We have gathered in joy to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton. As all of us are deeply aware, we are on holy ground–not only because we are in this magnificent Shrine dedicated in her honor, but indeed because this place has been blessed for all time by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s burning zeal to find the Lord. It is a place blessed by her holiness and vision, her overflowing love and her charism of charity…all of which she bequeathed to her beloved Daughters and Sisters of Charity…you who continue to serve in ministries of healthcare, service to the poor, social services, Catholic education, pastoral ministry, advocacy, and much, much more.
Yes, we have gathered on holy ground to learn afresh from St. Elizabeth Ann Seton how to encounter the Lord in all walks of life, how to respond to the Lord in love by serving others.
As it happens, the readings chosen for this feast day shed divine light on the various stages of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life. In fact, each reading is like a progression that takes us through her life, helping us not merely to retell a story we know so well, but rather inspiring us to an ever deeper consecration and discipleship, applicable to the times in which we live…beginning now with Proverbs.
Proverbs 31:10-13; 19-20; 30-31
The reading from the Book of Proverbs reminds us all of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s virtues in living her God-given vocation as wife and mother. Indeed, the Book of Proverbs itself, which is part of the Bible’s ‘wisdom literature,’ is said to function like an early handbook of moral theology, laying out as it does, the virtues appropriate to various states of life and situations. But far from being a book of rules, a book of dos and don’ts, Proverbs is all about putting God’s wisdom, God’s truth and love, into practice. Today’s reading does indeed describe the virtues of a wife and mother, but does so in the context of a larger poem about the valiant woman, a poem that serves as the crescendo of the entire book, the culmination of what it means to live as a person who is “strong, loving, and wise” (2 Tim 1:6-7).
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton corresponded perfectly to that description. When she was but 19 years old, she married William Magee Seton and together they had five children whom she formed, guided, and cared for with great diligence and with a beautiful and precious love. When her husband died of tuberculosis, leaving her as a young widow, she manifested her strength and valor, indeed, ‘a valor far beyond pearls’ as she picked up the pieces, cared for her family, and made a new life for them.
With a moment’s reflection, we can see in Elizabeth Ann’s soul the valor of the Blessed Virgin Mary who, without a clear roadmap, said to the Angel, “Let it be done to me, just as you say!”
Psalm 98:1, 7-8, 9
All of which brings us to the responsorial psalm, Psalm 98, and its refrain, “Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous deeds.” For it was upon her return to America that Elizabeth Ann, already deeply in love with the Lord and on the path to holiness, discovered the fullness of the Christian faith and was received into the Catholic Church, and later confirmed by the Bishop of Baltimore, John Carroll.
It was a beautiful, humble, but valiant soul who opened herself to the Holy Spirit. In spite of misunderstanding and criticism, Elizabeth Ann uttered her ‘yes’ when prompted to take the next step on her journey of faith. In spite of its high cost, Elizabeth Ann’s embrace of the Catholic faith enabled her to proclaim the praises of the Lord, aware, like the Blessed Virgin Mary was, that the Lord had indeed done great things for her.
And so she offered her own Magnificat, her own canticle of praise, even as she searched for the ultimate mission, that special work that Divine Providence had chosen for her and no one else.
1 John 4:7-16
As today’s readings progress, we see the Holy Spirit at work in Elizabeth Ann’s soul, enabling her to walk in righteousness and faith toward the fullness of love. This is where our second reading from the 1st Letter of John picks up. For, as Elizabeth Ann embraced the fullness of faith, so too she quested aright for the fullness of love.
How the words of St. John resonated in her heart: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; Everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.”
As her life changed and indeed changed drastically, Elizabeth did not feel sorry for herself or try to seek former comforts, but instead she sought to give herself in love to others. Her source of love is not merely her own desire to serve the needs of others but indeed the only begotten Son who revealed in our flesh the “God who is love,” the “God who loved us first” and “sent His only Son as expiation of our sins.” Thus, in 1808, invited to Baltimore by the Sulpician Fathers, she opened her first school on Paca Street, in close proximity to the Sulpician Seminary.
As God’s love came to perfection in her heart, she took the momentous step of being consecrated in love, even as the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, and bestowed on her the charism of charity. This precious gift of the Spirit attracted others to her side and expressed itself, not in a contemplative form of life, but rather in a prayerful and vigorous form of apostolic life, a life that bears active witness to the love of Christ–in other words, ‘a charity that evangelzes.’ Through Mother Seton and her sisters, “many came to believe in the love God has for us.”
Once established here in Emmitsburg, Mother Seton and her sisters began to live intensely the law of love spelled out for us by Jesus in today’s Gospel from Matthew. Through an evangelical style of life marked by poverty to the point of deprivation by the single hearted love of consecrated charity, and by an obedience rooted in Jesus’ obedience to the will of his heavenly father, Mother Seton and her community sought to love their God ‘with all their hearts, with all their souls, and with all their minds.’ In the wise and practical direction Mother Seton gave her fellow sisters, Mother Seton did not allow the love for God to remain at a high, theoretical level but brought it down to the everyday challenges of praying, living, working and serving together.
In other words, like Jesus, she linked love of God and love of neighbors closely, beginning with the internal life of her own community, but then emanating from her community to the wider Church and community, as for example, the St. Joseph Free School here in Emmitsburg, founded in 1810.
But that was indeed just a beginning, for Mother Seton’s charism of charity was so powerful and so contagious that she and her sisters were able to fulfill the law of love on a massive scale in and through apostolic works of charity, healthcare, education, and so much a ministry of love that continues today in its many splendored expressions, suited for the times in which we live.
Here, I must express the deepest thanks that is owed to the Daughters of Charity and indeed the Sisters of Charity Federation, that continues to respond to the cries of those living in poverty and on the margins of society, through a multiplicity of ministries that still include healthcare and education but also service to immigrants, protection of our common home, low cost housing, services to the elderly, and various forms of advocacy.
So truly, we stand and worship today on holy ground, that ‘place’ to which Divine Providence led St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, a place which is not only a geographic point on a map known as Emmitsburg, but indeed a place of spirit and life, a place of holiness, a place of love, in her soul. This great saint teaches us how to live every vocation in the Church with love, how to be led by the Spirit toward the fullness of Christ’s truth and love, and how to express the ‘love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 5:5) in works of love and service for others, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!