One died of tuberculosis in her bed; the other died in a crusade. One left her mark on a small Catholic community in a new nation that had rejected its king; the other left his mark as the king of one of the great Catholic powers of Europe.
Their lives were more than just 500 years and 4,000 miles apart and yet Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Louis IX of France share the same hallmarks of a Christian leader.
First: Christian leaders look to their personal reform first.
St. Louis IX, King of France, reigned from 1226 to 1270. Louis IX’s contemporaries saw him as the great leader of his time, though some sneered at his piety and called him a “monk king.”
He once told his secretary and biographer, Jean of Joinville, “I advise you that you accustom yourself to frequent confession, and that you choose always, as your confessors, men who are upright and sufficiently learned, and who can teach you what you should do and what you should avoid.”
It is clear from this statement that Louis saw authentic personal reform as the basis for social reform. The humble acknowledgment of personal failings leads to a greater compassion for others. This humility and compassion led Louis to overhaul France’s criminal justice system; he introduced the presumption of innocence, banned trials by ordeal, and created the offices of provost and bailiff to maintain order.
Personal reform led to community reform in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life also. She found the “ideal confessor for her[self]” in Father Pierre Babade, and he encouraged her to found her religious community, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, in 1809. She later saw good confessors as key to the work of her sisters, and often wrote to Baltimore Bishop John Carroll to get just the right spiritual directors for her community based on their abilities as confessors.
Second: Strong Christian leaders usually come from strong Christian families.
St. Louis IX’s deep faith was formed at home. His father, King Louis VIII, died when he was 12 and his mother, the Spaniard Blanche of Castille, served as regent ruler of the realm when he was growing up.
He often recalled his mother’s words to him as a child: “I love you my dear son, as much as a mother can love her child; but I would rather see you dead at my feet than that you should commit a mortal sin.”
Harsh as this may sound, her words clearly convey her commitment to the proper order of love: love God first, then one’s neighbor.
Elizabeth was also a devout Catholic mother who encouraged frequent confession to her children albeit with a less severe approach than Blanche’s famous words. Born Elizabeth Ann Bayley, she married William Seton as a young woman in 1794, and had five children with him. In 1803 she took her ailing husband to Italy in hopes for a cure. He died in Italy but there she found her Catholic faith.
She wrote to her son William in 1816 : “This morning I found myself praying for your confessor, that will make you laugh … so anxious that he should lead you well — I beg so hard you may be an ‘honest man’ as you say at Easter for you know an honest man gives to God his due as well as to man.”
Third: For a Christian leader, virtue, not country, comes first.
The regency of Louis IX’s mother was regarded as a great success but, as king, he surpassed it. His reign is regarded as a high point in France’s history, filled with economic and political prosperity and the just rule of law. Both Blanche’s and Louis’ rule were successful because they were based on a commitment to individual virtue rather than raw power.
“I would rather have a Scot come from Scotland to govern the people of this kingdom well and justly than that you should govern them ill in the sight of all the world,” Louis famously told his son.
This astonishing impartiality is a virtue that also marked Mother Seton’s leadership and was apparent from her very decision to enter the Catholic Church.
Hearing that she was contemplating becoming a Catholic, a relative said, “let me be anything in the world but a Roman Catholic! A Methodist, Quaker, anything— a Quaker indeed I should like extremely, they are so nice and orderly and their dress so becoming … but Catholics [are] dirty filthy red faced …and ragged.”
Elizabeth Seton, however, was not interested in “little exterior attractions as the dress and quiet of the Quakers, a sweet enthusiastic preaching among the Methodists, a soft melting music of low voices among Anabaptists, or any other such nonsense” but was wholly focused on “the thought of a right Faith” and “true Church.”
Fourth: Christian leaders build a strong culture.
St. Louis IX was not only a leader in the great decisions of the realm, he was also was a careful custodian of what we might call his “office culture” — human interactions within his own court.
“Let no one be so bold as to say, in your presence, words which attract and lead to sin, and do not permit words of detraction to be spoken of another behind his back,” he said.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton also insisted on a positive, respectful atmosphere within her home, her charitable work and, later, her religious congregation.
When she was a member of New York’s Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children in 1797, she defended a maligned colleague and told a friend, “Let those who have no faults of their own, indulge themselves in speaking of others.” She, for one, would not.
Her humble and loving character put a stamp on all she did. She often praised other examples of what she wanted to see in her own congregation, as when she wrote of a friend who “is so remarkable for always turning every conversation with everybody to some pious meaning, and he laughs at every inconvenience or suffering he goes through saying something always about how much worse he deserves.”
Fifth: Christian leaders never forget their duty to the poor.
St. Louis’s attention to the charity of his court expanded to his charity for his whole realm — especially the poor.
“In order to deal justly and equitably with your subjects, be straightforward and firm, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, but always following what is just, and upholding the cause of the poor till the truth be made clear,” he said.
Similarly, Elizabeth’s life’s work was a shining example of a passionate care for others whether they were impoverished New York widows and orphans, poor children in Baltimore who could not afford food let alone an education, indeed every needy soul she ever encountered.
In her writings, Elizabeth recounts the story of a priest who was conveying the Blessed Sacrament down a hallway and stopped to console a sister he encountered: “The God of all charity met a Sister of Charity performing an act of charity, how could He be displeased?”
Indeed. How could God be displeased with the holy charity of a French king and an American widow who modeled their lives on Love itself?
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
This reflection was originally published in 2021. Click here to read all Seton Reflections.
Image: The Last Communion of Saint Louis, King of France, by Gabriel-Francois Doyen