What does it mean to be an American Catholic?
Blessed Francis Solanus Casey is one of the most recent native-born Americans to be beatified, on November 18, 2017, at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American to be canonized, on September 14, 1975.
“Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is an American,” Pope Paul VI said when he announced her canonization. “The late Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York, went even further when he said, ‘Elizabeth Ann Seton [is] wholly American!’”
What did they mean?
The late Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete might have the answer. In a 1997 Our Sunday Visitor article he contemplated the promise and pitfalls of being an American Catholic, using the 1996 book The Stuff Americans are Made Of by Josh Hammond and James Morrison, as his point of departure.
Blessed Solanus Casey and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton exemplify the seven traits that Americans share, which Msgr. Albacete cited from the book.
- The American “insistence on choice.” We feel entitled to having “anything we want.”
This American trait can easily become an autonomous, individualist freedom that rejects duties to others or the environment. But it can be a good thing, too, says Albacete.
It certainly was in the lives of Solanus Casey and Elizabeth Seton.
Barney Casey — Bernard was Casey’s name as a child — was born in 1870 in Oak Grove, Wisconsin, to Irish parents, and described his childhood as a veritable “earthly paradise” spent studying cattle and his catechism in the American heartland. The sixth of sixteen children, he also learned about deprivation — he lost two siblings and the strength of his own voice to diphtheria when he was eight.
But his life shows the American insistence on doing things our way. His parents’ families had overcome Irish poverty caused by the Great Potato Famine to start life anew as landowners.
In the same way, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a child of Americans who insisted on their way — she was born Elizabeth Bayley in New York in 1774, after all, two years before the Declaration of Independence founded a new nation based on the freedom of the individual.
- “The quest for impossible dreams.”
Since Lewis and Clark, Neil Armstrong and many others, Americans have been doing impossible things. We are descendents, like the Caseys, the Setons and the Bayleys, of those who left the Old World to set out for the new. Americans are willing to throw themselves into the unknown, either recklessly or trustingly.
Solanus and Elizabeth did that in their own ways: Solanus left his home in 1878 for school, then left school in 1887 for a series of jobs in Minnesota — lumberjack, health care worker, prison guard (where he met members of Jesse James’ gang) and streetcar driver. In his later ministry he was a priest in New York and Detroit.
“Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger people,” he would later say. “Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had the same fearless spirit. She is a New York saint, because that is where she got married and began raising a family off Wall Street. But she is also a saint converted by Italy, where she traveled with her dying husband in search of healing in 1803. Now, of course, she is most well known as a Maryland saint, because she established her congregation of Sisters in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
- We are “attracted to what is bigger and greater.”
After testing some of the most adventurous professions available, Casey sought the biggest and greatest thing there is — God — first in a diocesan seminary and then with the Capuchin Friars.
He became known for his service to Jesus Christ in his ministry to the poor, and his insistence on their rights, storming heaven and earth with his demand that they be given their daily bread.
“Confidence in God is victory assured,” he would say.
This American entrepreneurial panache is evident in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. She would not only see to the care of her own family from her marriage, but to the Sisters she would attract to the community of religious women she founded, and the children they would serve.
- “The emphasis on now.”
If Europe is bogged down by its past and emerging nations are obsessed with the future, Americans are known for living in the present. We don’t celebrate who we once were or who we could be, but who we are right now.
At its best, Albacete wrote, this is a passion for eternity. Father Casey agreed, saying, “We must be faithful to the present moment or we will frustrate the plan of God for our lives.”
His driver, William Tremblay, described what happened when he drove Fr. Casey to visit the the sick and the dying, “’You look just like Jesus Christ,’” a dying woman told him. “‘Well, I’m taking his place,’ Casey answered. ‘I came here because the Lord has a crown waiting for you.’”
He would lead the sick and the dying in a decade of the Rosary, transforming the mood of the sick room from fear to one of peace and hope.
As Fr. Casey’s health deteriorated in 1957, his sister Martha visited him and found that he had the same attitude on his own deathbed. “When I asked him if there was anything I could do, it was always the same. ‘No Martha, just pray for my conversion,’ and, ‘Say the rosary with me.’”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton possessed the same awareness of eternity, saying, “When so rich a harvest is before us, why do we not gather it? All is in our hands if we will but use it.”
Americans are masters of improvisation, starting new musical forms, new technologies, new ways of doing just about everything. At its best, this trait shows a nimble creativity in finding the solutions to problems we face.
This is precisely what saints need — the willingness to accept that methods for achieving goals have to change with time or according to audience. Blessed Solanus Casey was a violinist who loved to sing (though his fellow Capuchins didn’t like him to!). He had the Irish gift for storytelling, and he had the ability to put everyone he encountered at their ease because he adapted himself to their understanding.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a mother, a teacher, a Sister, a founder of an order, and an administrator. Everything that God asked of her, she did with courage and a willing spirit.
- “The ‘oops’ syndrome” — the desire to change and be new.
According to Albacete, this is a willingness to accept mistakes and start over. Lincoln’s olive branch to the South comes to mind, as well as the apology videos on social media today.
Clearly, Catholics have always had a a great capacity for reconciliation. Fr. Casey advocated it at a time in America when intra-church tensions over ethnicity ran high.
“I am the first black member of the Capuchin Order in the United States and I think he was ahead of his time in the way he treated me,” Brother Booker Ashe said about Casey’s kindness. “He saw all persons as human beings, the image of God; their physical characteristics were mere accidents.”
Casey refused the racism of his time in much the same way as Elizabeth Seton rose above the anti-Catholicism that prevailed in her own time.
- The search for new identities.
Last is the the American ability to change. Where once we were royal subjects to the British Crown, we are now Americans, the autonomous citizens of a new country, always searching for new identities.
What was a secular transformation in America, became a religious conversion in the hearts and minds of Fr. Solanus and Mother Seton.
“I give my soul to Jesus Christ,” were the last words of Blessed Solanus Casey.
“Be children of the Church,” were the last words of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
As children of the Church, Albacete suggests we do the same thing: Forge a new future in Christ.
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. To read all reflections, click here.