St. Ignatius of Loyola and Mother Seton: It is hard to imagine two saints more different from one another.
Ignatius of the Basque land of Loyola, a saint of grand Spanish gestures who took the world by storm during the Reformation. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton of New York, the American wife and mother who founded a religious community soon after the American Revolution. The former was born in a castle in one of the world’s superpowers and the latter in a house by the Hudson in a land that wasn’t even a nation yet.
Their life stories are a study in contrasts. Before he converted, Ignatius was a worldly, romantic teenager, who saw himself in his favorite stories of chivalry: El Cid and Camelot and The Song of Roland. Elizabeth was a spiritually-minded girl who found God in nature during long solitary walks where “the Heavenly Peace…came over my soul, and I am sure in two hours so enjoyed grew 10 years in my spiritual life.”
And yet, look closely at the features of their lives and you see how alike these very different saints really were.
Both lost mothers when they were too small to remember; Ignatius at his birth in 1491, Elizabeth at age 3 in 1777. Both reveled in dress-up balls and social life in young adulthood, only to reject the world later in life. Both underwent a conversion when they were confined due to illness — at the side of her dying husband in 1803 Elizabeth discovered the Catholic Church through her Italian hosts; in 1521 Ignatius’s leg was shattered by a cannonball and he spent his recovery reading the lives of the saints.
Perhaps most importantly, both were the founders of religious communities: Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity and Daughters of Charity, and Ignatius’s Society of Jesus. It was this, their work forming others to follow Jesus Christ in community, that unites them the most, making them as unique and as similar as two generals on the same side in a war.
The communities they founded share many common principles of the spiritual life. St. Ignatius developed his Spiritual Exercises from Benedictine principles, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s spirituality drew from founders who were influenced by both St. Benedict and Ignatius himself.
St. Ignatius explained that conversion begins with meditating on eternity.
“The first prelude is to see myself standing before the Lord, the angels, and all the saints who are interceding for me,” wrote Ignatius.
Elizabeth was motivated in the same way. “Eternity — in what light shall we view [it], if we think of such trifles, in the company of God and the choirs of [the] blessed?” she asked. “What will we think of the trials and cares, pains and sorrows we had upon earth? Oh what a mere nothing!”
Through meditation on eternity, said St. Ignatius, a soul is moved to give everything, including the memory and will, to God.
“The second prelude is to ask what I desire,” wrote St. Ignatius. “Here it will be to ask for interior knowledge of all the great good I have received in order that, stirred by profound gratitude, I may become able to love and serve the divine majesty in all.”
Mother Seton summed up this movement of the individual soul’s surrender in her succinct and practical description of her community’s work: “The first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God; secondly, to do it in the manner he wills; and thirdly, to do it because it is his will.”
Mother Seton may have developed these ideas on her own — or she may have gotten the seeds of them from the Jesuits. The Society of Jesus played an important role in the Church in America, and in her personal story. She was confirmed by the Jesuit Bishop John Carroll in 1806 and he remained a spiritual influence on her life thereafter.
Also, the Irish Jesuit and noted apologist Father Peter Plunkett met with Elizabeth Ann Seton before her conversion and left her a daily prayer book she appreciated. She also mentions Georgetown Jesuits in her letters, including James Redmond, a Jesuit scholastic, and Father Anthony Kohlmann, who was a spiritual advisor to her sister-in-law, Cecilia. She probably read the work of Jesuits, also, and noted that she was given the guide The Practice of Perfection and of Christian Virtues by Father Alphonsus Rodriguez.
St. Ignatius’s principles brought the soul from personal commitment to practical action on behalf of the Church. Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer recently described this process when he said that Jesuits ask themselves three questions each year:
- “What are the greatest universal needs for the Church and for Jesus Christ?”
- “Can I in some way meet one or more of those needs, at least partially?”
- “Is anyone else meeting this need? If so, are they doing it well enough to leave it alone, or are there gaps that need to be filled in?”
Perhaps Mother Seton asked these same questions. Whatever the case, she fulfilled what Jesus Christ and the Church needed in her day, as Pope St. Paul VI said when he canonized her.
First, the need for ecumenism – promoting unity among Christian churches. Pope Paul noted the “distinguished Episcopalian dignitaries” who attended her canonization, which made her canonization “a presage of ever-better ecumenical relations,” he said.
Second, the role of women. He pointed out that the canonization coincided with the United Nations’ International Year of the Woman. “The Church renders the greatest honor possible to Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton and extols her personal and extraordinary contribution as a woman — a wife, a mother, a widow, and a religious,” he said, praying, “May the dynamism and authenticity of her life be an example in our day — and for generations to come — of what women can and must accomplish, in the fulfillment of their role, for the good of humanity.”
Third, he said Mother Seton was important for her contribution to the origin of the Catholic education system in America, which served even those who could not pay tuition. “The apostolate of helping the poor and the running of parochial schools in America had this humble, poor, courageous and glorious beginning,” he said.
Just as St. Ignatius founded schools whose students reached out to the whole world, including a young Elizabeth, Mother Seton inspired a school system whose students have impacted, directly or indirectly, every Catholic in the United States.
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.
Image: Saint Ignatius of Loyola by Peter Paul Rubens
This reflection was originally published in 2020