Thea Bowman

Thea Bowman and Mother Seton: Living the Paradox of the Gospel

In their lives, Servant of God Thea Bowman and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were content to do their “little bit,” to plant the seeds of God’s love that would bring forth a bountiful harvest in heaven and on earth.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.
Sometimes I feel like an eagle in flight.
I am longing for home.

The words above are taken from a traditional African-American spiritual, one of those prayerful hymns that was born from the encounter between enslaved black Africans and the Christian Gospel.

These words express the heart of the Christian life—which is, admittedly, a paradox. So often we feel orphaned, abandoned to pain and suffering, longing for a home that we have not yet seen. And yet, despite our suffering, we also know moments when our hearts are truly aflame, when our souls are like eagles in flight.

This is the paradox of the Christian life—the tension between our longing for joy and the often sorrowful reality of our experience on earth. It is only recognized for what it truly is when a man or woman who longs for authentic freedom from sin and death encounters the person of Jesus Christ.

These words were sung in 1989, at the annual gathering of the U.S. Catholic bishops, by Sr. Thea Bowman as part of her address on the experience of being a black Catholic in America. One year later, Thea died of breast cancer at the age of 52. In 2018, the bishops endorsed the cause for her canonization, and she is now addressed as “Servant of God.”

Thea was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, in 1937, the only child of a Protestant couple well into middle age. Her grandfather had been a slave. Moved by the witness of the religious Sisters at the school she attended, she entered the Catholic Church at age nine. At fifteen, she became the only black postulant among the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. When her father warned her that not everyone would like to see a black Sister, she replied, “If they aren’t going to like me, I will make them love me.”

After several years as a schoolteacher, she earned her doctorate in English and taught English and linguistics at Viterbo College, Catholic University of America, and Xavier University. After the bishop of Jackson, Mississippi, asked her to be a consultant on intercultural issues, Thea began to tour widely to proclaim the Gospel through prayer, witness, and song.

The teaching of the Second Vatican Council inspired Thea to plunge deeply into her own African heritage even as she remained rooted in the Catholic Faith. As a result, she became more black, more Catholic, altogether more human—the kind of woman who could sit and sing full-throated in front of a room filled with bishops whom she addressed as her “brothers.”

In the last years of her life, Thea suffered from incurable breast cancer. Even as she became weaker, and despite being confined to a wheelchair, she continued to witness to her love of Christ through talks and presentations.

In 1987, Thea told 60 Minutes, “I think the difference between me and some people is that I’m content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make a big change. But if each one would light a candle, we would have a tremendous light.”

Thea witnessed to the mysterious and beautiful paradox of our faith. She rejoiced with the joyful and wept with the sorrowing (cf. Romans 12:15). She brought change, but not by seeking a “big change.” She sought only to do what was given her to do, but that she did wholeheartedly, without reserve.

Nothing expressed this unstinting gift of self like Thea’s commitment to the music of her people. She was a force in recovering and promoting the music of the black Catholic Church. Song welled up from Thea so naturally that it seemed part of her person. By the end of her talk to the bishops, she had them on their feet and singing along with her.

The truth of Thea’s life will be borne out by its fruits—and these I think we have yet to see. But it is worthwhile to consider the parallels between her life and that of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Both sought to share their love of Christ by teaching others. Both wanted to start something new in this world. Neither had much obvious “success.”

When Mother Seton died, the little community she had shepherded was still in its infancy. What was she but a widow-turned-nun, an impoverished convert to Catholicism, who had chosen to live out her life teaching girls in the woods of Maryland? Yet, like Thea, Elizabeth had met Christ, and then her soul had begun to take flight. Sorrows were suddenly infused with unexpected joys, darkness was pierced by shafts of light. Writing once to a young priest, Elizabeth gave this “little daily lesson”: “to praise and love through cloud and sunshine is all my care and study.”

Like Thea, Elizabeth was content to “do her little bit,” confident that it was enough for her to plant the seeds; God would bring forth a bountiful harvest.

The astounding heritage of Elizabeth Seton’s work confirms that it is only by living the paradox of our faith that the world can be changed.

As we remember Servant of God Thea Bowman on the day she passed into eternal life, we can do no better than to ask for her help and that of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in this work.

LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.

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