By Regina Bechtle, SC
The following is from the Winter 2022 issue of VISION.
After Pope Francis’ July 2021 hospital stay, a headline in Catholic New York read: “Pope, recuperating from surgery, shows tenderness to fellow patients.” (Catholic New York, 7/15/21). In April 2021, the Pope urged priests whom he had just ordained to imitate “God’s style—closeness, compassion, and tenderness.”1
Tenderness–it’s not a word one hears much in casual conversation today, much less on cable networks, Twitter feeds or in the halls of Congress. Elders may remember Bing Crosby’s 1933 recording of “Try a Little Tenderness.” More recently, Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” won a Grammy in 2017. No matter our age, we probably all agree: tenderness is easier to sing about than to put into practice.
Life experiences shaped Elizabeth Ann Seton into a strong, intrepid woman who made her opinions known and set high standards for herself and others. Those same experiences also opened her heart and deepened her capacity for tenderness.
To a friend Elizabeth wrote: “How much my heart prays for you and how tenderly it is attached to you, you can never know.” And to another she confided: “I find in proportion as my heart is more drawn towards the summit, it looks back with added tenderness to everyone I have ever loved….”
At her father’s Staten Island quarantine station, the sight of dying immigrant mothers and their sick babies moved Elizabeth to wish that she could share some of her own milk with them. Her heart drew her to the seriously ill person, the grieving friend, the troubled, homesick student. After she became a Catholic, the Rule that she adapted for her new Sisters of Charity committed them to honor Jesus Christ by providing “every service in their power” to young and old, whatever their needs, including “those who through shame would conceal their necessities.” Her heart went out to others, whether their pain was hidden or obvious.
The contemporary statues of Mother Seton and other religious figures sculpted by Sr. Margaret (Peggie) Beaudette, SC, radiate tenderness. In one, a child clutches Elizabeth’s dress while she holds another in her arms; in another, Elizabeth sits on a rock, bending to teach two eager youngsters.
Several years ago, Sr. Maria Iglesias, SC, pastoral care director at Elizabeth Seton Children’s Center in Yonkers, invited staff members to imagine what Mother Seton would say to them as they served children with multiple needs. From a list of Seton quotes, they chose, “Tenderness is the language children best understand.” Elizabeth’s words echo those of St. Vincent de Paul, centuries before: “Kindness is the key to hearts.”
Tenderness: a gift to pray for during these long months of COVID restrictions when many of us have felt the rub of constant “up-close” living with family or community members, or the profound loneliness of isolation. It is a gift to cultivate for ourselves, too, when our growing edges seem more jagged than usual and our vulnerabilities are all too evident. Practicing tenderness can be as simple as consciously choosing not to label another person or group, or remembering that, as the saying goes, “An enemy is one who has wounded me, but whose wounds I do not know.”
“Tenderness,” says writer and retreat director Sharon Browning, “has a role in politics and playgrounds, boardrooms and bedrooms, churches and community rooms. Imagine if we seasoned our mealtimes and meetings with it, imagine those who make and enforce law, and lawmakers making room for it.” Imagine, indeed!2
May we learn from St. Elizabeth Ann to follow the example of our God, who is rich in compassion; may she and wisdom figures past and present make us fluent in the language and living of tenderness.
Cover image: Sr. Margaret Beaudette, artist, in her studio at Mount Saint Vincent, ca. 2005