Holy Family | Seton Shrine

Devotion to Jesus, Mary and Joseph With St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Elizabeth Ann Seton’s young daughters liked to write out the holy initials J+M+J in imitation of their mother. In difficult times we can go with the saints to the heart of the domestic Church, to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the family of God.

This year May 1st unites Jesus, Mary and Joseph—the Holy Family—together in three devotions: the First Friday of the Sacred Heart, the first day of Mary’s month, and the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

The family is a primary setting of shared care and anxiety in times of need, and for Catholic families, that often means going to the Holy Family in prayer.

Joseph and Mary knew upheaval and insecurity at various times, from Joseph considering divorce, to the journey to Bethlehem for the census, to the flight to Egypt and back again, and still again when they sought the young Jesus while he taught in the temple.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a woman of the family—she was wife, mother, widow and grieving mother as she outlived some of her own children. Later as a Religious and foundress she became Mother and Sister to many more. Throughout her life, St. Elizabeth Ann practiced the Catholic virtue of invoking the Holy Family.

St. Paul VI, the pope who canonized Mother Seton, and the first pope since St. Peter to visit the Holy Land, spoke at Nazareth about Christians seeking the accompaniment of the Holy Family:

We ask therefore the favor of joining Our Lady, mother of the home at Nazareth, and her humble but courageous husband St. Joseph, in their intimacy with Jesus Christ, her human and divine Son.

Mary and Joseph are those human parents according to flesh and adoption who were closest to Jesus. Their names mean intimate proximity with Him. In tradition, we speak of their resting during the flight into Egypt. Rest in the midst of crisis; the Holy Family has been that rest in the midst of Catholic families and the church down through the ages.  J+M+J are family initials for us. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s little daughters liked to write these holy initials atop notes in imitation of their mother.

Weeks before the Covid-19 outbreak, I had a call to see a very elderly nursing home resident. She told an aide that she wanted to see a priest. I went to the room where I found the woman and I told her I was the priest. She looked at me almost vacantly then smiled. She was quiet and then said she wanted to tell me something.

I drew close to the bed while her aide exited the room. I said: “Tell me.” In a thick eastern European accent, she said: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us. Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us. Heart of St. Joseph, pray for us! That is all Father.”

I thanked her, blessed her, then left thinking how rare to hear of the Heart of St. Joseph and that I should tuck this lovely experience away. Now in the spring of pandemic, we read of Christians from the Pope, to the entire live-stream watching church, turning with devotion to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

Here on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I sometimes stop by a neighborhood newsstand for a paper or a Snapple. The usual check out attendant is from Southeast Asia, and as we were exchanging greetings one day I noticed on the wall, behind where he stands, an image of the Sacred Heart. I told him I liked the Sacred Heart and I pointed to the wall. He said, “Yes, but first His Heart in my heart”, and pointed to his chest, alluding to the end of the Sacred Heart litany, “Make our hearts like unto Thine.”

A meditation of Mother Seton’s presents the wounded heart of Christ as an invitation to fervor:

I am pleased with you because
you love my Sacred Passion.

See my arms stretched on the Cross.
See my hands and feet nailed there
for love of you.

See my wounded side gushing the
purple streams of your salvation.

Enter into my Sacred Heart and draw
every grace and blessing from it.

How did it beat for you in the manger,
in the garden of Agony and on the Cross.
Oh — then will yours be cold to Me?

At the heart of the home at Nazareth is the Heart of Christ burning with Divine Love. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s heart caught the fire which the Lord wished to kindle and burn on the earth. The hearts of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are intent upon bringing us to the same love.

I knew a woman from my hometown neighborhood whose parents had immigrated from Italy. She told me her parents raised several children in an urban neighborhood; two of their sons served simultaneously in World War II. The recounting sounded like a story of anxious days. I asked my neighbor: “How did your mother do it?” Without pause she replied: “My mother had a rosary in the pocket of every one of her aprons and she prayed them.”

Another woman at the nursing home whose family lived up to Irish-American stereotypes simply by the number of men in the family who served on a police force told me her grandmother prayed rosaries night and day continually, depending upon which of the family men was on duty.

In Florence, Italy, prior to her conversion, Elizabeth Ann Seton had been moved at the sight of seemingly enraptured people kneeling at various angles before an altar praying their rosaries. One of the most reproduced images of Mother Seton depicts her in profile, so intently holding a rosary that it could be titled St. Elizabeth Ann praying the rosary.

In New York City, where Mother Seton was born and grew up, the name of St. Joseph and his title, the worker, brings to mind Dorothy Day. Dorothy was a woman of broken family and life who found new life in long vigils of prayer inside St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village. She converted from communism to the Catholic faith and began a simple outreach to the poor and educative outreach about the struggle of the working poor through her Catholic Worker newspaper. Dorothy sold her first copy of the Catholic Worker on May 1st, 1933, International Worker’s Day, in an attempt to witness to the value of Catholic social teaching amidst the Depression. Soon after, Dorothy co-founded St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality to accompany the poor.

Mother Seton named her new community the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. It is said that she also called the area around Emmitsburg, where she founded her community, St. Joseph’s Valley. The terrain of the Sisters’ lives was placed under the protective patronage of St. Joseph. Joseph was the worker, a provider, who knew what deprivation meant for a family. God called Joseph to look after His Son. Mother Seton dispatched Sisters to New York City to care for orphans.

In Genesis, Pharaoh tells the famine-stricken people of Egypt to,” Go to Joseph!” Joseph the patriarch, sold as a slave, the exiled descendent of Abraham, would dispense grain and mercy. In Catholic shrines dedicated to St. Joseph sometimes the words of Genesis are found inscribed in Latin, Ite ad Joseph!, “Go to Joseph!” Now meaning Joseph, foster father of the Christ, provider of the Holy Family and the Church, terror of demons, father of orphans and widows. In our own days of crisis, we already see growing economic anxiety with the anguish and accompanying temptations of the unemployed and the cry to St. Joseph.

Catholics ought to ask St. Joseph to pray for a blessed fruit and harvest even from our Eucharistic hunger. Joseph at Bethlehem, the house of bread, watched over the firstborn, the Agnus Dei lying in a feedbox for beasts. Has a Catholic ever really pondered St. Joseph and not also considered the poor and struggling? Such a dimness would be hard to imagine. Where does the Eucharist received lead us? Elizabeth Ann Seton’s hunger moved her to the Eucharist and to the poor with a sisterhood of love under the patronage of St. Joseph.

The presence of the Holy Family is also a mandate to go to wounded families and those who are alone. The mystery of Nazareth reminds us that God became neighbor to us and made us all neighbors.

Moreover, the mystery of faith recorded in the scriptures shows us that the revelation of God is made in familial terms, and by Him we are made a family by adoption. Down through the ages our strength has been a union of hearts, making of our service a loving offering into the heart of God the Father. This is the activity of the family of God; may we find it together, now.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.

Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.

Heart of St. Joseph, pray for us!

Fr. Hugh Vincent Dyer, O.P. is a member of the Order of Preachers, Eastern Province of St. Joseph. A native of Albany, New York, he attended St. Anselm College in New Hampshire before studying at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C. He recently served as Catholic chaplain at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and now serves in Manhattan with the Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York. During the COVID-19 epidemic Fr. Dyer resides with the residents at the Mary Manning Walsh Home on the Upper East Side. He writes for Catholic Digest and is a contributing editor for Lydwinejournal.org

Image: Adorazione dei Magi by Gentile da Fabriano; Scene of Flight in Egypt, 1423