I. A Homecoming: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
A. In deciding to hold this year’s convocation in here in Emmitsburg, we are coming home – home to the roots of Catholic education in the United States. For we are have come to a place made sacred by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, truly a pioneer in Catholic education and religious life in our country. Indeed, in coming to her home, we experience a homecoming, a return to a source of that beautiful vision of Catholic education that gets us up in the morning and makes us part of a transformative mission.
B. As you know, St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is our nation’s first native born canonized saint. She was born in 1774 into a socially prominent New York family and grew up as a devout member of the Anglican Church. She married William Seton and had a wonderful family but in time she and her family faced severe hardships: first, her husband’s business went into bankruptcy and then his health declined. While on a trip to Italy to recover his health, William Seton died. Returning to New York Elizabeth Seton became a Catholic, was confirmed by Archbishop John Carroll, and in God’s providence found her way to Maryland where she opened a small school on Paca St. in Baltimore near St. Mary’s Seminary. Later, at the invitation of Sulpician Father Dubourg, she came to Emmitsburg where she opened St. Joseph Academy and Free School for the education of girls. This marked the beginning of Catholic schools in the United States and Mother Seton School here in Emmitsburg is the direct descendant of St. Joseph Academy and Free School. Not long thereafter she founded the Daughters of Charity, a religious institute dedicated to the works of charity, to healthcare, and, most significantly for our gathering, Catholic education.
C. What a wonderful legacy we share here in the Archdiocese of Baltimore! It is a story of faith and a story of being willing to risk everything so as to form young people in the faith, to develop their God-given potential, and to put them on a life-long course of faith, worship, and service of others. Mother Seton was joyful amid the challenges she faced here in Emmitsburg: “I was at peace” [she wrote] “in the midst of fifty children all day . . . Order and regularity could not be skipped over in our school. I was a mother encompassed by many children of different dispositions, not all equally amiable or congenial, but bound to love, instruct, and provide for the happiness of all.” Amid a lack of money and resources, internal and external challenges, Mother Seton persevered and set in motion what remains the largest network of private schools in the United States. For his part, my predecessor, Bishop John Carroll offered her his support: “Assure yourself” [he wrote] “of my blessing on your prosperity in the important duty of education . . . a laborious, charitable, and permanent object of their religious duty.” [Source: Elizabeth Seton: Mission of Education, Sr. Betty McNeil, D.C., pp. 190-193].
II. Enriched in Every Way
A. Truly we marvel at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s pioneering spirit and we give thanks to God for the blessings of nature and grace which God’s Providence bestowed upon her. This morning, as we ask her to pray for us during this new academic year, Mother Seton’s life and example speaks to us – especially through the words of St. Paul in today’s first reading. Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul gave thanks for the graces they had received. He said that in Christ they were enriched in every way, with knowledge of the faith and with the ability to speak well about it. He gave thanks that they were endowed with many spiritual gifts that would enable them to remain steadfast in the practice of faith to the very end.
B. Aided by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s prayers, we echo St. Paul’s words of thanks for we recognize that God has not ceased to distribute his gifts among us – that we too are blessed with knowledge of the faith, with the ability to speak of the faith, and with those spiritual gifts that need not merely to educate young people but indeed to form them in the joy of the Gospel and the truth of the faith. Like Mother Seton in her classroom and like St. Paul in dealings with the unruly Corinthians, we too face challenges and even obstacles in the mission entrusted to us – but together, we face them with confidence and joy for we are focused not on ourselves but on the young people and their families whose lives we hope to touch and transform with the truth and love of Christ.
III. Communities of Faith, Knowledge, and Service
A. In the Gospel, Jesus says something that you may find yourselves saying to your students during the first period: “Stay awake!” In reality, those are words addressed to you and me for Jesus is talking to us about our readiness and spiritual alertness as we begin this new academic year. The vigilance which Jesus asks of us is not that of looking over our shoulder, trying to cover our flanks or being on high alert lest we be caught in wrongdoing. No, it’s just the opposite: it is spiritual alertness in going about our daily work looking for every opportunity to “rise to the promise found in each young person”, “to give them space” … “to create the material and spiritual conditions for their full development; to give them a solid basis on which to build their lives; to guarantee their safety and their education to be everything they can be…” – inspiring words of Pope Francis to educators.
B. In urging us to create “space” for young people, the Holy Father is also urging us to ensure that our Catholic schools are truly communities of faith, knowledge, and service. Creating “space” for our students is not merely a matter of policies and regulations; it can only be created by the example of our lives and our spiritual of cooperation. By her holiness and spiritual grit, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton created “space” for some fifty students—not all of whom were ‘amiable and congenial’. We also created a place where young people can grow in grace and wisdom by strengthening our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, by developing our knowledge of the faith, by practicing our faith – attending Mass on Sunday, frequenting the Sacrament of Reconciliation – and by engaging in hands-on charity, a charity that evangelizes. Your leadership & spirituality are how our schools become not merely private schools but indeed communities where the faith is conveyed to children and families, where knowledge is combined with faith and the development of virtue, and where a spirit of loving service, especially for the poor, shines forth.
C. This is the living legacy we have come on pilgrimage to Emmitsburg to embrace. I take this moment to thank you for your commitment to the mission of our schools, I thank you for your spirit of sacrifice, and to offer you my support, praying with you that the year ahead will be a time of blessing for each of you, and for the students and families we serve as a Church in the name of the Lord.
May God bless you and keep you always in his love!