On Sept. 14, 1975, Pope Paul VI solemnly declared “before the holy Catholic Church, before our other Christian brethren in the world, before the entire American people, and before all humanity,” that “Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a Saint!”
It takes one to know one. On Oct. 14, 2018, Pope Francis canonized Pope Paul VI who, he said, devoted “his whole life to the ‘sacred, solemn and grave task of continuing in history and extending on earth the mission of Christ.’”
On May 29, we celebrate all the ways Paul extended the mission of Christ: The Church’s social teaching, the New Evangelization, ecumenism, and the embrace of popular Catholic piety. St. Paul VI celebrated these hallmarks in the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, too.
Together, these are summed up in the Universal Call to Holiness, a major message of the Second Vatican Council.
“Today he still urges us, together with the Council whose wise helmsman he was,” said Pope Francis, “to live our common vocation: the universal call to holiness. Not to half measures, but to holiness.”
The universal call to holiness means doing God’s will in one’s personal devotion, but also in shaping a society according to His will. Two related topics for St. Paul VI were the social teaching of the Church and the New Evangelization, which was a term he coined.
Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio (The Progress of Peoples) deeply shaped Pope Francis’s thinking. In it, Paul VI wrote, “Let each one examine his conscience, a conscience that conveys a new message for our times. Is he prepared to support out of his own pocket works and undertakings organized in favor of the most destitute? Is he ready to pay higher taxes so that the public authorities can intensify their efforts in favor of development? Is he ready to pay a higher price for imported goods so that the producer may be more justly rewarded?”
These are strong words, but for Paul VI holiness had to go far beyond social teaching. In his 1975 encyclical Evangelii nuntiandi, he wrote simply: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
Combine these two ideas and you get St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. She also saw the link between service to the poor and the call to holiness. “The nearer a soul is truly united to God, the more its sensibilities are increased to every being of his Creation,” she said.
St. Paul VI praised Elizabeth’s personal holiness and the works she founded, “The apostolate of helping the poor and the running of parochial schools in America had this humble, poor, courageous and glorious beginning.”
Another hallmark of St. Paul VI’s pontificate was ecumenism.
On the night before he died, Jesus prayed to the Father that Christians “may be one as we are one.” That divisions exist in the body of Christ, the Church, are a terrible wound that gives the world a divided witness.
St. Paul VI made great efforts to reconcile the Church with her “separated brothers and sisters,” as he called Protestant Christians. He held a historic first meeting with the Pope and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, telling Michael Ramsey, “we are happy to open our door and our heart to you.”
Open doors and hearts are what attracted Elizabeth Ann Seton into the Church when she was Episcopalian. She saw the reasonability of the faith, but it was the welcome of the Filicchi family, whom she visited in Italy when she was seeking healing for her husband, that won her over.
She opened the doors of her life and attracted many family members in. She once related how a Protestant brother-in-law asked her, “Sister Seton they say you go to the Catholic church. What is the difference?”
She described her answer in the third person: “’It is the first church my brother the old church the Apostles begun,’ answered the poor trembling Betsy Seton dreading always to be pushed on a subject she could only feel, but never express to these cool reasoners.”
But she retained her respect for the Protestants she belonged to in her youth, and the respect was returned at her canonization.
As Pope VI said: “It is a motive of hope and a presage of ever better ecumenical relations to note the presence at this ceremony of distinguished Episcopalian dignitaries, to whom — interpreting as it were the heartfelt sentiments of the new Saint — we extend our greeting of devotion and good wishes.”
But just as important as ecumenism to St. Paul VI was the sensum fidelium of the people of God — the sense of the faithful, particularly as regards popular piety.
Pope Paul VI was a great practitioner of the traditional forms of Catholic piety, especially respect for the Virgin Mary and the Eucharist.
His travels to six continents made him the first “Pilgrim Pope,” and his visits followed his interests. He visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima on the 50th anniversaries of the apparitions there, and he traveled to Bombay, India, and Bogatá, Columbia, for their Eucharistic Congresses.
“From the moment when we were called to the See of Peter, we have constantly striven to enhance devotion to the Blessed Virgin,” he wrote in 1974’s Marialis cultus (Marian devotion). The Church’s zeal for Mary “is an indication of the Church’s genuine piety. This devotion fits … into the only worship that is rightly called ‘Christian,’ because it takes its origin and effectiveness from Christ, finds its complete expression in Christ, and leads through Christ in the Spirit to the Father.”
In his 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei (The Mystery of the Faith) he wrote, “If the sacred liturgy holds first place in the life of the Church, then the Eucharistic Mystery stands at the heart and center of the liturgy, since it is the font of life that cleanses us and strengthens us to live not for ourselves but for God and to be united to each other by the closest ties of love.”
We think of Mary and the Eucharist as what makes Catholics Catholics. Paul VI thought of them as what makes Catholics Christians.
So did St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. The Blessed Virgin Mary and the Eucharist were closely tied together for her. She called Mary Jesus’s “tabernacle” and described what happened when a Eucharistic procession passed her house. “I fell on my knees without thinking when the Blessed Sacrament passed by and cried in an agony to God to bless me if he was there.” She said she turned to a prayer book in the Filicchis’ house and opened to the Memorare. “I said it to her with such a certainty that God would surely refuse nothing to his Mother.”
Now, both St. Paul VI and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton are there with the Blessed Mother, praying that we might join them in heaven by uniting ourselves with the Eucharistic Lord.
Image: Paul VI by Fotografia Felici, 1969, via Wikimedia Commons
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 previously published. To view all of our Seton Reflections, click here.