“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!
Courage and perseverance are two traits that I admire. The latter is a characteristic that not many people have, is hard to teach, and one that is imperative for success. In my classroom of 2nd graders, I try to remind them to “not give up, but try again and again.” When they become frustrated with challenging work or difficult friendships, they stop wanting to try again. They start to give up - but I tell them, “Keep trying!” and “Don’t be afraid to make a mistake!” Hopefully, one day my students will grow to recognize how courage can help them persevere through anything.
People who do extraordinary things should be recognized for their courage and conviction. Saint Catherine of Siena, whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, is a woman whose contributions to the Church, taking action in times of need and exceptional theological writings, sometimes can be overlooked. Born in Siena, Italy in 1347, Catherine spent her life doing the will of God. She began receiving visions and praying to God from a very early age, even seeing in one in which Christ reassured her with an armor of courage that could overcome anything that tempted or threatened her.
St. Catherine lived her entire life in prayer and was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI on October 4, 1970. She along with St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux are the three women to have been bestowed with such a title. St. Catherine worked to return Pope Gregory XI to Rome, from Avignon France where the Papacy had been residing for 67 years. Her determination to see this mission through was a testament to her unwavering courage to do God’s will.
In her many philosophical letters, prayers, and the Dialogue, St. Catherine reflected on four theological concepts with which she considered while in ecclesiastical mysticism. The first was a Treatise of Divine Providence, the second was a Treatise of Discretion, third was a Treatise of Prayer, and finally a Treatise of Obedience. Throughout her courageous writings, she discusses the goodness of a person’s knowledge of God and his unending love for his children living on earth.
Because of this prayerful life she led, in 1375, St. Catherine was blessed with the Stigmata on her hands, feet, and side. Her wounds reflected those of Christ’s and were only visible to the naked eye upon her death in 1380 at the young age of thirty-three. Found incorrupt in 1430, St. Catherine is now buried under the altar of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, in Rome and a sculpture of her body is on display there, too.
Throughout the year, let us strive to be like St. Catherine of Siena and take courage and persevere. Unshaken by those who challenged and doubted her, she remained steadfast in her commitment to Christ, His Church, and His people. You don’t have to be a saint to follow God’s call to courageous witness, but prayer and perseverance can lead you toward holiness in Christ.
Krissy Kirby is a teacher for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
“There is nothing more holy, more eminently perfect, than resignation to the will of God.” ~ St. Vincent de Paul
When we hear these words we often think of Mary declaring herself the handmaid of the Lord or Jesus crying out on the cross, “Into your hands Lord, I commend my spirit.” And yet, there is another example of complete sacrifice to God that often slips by us, that of Joseph, the silent and steadfast husband and father, who cared for Mary as the Lord commanded and raised Jesus as his own flesh and blood.
“There is nothing more holy, more eminently perfect, than resignation to the will of God.” These are truly words to live by, but not easy words to live by. And yet they give us a powerful image of Joseph, a simple man, a carpenter, a husband, a father, giving himself completely to the Lord. He is a perfect example of someone who wanted to live a simple life, but found more than he could ever imagine when he placed his life in the hands of God. If I had been in Joseph's shoes I would have been afraid, and I am sure that Joseph was afraid, but we know that fear did not guide him. No, “he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home” (Mt 1:24). This image of Joseph is a powerful image. As Saint Pope John Paul II tells us in Redemptoris Custos, Joseph was called by God to be the protector of Mary and the foster-father of Jesus. In some ways we can think of him as the ultimate human protector. He gave up his life and dedicated it to his family, to protect Mary and Jesus so that one day his own son might die a criminal’s death on the cross and save the world. He is a beautiful example of what it means to be a father and a husband, giving all of himself so that his family could live out their own call to serve the Lord.
St. Joseph, though often portrayed as a silent figure in the Gospels, remains a beautiful example of fatherhood. Fathers serve in one of the most important and formative roles a child can have. They help us to grow in faith and in love, they teach us the things their fathers taught them, and we look to them for support and guidance, for strength and surety. My own father is one of the greatest men I know. During the last 33 years of marriage he has been a devoted husband and father striving to uphold our faith and me and my three brothers as Catholic gentlemen. He has given his life for his family and God, and I couldn't ask for more. On this feast of St. Joseph the Husband of Mary, it is important for us to remember our own fathers and what they have done for us. It is important to see the sacrifices they have made and how they have guided us to place complete trust in the Lord.
As I continue to prepare for marriage this summer I pray and hope that I can live up to the example of St. Joseph and my father, that I can be the husband and father that God is calling me to be. This path is not easy, but I know that if all of us pursuing marriage and those who are already there give ourselves to Christ through the example of St. Joseph that we will live as God has called us to live, in the example of St. Joseph and the Holy Family.
This Lenten season I invite you to pursue St. Joseph because in his silence, in his steadfast faith and loyalty to God, and in his devotion and love of his family, he calls us even closer to Christ. Sometimes we need Mary our Mother whose embrace is always loving and warm, like a Mother holding her child. But other times we need the strength of Joseph, a father’s steadfast hand guiding us on the path to Christ, a silent witness to those who have given themselves completely to serving the Lord.
Nicholas Shields is a young professional in Washington, D.C.