Grieving her husband William while mothering their five young children, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton made her first Holy Communion in March of 1805, and recorded with great feeling, “At last. GOD IS MINE and I AM HIS.” She was still uncertain about where and how she would live, but it was with certainty and joy that she received Him, Body and Blood, at St. Peter’s Church in New York. She was a Christ-bearer that day, walking the two miles home, gladhearted “to be bringing such a Master” to her family.
Elizabeth couldn’t have recognized that her receptivity to Christ in the Eucharist would have historical significance, but this sacrament sustained her as she cared for and instructed many young people and eventually became Mother Seton to communities of women religious—the Sisters of Charity and the Daughters of Charity—in America.
About 150 years after St. Elizabeth Ann’s First Communion, Fr. Luigi Giussani boarded a train in Milan. Having completed his dissertation on the development of American Protestantism he was a priest at the young age of 22, and it seemed that he would naturally serve the Church as a theologian and university professor. On that train in Milan, however, he met high school students well-versed in Catholic teachings yet little able to articulate the connection between catechism and their daily activities. For Fr. Giussani, this was a significant problem. In fact, he deemed it a problem worthy of his time and attention, and he asked his superiors if he could teach at a high school.
They placed him in Liceo Berchet where Fr. Giussani helped revitalize Gioventù Studentesca (GS), which translates as “Student Youth.” What he offered his students was a method for understanding the Gospels in the context of their own lives.
How did he do this? By meeting with them, by participating in recreational activities with them, by talking with them about their trials and their victories. Essentially, he offered them companionship in Christ.
This willingness to be a companion in Christ to younger people is a commonality between Mother Seton and Fr. Giussani, Servant of God. And if you read Elizabeth Seton’s works and those of Fr. Giussani, you might notice others: They were prolific writers; they gave much thought to spiritual practices; they guided others lovingly; and the Eucharist served as a focus for the communities they founded.
In her many letters, St. Elizabeth Ann writes with an awareness of the singularity and dearness of the friends whom she addresses. Fr. Giussani, answering letters from those who had written him sharing deeply personal questions, helps these friends consider their connection to Sts. John and Andrew or to the man born blind. Frequently drawing on scripture and faith, both Mother Seton and Fr. Guissani respond to their correspondents with a presence.
“Presence” is a common theme in Fr. Giussani’s work, and he encourages us to consider where we meet the “gaze of Christ” in our interactions with friends and strangers. He helps us remember that Jesus Christ was a particular human being with a particular personality, changing the course of history because those who met Him encountered a God who was neither abstract nor transcendent. Jesus’ disciples and apostles went on to educate others that if we are but faithful to His teachings, we can expect that He lives now and in us.
How does He live in us now, we ask? How do we follow this Incarnate God? As we strive with these questions, it’s worth considering that St. Elizabeth Ann and Fr. Giussani were amazed at the shape their lives took. The native New Yorker Elizabeth Bayley Seton made a religious habit of her mourning garb and relocated to the wooded mountains of Maryland once she understood that this possibility offered her a life of service to Christ. She hadn’t intended to found a religious community, but by the time that became a real possibility, she was already helping others satisfy their spiritual and material needs. It made sense to continue that work, and so the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s was founded in Emmitsburg.
So, too, did God surprise Fr. Giussani with the work He provided him. After years of teaching and of writing books such as The Religious Sense and The Risk of Education, Fr. Giussani wrote a letter to Pope Saint John Paul II in which he explained that he had never intended to found a movement in the Church. His mission, he said, had been to love God and neighbor and to proclaim the “fact” and “reasonableness” of Christian faith in a high school and university setting. Gradually, the meetings of GS laid the groundwork for the lay ecclesial movement Communion & Liberation, which proposes that real human liberation comes from “faith, lived out in communion.”
This movement came from Fr. Giussani’s spiritual paternity in much the same way that Elizabeth Ann Seton’s spiritual maternity gave birth to the Sisters of Charity. Both continuously pointed to the Lord, especially in the Eucharist and in their daily encounters with the people they were given. It is here, in worship and human relationships, that the Incarnate God lives.
In a Lenten talk, Fr. Giussani stated that, out of all the possible ways to communicate with us, God chose the Eucharist so as to be with us in our specific, quotidian circumstances:
“What the word ‘Eucharist’ invites us to identify is precisely the method with which God reveals Himself. With what method has God decided to reveal Himself to man and to the world, to man’s existence and to history? We willingly recall the fact that the Mystery, as a method of self-communication, identifies Itself with a time and a space” (Milan 1996).
In this sense, the sacrament connects people across time, space, and culture by God revealing Himself now in you and me.
Although St. Elizabeth Ann’s language for speaking about the sacrament that nourished her was different from Fr. Guissani’s, she means the same thing when she says that God is “more within us than we are in ourselves.”
In their respective schools of Saint Joseph’s Academy in Emmitsburg and Liceo Berchet in Milan, St. Elizabeth Ann and Fr. Giussani offered themselves to the young people they cherished—an offering given in kind for God’s self-offering in the Eucharist. By doing so, a widowed mother with five children became Mother Seton to generations of children, and a celibate priest became the spiritual father of multitudes.
ELISABETH KRAMP writes from Southern California. Her chapbook “Quickening” was published by Franciscan University Press, and she currently teaches writing at John Paul the Great Catholic University.
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