This reflection was originally published in 2020.
“There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord;” says the Second Reading for Pentecost Sunday. “All the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.”
Consider the ways sanctity worked in the same way for the page of an African king and the Wall Street wife.
First, both show how Christianity “turns something negative into something positive.”
The tragic, beautiful story of St. Charles Lwanga and his companions is quickly told:
Charles, a member of the Baganda tribe in Uganda was first a leader of the royal pages, then chief steward in the court of King Mwanga II of Buganda.
The king grew increasingly unhappy with the presence of missionaries in his kingdom and began executing Catholics and Anglicans between 1885 and 1887. Charles was baptized in 1885 at age 25. He died one year later.
In his visit to Africa in 2015, Pope Francis exhorted young people to learn from Charles and his companions. In their case, he said, “death brings life, a life for all.” For all of us, he said, “If I turn something negative into something positive, I win! But that can only happen with the grace of Jesus.”
He then asked the crowd, “Are you ready to change everything negative in your life into something positive? Are you ready to turn hatred into love?” and they shouted “Yes!”
Turning something negative into something positive is a central movement of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life, of course.
Her conversion came about because she brought her husband to Italy for a cure. When she sailed home in 1804, she said, “Most dear Seton, where are you now? I lost sight of the shore that contains your dear ashes, and your soul is in that region of immensity where I cannot find you.” She had to leave his body behind when she returned to America, but she had a new love: The real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
Second, true sanctity always goes against the grain.
Pope Francis made another point about Charles Lwanga on his visit to Uganda.
King Mwanga claimed that it was because he hated colonialism that he was trying to rid his land of Christianity, but there was another reason: He preyed on the boys in his court, and Christians, including Charles, wouldn’t let him.
Lwanga is therefore considered a martyr for purity, and Francis told young people, “Think about it! What would the Uganda martyrs say about the misuse of our modern means of communication, where young people are exposed to images and distorted views of sexuality that degrade human dignity, leading to sadness and emptiness?”
“We all have to face the fear of being different, of going against the grain in a society which puts increasing pressure on us to embrace models of gratification and consumption alien to the deepest values of African culture,” he said.
We find this reality everywhere, from the shores of Lake Victoria to the banks of the Hudson, and it is one that Elizabeth Ann Seton constantly warned against.
In 1806 she wrote to her daughter Cecilia with seriousness about rejecting the spirit of the world. “Precious child of my heart,” she wrote, “if only we may experience that constant separation from the spirit of the world … [He] will one day put us in his treasure house.”
In 1808 she made the same point to her friend Julia Scott, but softened it with humor, “My darling friend you are still the woman of fashion—still drawing the chains of the World! Alas, my soul sighs.”
Third, whether in Africa or America, Christ-centeredness is essential to holiness.
St. John Paul II also visited Uganda. He said Charles Lwanga and his companions had stamped their identity on the nation.
“The heritage the Martyrs have left to you is the call to ‘believe in the Gospel,’” he said. “You must rise above the things here below and ‘keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.’”
The saints aren’t just reformers with high ideals. They are centered radically on the person of Jesus. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton certainly was. The account of her last days by Father Simon Bruté shows what Christ-centeredness looks like on a death bed.
Mother Seton repeated Jesus’s words and answered them. “I thirst — O Jesus! we know and thirst also for thee!” she said, and “In thy hands O Father I commend my spirit!” then asking, “don’t you love him with your whole heart?” “don’t you suffer willingly with our Savior?”
Last: Church history repeats itself.
When Pope Paul VI canonized Charles Lwanga and companions he saw them as an example of a new flowering of an old story in the Church.
“These African martyrs add a new page to that list of victorious persons which we call the martyrology,” he said. “Who could ever have thought that in our times new accounts would be added to these which would be no less heroic and no less glamorous?”
Eleven years later, Pope Paul VI also canonized Elizabeth Ann Seton, and saw her story as the latest iteration of another age-old Catholic story. “The most notable characteristic of our Saint is the fact that she was, as we said, the foundress of the first religious congregation of women in the United States,” following in the footsteps of so many others, and specifically St. Vincent de Paul.
And this is why the popes refer so often to the stories of these saints: They hope that history will repeat itself again.
As Paul VI put it, “Indeed, our hope for America is so great that we look forward in prayerful expectation, if God so wills, to a ‘second spring’ in the life of the Church in the land of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.”
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.
To read all of our Seton Reflections, click here.
Image: Window of Charles Lwanga by Philipp Jakob