In 1774—two years before our nation’s founding—a famous American woman was born in New York City; twenty years later she married another well-known New Yorker. Both were Episcopalians, the religion to which many prominent, upper-class Americans belonged in the 18th century, and they had five children. The husband came down with tuberculosis, so the family moved to Italy, hoping the mild climate would help. It didn’t; the husband died a few years later. A generous and caring Italian family—devout Catholics—helped the American family return to the United States. The widow never forgot this generous act; in fact, it led her to investigate the teachings of the Catholic Church. When afterwards she decided to become a Catholic herself, her horrified relatives and friends disowned or rejected her. The young widow took a job as a school teacher to support herself and her children. Eventually, after her children grew up, she founded the American branch of a religious order known as the Sisters of Charity. This order opened schools for Catholic children, thus beginning the Church’s parochial school system in America. The widow’s name, as you may have guessed, was Elizabeth Ann Seton; she died in 1821 at the age of 46, and was canonized in the 1975—the first American-born saint (Msgr. Arthur Tonne, Five-Minute Homilies, p. 113; Mark Link, S.J., Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, Series II, p. 119).
Like the two widows mentioned in the readings (1 Kings 17:10-16; Mark 12:38-44) for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mother Seton, as she became known, faced adversity, but trusted in God. Rather than looking for reasons to complain, all three of these humble but inspiring women looked for opportunities to serve—and this generous attitude made them great. God wants the same thing to be true for us. He blesses and guides and sustains us so that we in turn might help others. Sharing God’s gifts in a trusting and generous spirit is an important part of living out our faith.
Our readings speak of giving without counting the cost. The Letter to the Hebrews (9:24-28) reminds us that Jesus did this when He gave His life as an offering for our sins. Our Lord didn’t say, “It’s not fair; why should I have to die? I’ve never sinned,” nor did He look for a way of avoiding His mission. Instead, He trusted and was obedient to His Heavenly Father—and God rewarded and exalted Him. We see in the Book of Kings (1 Kings 17:10-16) that the widow of Zarephath believed the prophet Elijah, and shared her meager food; as a result, she and her son miraculously had enough to survive throughout the drought and famine gripping their homeland. The unnamed widow in the Gospel of Mark (12:38-44) gave generously to the Temple in Jerusalem, even though it meant she had nothing left for herself. We don’t know what happened next, but because Jesus praised her, we can be sure that eventually He gave her an especially warm welcome to Heaven. Elizabeth Ann Seton took the costly and painful step of giving her life to God— and received far more back than she had sacrificed. God works that way; when we sincerely give Him even a little bit in a spirit of great love, His response is overwhelming.
It’s been said that there are three types of givers: grudge givers, duty givers, and thanks givers. Grudge givers contribute money or time reluctantly, and perhaps with a feeling of resentment. Duty givers contribute out of a sense of obligation. Thanks givers, however, contribute out of a sense of gratitude. The three widows we’ve considered were all thanks givers (Link, op. cit., p. 120). They didn’t complain about their problems; they didn’t come up with excuses for not getting involved; they didn’t say, “Let someone else do it.” Instead, they gave whatever they had with a generous heart. In our parishes, we have many such persons: widows on a fixed income who contribute every week, men and women who are always willing to get involved when something needs to be done in the parish or the school, persons who genuinely care about others and want to help those in need. To all such persons we say: “Thank you; your efforts and contributions are seen and appreciated—by us, and more importantly, by God.”