Catholics in America – The first saint of the United States

Since the universal church celebrated the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on Jan. 4, this new series on American Christians will appropriately begin by exploring the life and spirituality of this first saint of the United States.

Born in New York in the late 1700s, Elizabeth led a rather unusual life in the still nascent republic. She knew much loss in her childhood, as her mother died while she was young and her stepmother eventually abandoned her. Spiritually unsettled by these events, the Protestant Elizabeth eventually married William Magee Seton and had five children with him. After a difficult and financially stormy marriage, William died and Elizabeth was forced to live with his business partners in Italy, where she had her first direct contact with Catholicism.

Upon her return to the States, she converted and was welcomed into the Catholic Church in St. Peter’s on Barclay Street in Lower Manhattan. The widow became increasingly committed to education and care for the poor, and with the support of the French Sulpicians, established a school for young struggling Catholics in Emmitsburg, Md.

Those close to her could not help but recognize the maternal dimension of her character and began to call her Mother Seton. The religious congregation she founded and to which she dedicated the rest of her life, the Sisters of Charity, still exists and has taught countless generations of Americans. Her nephew, the first archbishop of Newark, James Roosevelt Bayley, named Seton Hall University after his pious aunt.

Elizabeth’s story mirrors many of the church’s heroic figures. It always strikes me how the same notes of consonance play out in so many of these narratives. Augustine, Aquinas, Ignatius, John of the Cross, Teresa of Calcutta — to encounter these figures in any real sense is to meet not pie-in-the-sky supernatural contentment, but authentic inner turmoil and desolation. Words like “aridity,” “darkness,” “loneliness,” and (yes even) “doubt” appear repeatedly in their writings. Thus, the distinction between joy and happiness becomes clearly apparent. No one can be perfectly happy in this world and those that try to be often realize with acute clarity the futility and self-destructiveness of the attempt. “Our hearts were made for you, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in you,” as St. Augustine said.

But the great women and men of our tradition somehow find joy despite suffering and lack of happiness. The God who has become our brother, compatriot, consolation, and savior is in fact himself described as “despised and rejected, one well acquainted with grief” (Is 53:3).

One of the many paradoxes within Christianity is that while we are called, like Elizabeth, to work to alleviate suffering and poverty in this world, yet in some mysterious way we are also taught that “the poor you will always have with you” and “blessed are those that mourn” (such “beatitudes” supposedly describe those with beatus — prosperity, favor, authentic bliss).

The spiritual riches of the Christian life are not stored up during suffering to be enjoyed after the difficult seas have been navigated, but are rather present somehow through and in the course of the rough straits themselves. Joy is found not in the pristine harbor somewhere beyond the horizon, but within the battered and leaking vessel tossed about on the waves, perhaps precisely because it has sprung a leak and knows it cannot mend itself. Our Lord told us, “Those who are healthy have no need of a physician, unlike those who are sick” (Mk 2:17). Saints like Elizabeth Ann Seton teach us not that suffering is unpalatable, but that it is mystifyingly pregnant with the joy of union with the divine.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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