200th Anniversary of the Death of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton
Basilica of the National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton
January 4, 2021
Two-hundred years ago today, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton entered enteral life. We have gathered on this, her feast day, not merely to recall the events of her extraordinary life, but indeed to give thanks for her enduring influence among women and men of every vocation and state of life in the Church. For the authentic holiness of her life coupled with her heavenly intercession mean that she is much more than a figure confined to the pages of history. Rather, she is a living friend in the courts of heaven and a lamp actively guiding our steps on earth.
To illustrate her influence, let me begin with two Archbishops of Baltimore whom St. Elizabeth Ann Seton has profoundly influenced. The year was 1835, and a very bright young man from a prominent Episcopalian family in New York City had just graduated from Washington College (later, Trinity College) in Hartford, CT. The young man’s name was James Roosevelt Bayley, eventually the 1st Bishop of Newark and the 8th Archbishop of Baltimore. His father, Dr. Guy Bayley, envisioned for his son a bright future as a medical doctor, but James and his friend John Williams felt a call to be ministers in the Episcopal Church. They were placed under the tutelage of a Dr. Samuel Farmar Jarvis at Middleton, CT, in whose extensive library James familiarized himself with ancient Christian writers. James’ exposure to those writers would later influence his future decision to become a Catholic and to study for the priesthood, but that exposure was not decisive. More decisive was the influence of his deceased aunt, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton. In a letter to Mother Seton’s daughter, Catherine, a.k.a., “Cousin Kate”, James attributed his conversion “to the prayers of your sainted Mother” and a few lines later referred to her as “a saint in heaven” (Yeager, Life of JRB, pp. 56-57). James, in turn, influenced his brother William to become a Catholic and both of them had a warm and loving devotion to their aunt (Ibid, p. 264). Years later, in his funeral oration for Archbishop Bayley, Bishop John Foley of Chicago spoke of his aunt’s influence on him, “She was, like himself, a convert, and the Archbishop, in conversation with his friends, ascribed his conversion to the prayers of this great, good, and venerated woman” (Ibid, 463).
Another Baltimore Archbp. whom St. Elizabeth Ann Seton influences is the incumbent. I was blessed to study for the priesthood at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary, and like many a seminarian, I came often from the Mountain to the Valley to pray at the tomb of then-Blessed Elizabeth Ann Seton. Recalling her incisive criticisms of the careless preaching of a certain Father Hickey, I asked her to pray for me, that I would learn to preach reasonably well, and to tell you truth, for some reason, I am feeling rather nervous right about now! I also remember thanking her for the Catholic schools that I attended and asked her help as I tried to teach high school at St. Joseph’s here in Emmitsburg (under the tutelage of the then-principal, Sister Ethelrita). In 1974, my second year of theology, Pope Paul VI canonized Mother Seton, and I benefitted from the talks, homilies, and articles occasioned by that great event. But more than any of that, I felt then and I feel now that I meet St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in you, the Sisters and Daughters of Charity, you, her spiritual heirs who carry forward her charism and mission of charity whose foundations we see so clearly in today’s Scripture readings–let me explain.
The Charism of Charity
In the surprising events and distressing tribulations of her life, Elizabeth always sensed “the protecting presence” and “the consoling grace” of her Redeemer . . . . She wrote: “He raises me from the dust … he drives away all sorrows … He is my guide, my friend, and my supporter – with such a guide, what can I fear?” St. John puts that another way: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son as an expiation for our sins.” Responsive to God’s loving and guiding hand in the events of her life, Elizabeth reflected her love of God in a life of overflowing charity for others: overflowing charity for her family, her husband and her children, and her friends; overflowing charity for the students whom she educated in a little house in Baltimore; the abundant charity she shared with her sisters in her foundation at Emmitsburg—the love that flowed from this place to nearly every part of North America. At bottom, her influence on us is great because every day and in every circumstance she lived to the uttermost the words of Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
That is why 200 years after her death, her influence is still so strongly felt. Her influence is felt by mothers and fathers who, amid the challenges of these days, strive to form their children in the faith by providing a home that is secure and holy. What grieving widow cannot find consolation in the spiritual strength of Elizabeth as she bade farewell to her beloved husband in Italy where he died of tuberculosis? Even as society turns a cold shoulder to religious faith, there are, nonetheless, many souls in our midst who are searching for truth, just as Elizabeth Ann and her nephew James, sought and found the fullness of faith. Especially in these days of the pandemic, our heroic Catholic school principals and teachers can look to her for strength. Recalling her tremendous sacrifices to educate the young and her role in the founding of the Catholic school system in the United States, they find in this great saint a role model and an intercessor in challenging times. Those who are searching for their vocation, perhaps to the priesthood or religious life, find in this great saint a role model for answering the Lord’s call and consecrating oneself to the Lord and to the mission he has in mind.
And, let us not forget the many people who have never heard of this great saint, but who meet St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in the ministries sponsored by the Sisters of Charity Federation. They meet her in the compassionate care offered in the health care ministries that are sponsored by your congregations; they meet her in the Catholic schools that you continue to sponsor, staff, and sustain. They meet her in the witness of your consecrated lives, in which you have laid aside all else so as to bear witness to the One who is single-hearted in love, poor in spirit, and obedient to his Father’s saving will. They may not know St. Elizabeth Ann Seton or the amazing events of her life, but through you they experience her overflowing love of God and neighbor.
A Secondary Patroness for the United States
Marking the 200th Anniversary of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s birth into eternal life, let us give thanks, perhaps as never before, for her amazing witness to the Lord’s love. Our first native-born American saint is a saint for everyone – for those who are married, for those who are bereaved, for those in consecrated life, for bishops and priests striving for holiness, for those seeking the fullness of faith, for Catholic educators and healthcare professionals, and especially for all those who are served by the ministries of education and healthcare that she inspired.
It seems to me that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is a patron to whom we can all relate, and if you want my opinion, next to the Blessed Virgin Mary, she is an ideal patron for the Church in the United States! I am sure that Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley would concur with me, as would Catholics from every walk of life in the United States and Canada. There is still much work to do to bring this about, but I hope and pray that this most influential saint may one day be declared, after the Blessed Mother, the Patron of the Church in the United States. Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, pray for us!