“The first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills it; and thirdly to do it because it is his will.” – St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), whom we celebrate on January 4, holds the distinction of being the first native-born American saint. Looking back over her great achievements (which include planting the seeds of Catholic education in America and founding a religious order, the Daughters of Charity), what is so special and relevant about Mother Seton is how ordinary her holiness was.
From Wall Street to Italy, from Baltimore to rural Emmitsburg, MD, Elizabeth initially lead a privileged life, but always remained humble and grounded. After becoming a widow with five children at only 28 years old, she eventually moved her young family to Emmitsburg and founded a religious order and Catholic school. After the death of her husband, her life was difficult, filled with personal trials and hardships. Yet, through all of it, she demonstrated constant dedication to discerning and pursuing the will of God, or, as she simply called it, “The Will.” In fact, it is through looking at how Elizabeth sought God’s will in the toughest moments of life that we stand to learn the most from her remarkable, yet ordinary life.
“God, forgive what I have been, correct what I am, and direct what I shall be.”
Humans are creatures of habit, which makes change a scary thing. God certainly called St. Elizabeth to change directions many times over the course of her life, even change her vocation! Elizabeth remained faithful and constant in the moment, while exercising abandonment to the will of God to respond freely as her circumstances changed. Elizabeth demonstrates how we do not become saints overnight, but grow through a day-by-day process of seeking forgiveness and correction every step of the way.
Faithfulness in Failure
“We know certainly that our God calls us to a holy life. We know that he gives us every grace, every abundant grace; and though we are so weak of ourselves, this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty.”
Growing up in a prosperous family, Elizabeth enjoyed a happy and fruitful marriage, blessing her with five children. Together with her husband William, to whom she was very much in love, they inherited a successful business on Wall Street. But in a short period of time, all that changed. William’s business failed and went bankrupt.
Elizabeth knew success very early on, but learned firsthand the difference between success and faithfulness. As an American saint, Elizabeth powerfully challenges the American tendency to view outward success as an indisputable sign of God’s grace. The experience awakened in Elizabeth a newfound love of the poor, as well as a deeper understanding of the will of God in the midst of many obstacles and difficulties on the path to a holy life.
Trust During Tragedy
“The accidents of life separate us from our dearest friends, but let us not despair. God is like a looking glass in which souls see each other. The more we are united to Him by love, the nearer we are to those who belong to Him.”
Not long after her family went bankrupt, Elizabeth and her husband William moved to Italy, where he became sick and died of Tuberculosis. Elizabeth had already lost her mother and sister early in life. Following her husband’s death, Elizabeth found consolation and hope in visiting and praying in various churches throughout Italy, and felt especially drawn to the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin Mary even though she was still Episcopalian. Her experience planted seeds for her entrance into the Catholic Church.
Many of us, myself included, have experienced tragedy strike at the heart of a family. Elizabeth demonstrates that tragedy, though profoundly shaking, need not lead to despair, but an invitation to rely even more on the will of God.
Rejoice Despite Rejection
“Afflictions are the steps to heaven.”
When news of Elizabeth’s conversion in 1805 became public, many parents removed their children from the school where Elizabeth taught in Baltimore (after returning from Italy) and other friends no longer associated with her. Used to being a well-liked socialite, this experience must have been painful. Despite feelings of rejection, Elizabeth did not become bitter, defensive, or lose her natural joy and generosity. Instead, Elizabeth teaches us that following the will of God opens us to greater love and acceptance of others, not enmity with them.
The tragedies and setbacks in Elizabeth’s life were not enough to keep her from trusting the will of God. In her own words, “God has given me a great deal to do, and I have always and hope always to prefer his will to every wish of my own.” Let us approach this new year as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton would have, eager to both desire and do the will of God. Consider starting off 2017 with this novena to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton starting tomorrow, January 4th. Pray in a special way to desire, know, and follow the will of God as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton did.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!
As we celebrate Independence Day, a day of thanksgiving and gratitude for this great country we live in, let us be reminded of our first American Saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton and the work she did to bring liberty and justice to all! The following is the Homily of the Pope Paul VI on the Canonization of Elizabeth Ann Seton, with emphasis added.
Yes, Venerable Brothers and beloved sons and daughters! Elizabeth Ann Seton is a Saint! We rejoice and we are deeply moved that our apostolic ministry authorizes us to make this solemn declaration before all of you here present, before the holy Catholic Church, before our other Christian brethren in the world, before the entire American people, and before all humanity. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a Saint! She is the first daughter of the United States of America to be glorified with this incomparable attribute! But what do we mean when we say: "She is a Saint"? We all have some idea of the meaning of this highest title; but it is still difficult for us to make an exact analysis of it. Being a Saint means being perfect, with a perfection that attains the highest level that a human being can reach. A Saint is a human creature fully conformed to the will of God. A Saint is a person in whom all sin-the principle of death-is cancelled out and replaced by the living splendor of divine grace. The analysis of the concept of sanctity brings us to recognize in a soul the mingling of two elements that are entirely different but which come together to produce a single effect: sanctity. One of these elements is the human and moral element, raised to the degree of heroism: heroic virtues are always required by the Church for the recognition of a person's sanctity. The second element is the mystical element, which express the measure and form of divine action in the person chosen by God to realize in herself-always in an original way-the image of Christ (Cfr.Rom. 8, 29).
The science of sanctity is therefore the most interesting, the most varied, the most surprising and the most fascinating of all the studies of that ever mysterious being which is man. The Church has made this study of the life, that is, the interior and exterior history, of Elizabeth Ann Seton. And the Church has exulted with admiration and joy, and has today heard her own charism of truth poured out in the exclamation that we send up to God and announce to the world: She is a Saint! We shall not now give a panegyric, that is, the narrative which glorifies the new Saint. You already know her life and you will certainly study it further. This will be one of the most valuable fruits of the Canonization of the new Saint: to know her, in order to admire in her an outstanding human figure; in order to praise God who is wonderful in his saints; to imitate her example which this ceremony places in a light that will give perennial edification; to invoke her protection, now that we have the certitude of her participation in the exchange of heavenly life in the Mystical Body of Christ, which we call the Communion of Saints and in which we also share, although still belonging to life on earth. We shall not therefore speak of the life of our Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. This is neither the time nor the place for a fitting commemoration of her.
But at least let us mention the chapters in which such a commemoration should be woven. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is an American. All of us say this with spiritual joy, and with the intention of honoring the land and the nation from which she marvelously sprang forth as the first flower in the calendar of the saints. This is the title which, in his original foreword to the excellent work of Father Dirvin, the late Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York, attributed to her as primary and characteristic: "Elizabeth Ann Seton was wholly American!" Rejoice, we say to the great nation of the United States of America. Rejoice for your glorious daughter. Be proud of her. And know how to preserve her fruitful heritage. This most beautiful figure of a holy woman presents to the world and to history the affirmation of new and authentic riches that are yours: that religious spirituality which your temporal prosperity seemed to obscure and almost make impossible. Your land too, America, is indeed worthy of receiving into its fertile ground the seed of evangelical holiness. And here is a splendid proof-among many others-of this fact.
May you always be able to cultivate the genuine fruitfulness of evangelical holiness, and ever experience how-far from stunting the flourishing development of your economic, cultural and civic vitality -it will be in its own way the unfailing safeguard of that vitality. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton was born, brought up and educated in New York in the Episcopalian Communion. To this Church goes the merit of having awakened and fostered the religious sense and Christian sentiment which in the young Elizabeth were naturally predisposed to the most spontaneous and lively manifestations. We willingly recognize this merit, and, knowing well how much it cost Elizabeth to pass over to the Catholic Church, we admire her courage for adhering to the religious truth and divine reality which were manifested to her therein. And we are likewise pleased to see that from this same adherence to the Catholic Church she experienced great peace and security, and found it natural to preserve all the good things which her membership in the fervent Episcopalian community had taught her, in so many beautiful expressions, especially of religious piety, and that she was always faithful in her esteem and affection for those from whom her Catholic profession had sadly separated her.
For us it is a motive of hope and a presage of ever better ecumenical relations to note the presence at this ceremony of distinguished Episcopalian dignitaries, to whom-interpreting as it were the heartfelt sentiments of the new Saint-we extend our greeting of devotion and good wishes. And then we must note that Elizabeth Seton was the mother of a family and at the same time the foundress of the first Religious Congregation of women in the United States. Although this social and ecclesial condition of hers is not unique or new (we may recall, for example, Saint Birgitta, Saint Frances of Rome, Saint Jane Frances Fremiot de Chantal, Saint Louise de Marillac), in a particular way it distinguishes Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton for her complete femininity, so that as we proclaim the supreme exaltation of a woman by the Catholic Church, we are pleased to note that this event coincides with an initiative of the United Nations: International Women's Year. This program aims at promoting an awareness of the obligation incumbent on all to recognize the true role of women in the world and to contribute to their authentic advancement in society. And we rejoice at the bond that is established between this program and today's Canonization, as the Church renders the greatest honor possible to Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton and extols her personal and extraordinary contribution as a woman -a wife, a mother, a widow, and a religious.
May the dynamism and authenticity of her life be an example in our day-and for generations to come-of what women can and must accomplish, in the fulfillment of their role, for the good of humanity. And finally we must recall that the most notable characteristic of our Saint is the fact that she was, as we said, the foundress of the first Religious Congregation of women in the United States. It was an offspring of the religious family of Saint Vincent de Paul, which later divided into various autonomous branches-five principal ones-now spread throughout the world. And yet all of them recognize their origin in the first group, that of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph's, personally established by Saint Elizabeth Seton at Emmitsburg in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The apostolate of helping the poor and the running of parochial schools in America had this humble, poor, courageous and glorious beginning. This account, which constitutes the central nucleus of the earthly history and worldwide fame of the work of Mother Seton, would merit a more extended treatment. But we know that her spiritual daughters will take care to portray the work itself as it deserves.