By Rob Judge
Elizabeth Ann Seton is a saint we can all relate to. She experienced joy and suffering. She had hopes and dreams. She dealt with everyday issues and frustrations.
And she fell in love.
William Magee Seton was a scion of a wealthy family and a prosperous young businessman coming into his own. He was smart, gentle and shared her passion for music and the arts. For nearly a decade they had a blissful life together. Now, this love story is the subject of “Seeker to Saint: A Storybook Romance,” the latest in a series of videos about Mother Seton’s life produced by the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Md. The videos, released by Catholic News Service and available on the Shrine’s web site, explore various aspects of the life and spirituality of the first native-born American saint.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley was 19 when she married Seton, 25, and they moved into a home on Wall Street and became prominent in society, counting Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton among their neighbors. Elizabeth Seton bore five children, and the couple enjoyed an intimate, devout and even flirtatious relationship.
Their marriage, however, would last less than a decade. Will, suffering from tuberculosis and facing business misfortunes, was encouraged to go to Italy for healing. He died there in 1803 with Elizabeth by his side.
While ultimately tragic, their story embodies the redemptive power of Christian love and matrimony – a story that resonates today, says Stephanie Calis, founder and editor-in-chief of Spoken Bride, a wedding ministry for Catholic brides, and author of Invited: the Ultimate Catholic Wedding Planner (Pauline, 2021).
Calis recently discussed love, marriage and what Mother Seton can teach us more than two centuries after her own storybook romance.
- We hear a lot about young people not getting married. What is the state of Catholic romance and matrimony in a post-COVID world?
I actually see a spirit of resolve and holy boldness in many Catholic young adults lately.
Through conversations with friends who married in the past year—many of whom were forced to dramatically adjust their expectations, lower their guest count, and even forfeit deposits and reservations—I’ve perceived a greater readiness to act, rather than wait, in matters like the length of an engagement before marriage or when to ask someone out on a date.
During lockdowns, so many of us were confronted with the messy parts of ourselves. More solitude and unstructured time brought to light things we might’ve idolized or taken for granted. As a result, I’ve observed a sort of stripping away of “extra” things related to love and marriage. A sharper awareness that authentic love, and the sacraments of the Church, are what matter and endure.
That said, I have equal admiration for couples who held intimate, simple weddings during the pandemic, and for those marrying in the near future who are excited to finally gather with family and friends in a big venue. When Christ is at the center, any ceremony and reception is an image of the heavenly wedding feast.
- What are people asking you the most about Catholic marriage these days?
At Spoken Bride, couples most frequently ask us how to communicate the significance of the Catholic faith to non-religious or non-Catholic guests.
I truly believe that a spiritually and visually beautiful wedding—a sacred setting, special attire, flowers, music, incense—can embody the truth, goodness, and beauty of God, all without saying a word. Beauty is captivating and can act as a bridge in your relationships!
For any couples who desire to communicate the goodness of their faith, I invite them to consider this idea of beauty and relationship first, and rhetoric second, as a means of converting hearts.
- How do couples survive the day-to-day when the “Storybook Romance” part becomes the bill-paying and diaper-changing part? How do you keep faith front and center?
Be friends, pray, and identify your priorities!
Early on in our relationship, my husband and I felt certain we’d always be as willing to sacrifice for one another and always find one another as fascinating as we did in the first days of dating. Unsurprisingly, we’ve discovered it does take effort to engage with one another when things feel routine or tiring. But truly, the more time we set aside to talk, pray, and just be goofy best friends together, the less burdensome daily life feels, and the more frequently we still experience those abiding “storybook love” feelings.
Rather than feeling frustrated when changing work or family situations require a shift in our spiritual commitments (in our current season of raising young kids, for instance, even simple mealtime prayers aren’t effortless, and we have less time for parish involvement than in the past), we try to see each present season as an invitation to seek the Lord from where we are.
At some times, changing the world means public ministry, and at others, it means investing in your domestic church. We make it a goal to always put our vocation first, knowing that the Body of Christ is built up in both public and personal ways. Our family is our legacy; we know we are stewards of His love and that to our children, the presence, relationship, and formation we can provide as their parents is irreplaceable.
- Is a love and romance like the one shared between Will and Elizabeth Ann Seton possible today?
I can’t not say yes to this! I absolutely think a love like Will and Elizabeth’s, filled with admiration, trust, affection, and attraction, is possible two centuries later.
I think in an attempt to pursue committed, Christ-like love that remains even when the good feelings aren’t there, we as Catholics sometimes don’t give our emotions their due. All those giddy, cliche-worthy feelings that develop with new love are a gift! They’re a part of our hearts that the Lord really does want to reveal and rejoice in with us. For my husband and I, falling in love was one of the most fun, awe-inspiring, practically indescribable times in our lives. We felt such a heightened awareness of God’s goodness as we realized we’d met the person he’d called us to marry!
So to me, finding and sustaining a love like the Setons’ involves acknowledging both the emotional and objective dimensions of love, knowing each dimension can complement and strengthen the other.
- Can you relate anything from your own marriage to that of Will and Elizabeth?
I actually relate most to the harder parts of their married life! It’s easy to hear sweet stories about married saints and think we might never be as content as them or as receptive to God’s will. Yet I expect even these great men and women of the Church experienced challenges in their marriages, and that they are holy because of the way they responded to suffering—not because they never suffered.
I find myself so inspired by Will and Elizabeth’s embracing the daily challenges of family life and, for Elizabeth, the loss of her spouse at a young age. It’s incredible to me that in her grief, she remained discerning and receptive to the Lord’s will, to the point of embarking on an entirely new vocation.
On the toughest days of parenthood and work responsibilities, I try to remind myself that a loving marriage and big, chaotic family life is literally everything I ever dreamed of. The Seton marriage testifies to how quickly life can change, and how the vocation to marriage is a great gift.
Rob Judge is executive director of the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton