June 23 is International Widows Day
In the Scriptures, the distinctive mark of good and generous people was their kindness to widows and orphans. In a society without social security and in which women had little possibility of independence, a young woman who lost a husband while having children to raise was particularly vulnerable. She relied on a supportive family or community. It was natural that from the beginnings of the Christian Church its leaders gathered resources and distributed them to widows in need.
In much of the world, widows still live precariously. In times of war, women see their husbands killed and must flee to save their children’s lives. The burden of epidemics such as AIDS, too, often leave women alone to try to raise their families. It is common for them to deny themselves food to keep their children alive, and to be sexually exploited.
The day for widows calls to mind the desperate situation of so many women throughout the world and invites us to be generous in support and resolute in demanding an end to the wars and inequality that make widows of married women. It also reminds us of how fortunate we are, even in Australia, if we have had two parents to support and care for us from childhood through to adulthood, and if our mothers lived to see their grandchildren. Not all people are so blessed.
The recent election campaign, too, highlighted the sacrifices that widows and single mothers have had to make when raising their children. They must find time to support their children at home and also to work long hours outside the home to enable their education. They also forego opportunities to study and develop their skills, with the result that society is deprived of the benefits that could have flowed if their gifts had flowered.
Widows Day is a time to celebrate this kind of generosity and also to ask whether we as a society and as families can better help women who have lost their husbands. It is also a time to reflect on the widow-makers that cause so much suffering, and to curb them. Military actions that are initiated by wealthy people in order to increase their power leave behind a trail of widows. So do business enterprises that have no regard for safety, expose workers to toxic chemicals and unprotected building sites or mines. Many widows are the victims of the profit sought recklessly by others.
When accompanying disadvantaged young people at Jesuit Social Services we often meet widows and single mothers. Their life of disadvantage often touches their children, too. They need special support to connect with society and help their children find education and work.
In the Catholic Church widows have always had an important place. They have been honoured members of the community who received support from the community. They have been the dedicated workforce that undertakes generously all the work needed to make parishes flourish. They have been saints who after losing their husbands embarked on a life of prayer or founded religious congregations and lay groups to serve the poor. It is no wonder that they have been singled out so often as saints.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.