She was a good American, a selfless follower of orders, and always ready to question orders in the right way and at the right time.
As much as any non-veteran can, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had the virtues of Veterans Day. But don’t take my word for it — listen to Cardinal Spellman.
Francis Cardinal Spellman was a powerful leader of the Catholic Church in New York. During World War II he was also the bishop in charge of the military, a confidante of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a liaison to Pope Pius XII.
Cardinal Spellman pointed out that Mother Seton was wholly American — and something more.
He called St. Elizabeth Ann “a down-to-earth woman who breathed American air, loved American town and countryside, enjoyed American pastimes, followed American social conventions. She battled against odds in the trials of life with American stamina and cheerfulness; she worked and succeeded with American efficiency.”
But “she imbued all with supreme holiness that belongs not to America, nor to any other country exclusively,” he said, “because it is the reflected holiness of God who made all men, races and nationalities.”
In the same way, the virtues of our veterans are also quintessentially American — and far more.
November 11 is a day to celebrate members of the military not just in the United States, but across the world, because it is both Armistice Day and the feast day of the soldier St. Martin of Tours. St. Martin’s commitment to Christ not only inspired members of the military, but also St. Benedict, patron of religious life.
St. John Paul II, whose father was a captain in the Polish Army, had a special love for veterans, and held a Jubilee for them in November 2000.
“In carrying out your difficult duty, you frequently find yourselves exposed to dangers and demanding sacrifices,” he said, calling veterans “custodians” of security, freedom — and peace.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life was very similar — she left hearth and home to do battle and establish peace in far flung places.
“Oh what a comfort while the church of God is reduced to such distress and seems as it were abandoned to its enemies,” she wrote to her friend Rose Stubbs, “he permits us to serve him in peace in this happy corner, where he stays with us even under our very roof.”
Courage and obedience are military virtues — and religious ones, too
St. John Paul II praised the “courageous work” of veterans.
“But where did they find the strength necessary to do their duty to the full, other than in total adherence to their professed ideals?” he asked. “Many of them believed in Christ, and his words illumined their existence and gave an exemplary value to their sacrifice. They made the Gospel their code of conduct.”
If faith allows a soldier to have obedience and humility, the same is true of a saint.
There is a telling pair of letters Mother Seton wrote on January 24 and 25, 1810.
On the 24th, she told her friend Rose Stubbs about the obedience her sisters commit to. “They make simple Vows in the hands of our Bishop [John Carroll] which he can dispense with at pleasure whenever he sees just cause for doing it,” she wrote.
The next day, she wrote to Bishop Carroll himself, objecting strenuously to the appointment of a priest he had made to her community.
“Sincerely I promised you and really I have endeavored to do everything in my power to bend myself to meet the last appointed Superior in every way,” she wrote. “[B]ut as the good our Almighty God may intend to do by means of this community may be very much impeded by the present state of things it is absolutely necessary You … should be made acquainted with it before the evil is irreparable,” she said.
St. Elizabeth Ann was a good soldier, always ready to follow orders, no matter what — and willing to question them, in the right way to the right person.
So, if you put a flag out for Veterans Day, think of Mother Seton.
Like a cavalry leader in the Kingdom of Christ, she once said, “If only we keep courage, we will go to Heaven on horseback instead of idling and creeping along!”
This is the courage Cardinal Spellman saw in her.
“When our great Republic was born, she became a charter American citizen,” he said, listing Alexander Hamilton and John Jay among her friends and acquaintances.
“It is surely no accident that this woman who was responsible for Catholic teaching and Catholic charity now so developed that with true missionary spirit it expands and extends into foreign lands, should have been so thoroughly American,” Spellman wrote. “She is a glorious tribute, by God’s grace, to the health, zeal and spirituality of Catholicism in America.”
This reflection was originally published in 2019.
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: Aigen ( Upper Austria ). Former hospital church Saint Martin – Mosaic of Saint Martin ( 1977 ). Fragment. Wolfgang Sauber – Own work.