ could actually be present, that a piece of bread could become His Body, a cup of wine His Blood, that the whole Christ, human and divine, would be present on the altar in Holy Communion, would be present in the tabernacle. This dazzled Elizabeth. This radically revolutionized her life. Through all of her sorrow she recognized what the French writer Paul Claudel said, that God writes straight with crooked lines.

Elizabeth came back to New York accompanied initially by Mr. Filicchi because he had business here. She returned to her family, taking care of her five children. But Elizabeth was completely penniless. At that time it was customary for the aristocracy to take care of one another, and she knew that that would be the case and indeed it was. Initially they took good care of her. But the more Elizabeth reflected on the Blessed Sacrament and the more she went to visit St. Peter's Church down on Barclay Street, which was the only Catholic Church in New York at the time, and knelt for hours before the Blessed Sacrament, before the Eucharistic Christ, the more convinced she became that she had to become a Catholic. She knew that this was going to revolutionize her life even further because Catholics were looked at with complete contempt.

Overwhelmingly, Catholics were the immigrants. They were considered dirty drunks, penniless Irish, Germans, Italians. They lived in the so-called shanty towns, the ghettos of the day. They did all the menial work. The Irish women were housekeepers and maids. The Irish men were laborers, and so were the Germans and the Italians. They then left New York and went off to work in the coal mines at virtual slave labor. They were treated with complete contempt.

Elizabeth knew that if she became a Catholic she would be immediately expelled from the aristocracy and all her financial and emotional support would be lost. Yet, impelled by her love of the Eucharist and convinced that nothing else was comparable to this, Elizabeth became a Catholic. And precisely what she expected happened--she was rejected by the aristocracy and she had nothing. Elizabeth tried to run a boarding house and failed. She tried to run a school and failed.

Then a priest in Baltimore heard about Elizabeth. He asked her to come down to Baltimore and open what would be the first Catholic school in the United States. Elizabeth went with all of her children and opened the first Catholic school. This led to another and another and another. It was Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton who was responsible for the vast Catholic school system that we have in the United States today with all its colleges and universities and so on--this from a woman who herself had read a lot but had had very little formal education.

In the meanwhile Elizabeth's children were growing. Her two sons left her against her will to go off to the United States Navy, one as an officer and one as an enlisted man. Richard, the enlisted man, died at sea nursing a Protestant minister who had some kind of infectious disease which Richard had caught and died from. William became a profligate. He was all over the place, promiscuous and so on. Elizabeth Ann Seton was deeply saddened. Then after Richard her son had died, her first daughter died and her third daughter died. She had one daughter remaining.

Elizabeth was asked to go to Emmitsburg, Md., and establish a religious community. She felt initially that this was preposterous. She had no training along those lines, yet she believed this to be God's will, and this is what she did. She established the Sisters of Charity in the United States, the first religious community of women in the United States who were to spread all over the country and into various other countries as well. Finally, Elizabeth, too, having had latent tuberculosis, died at the age of 47 in the year 1821. She was canonized on Sept. 14, 1975.

This is an extraordinary story--a non-Catholic became a Catholic, a very, very wealthy family became penniless, unloved by a stepmother, tempted to suicide she met a man she loved very deeply and had a wonderful marriage with five children and then he died, three of her five children died and finally she died of tuberculosis. But look what Elizabeth had done in the meanwhile! Indeed God writes straight with crooked lines. It is not a scenario that any one of us would write.

But how many can look into various facets of our own family life and find something paralleling the life of Elizabeth Ann Seton? It was the Eucharist that kept her going. She sincerely believed that every major step that she took was in response to the will of God. God never promised her a rose garden. She took the good with delight. She took the bad, the suffering, with resignation.

Is there any one of us here who has not had some problem in our family similar to hers? The loss of a loved one, a misunderstanding, loneliness, even a temptation to suicide? There are widows and widowers here, there are parents who have lost their children and children who have lost their parents. My own father spent five years bedridden, and my mother day and night was trying to take care of him. It happens in every family.

Rather than talk about the nature of family life on this Holy Family Sunday, I thought it could be helpful if we just reflected on a model mother, a model wife, who had all of the sufferings that any mother, any wife has, as her husband had the sufferings of any husband, of any father, financial reverses, general insecurity and so on.

Just a few words about today's extraordinary Gospel. [Lk. 2:41-52] If Elizabeth Ann Seton is "the woman for all families" it is only by reflection in comparison with Mary. What a life Mary lived! How God seemed to treat her. She was totally open, stunned, when, as a virgin committed to virginity, she was invited to become the mother of the Son of God. No sooner had Mary accepted God's will than trouble began. She and Joseph could not find any place for the Baby to be born. They had to go knocking on doors and were humiliated.

The Baby is hardly born when they are told that Herod's soldiers are looking for Him to put Him to death, so the family has to go off to Egypt into the unknown, into insecurity. That is the nature of their lives. At the age of 12, in accordance with the Jewish law, they take Jesus to the temple. They leave with their families and friends, as was the custom. They all traveled together for security and company so it was understandable that they were well out on the road before they realized Jesus was missing. It was time for supper and it was getting dark. Then we are told how anguished Mary and Joseph were looking for Him for three days and three nights.

None of you who know me and know what I look like would believe that I had an older sister who was a very beautiful young woman. My father used to anguish when she would be out at night after 10 o'clock. His heart would be broken thinking his daughter was surely in the hospital, maybe dead. But then when she came home, of course, he would be furious that she had violated the curfew.

Mary and Joseph were the same. They were human beings. They were anguished for three days and three nights. But when they found the Child what did they say? "How could you do this to us, your parents?"

That is the nature of Mary's life. Joseph dies and she is a widow, facing the future alone. Then this strange Son of hers ends up on a cross and she is again treated with contempt. But what was the result? Just as with Elizabeth Ann Seton, whose sisters spread throughout the country and the world opening schools and hospitals, so with what seemed to be the inglorious defeat of Jesus and Mary, Christianity spread throughout the world, cathedrals of this sort appeared all over, hospitals and schools and charitable activities sprang up, everything imaginable was revolutionized by the coming, the suffering and the death of Christ, who did not stay dead, but rose from the dead.

Elizabeth Ann Seton, a woman for all families, was canonized on Sept. 14, 1975, by Pope Paul VI. Mary the Mother of God needed no canonization.

Cardinal O'Connor's Homily, Cardinal O'Connor