Saint John XXIII, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, and the Strength of Goodness

The unshakable faith of Saint John XXIII and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton flowed from their devotion to the “strength of goodness.” This devotion was inspired by the humble and outward-serving influences of people who left indelible marks on the young lives of these two great saints.

Pope John XXIII who died on June 3, 1968, was known as “Good Pope John.”

“If in John Paul II the key phrase is ‘courage of the faith,’” Cardinal Angelo Comastri told Catholic News Agency, “in John XXIII the key phrase is ‘the strength of goodness.’”

That “strength of goodness” was a product of the faith John XXIII learned from his upbringing in the Catholic culture of northern Italy — the same Catholic culture that would later attract Elizabeth Ann Seton into the faith and encourage in her the same strength of goodness.

St. John XXIII and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton both learned their faith from their parents, especially their fathers.

John XXIII’s father and mother supported their 13 children — Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the future John XXIII, was the fourth — on their earnings as a sharecropper family.

“There are three ways to face ruin: women, gambling and farming,” John XIII once quipped. “My father chose the most boring one.”

Nonetheless, John XXIII was so influenced by his father that when he shared his choice of papal name with the cardinals who elected him, he said, “I choose John … a name sweet to us because it is the name of our father, dear to me because it is the name of the humble parish church where I was baptized, the solemn name of numberless cathedrals scattered throughout the world.”

His life was filled with moments like that, exalted positions that he nonetheless connected to his humble roots.

He received his doctorate in theology at age 23 — completing studies he started amidst farm duties. He served as secretary to a bishop — but was equally at home serving fighting men in World War I as a chaplain and medic. He was a diplomat to Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece — and saved thousands of Jews during the Nazi occupation.

His brief papacy — from 1958 until his death five years later — was one of the most influential in Church history, since he opened the Second Vatican Council. But in America, at first, he was better known for assisting in resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In all of it, Pope John XXIII was influenced by the memory of his own holy dad.

It was the same for Elizabeth Ann Seton, who lost her mother when she was young and learned much from her father, Richard Bayley, a New York surgeon. One biographer, Leonard Feeney, tells the story of a Staten Island doctor who once visited her father. He asked Dr. Bayley’s advice but couldn’t convince him to come and visit his patients. “It was late at night, the distance was great, and he was exhausted,” writes Feeney.

The doctor expressed his disappointment. “How your refusal will grieve those needy persons who are so anxious to see you!” he said. “They are already so unfortunate, and they are so poor!”

“They are poor?” Dr. Bayley said, leaping to his feet. “Well, why didn’t you tell me that before? Let us go to them!”

Elizabeth would later imitate her father’s “preferential option for the poor.” That was a phrase Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council would popularize. John XXIII saw it practiced by his mother.

His secretary told the story of his first Christmas as pope. “Listen, Don Loris,” he said, “my mother taught me that for the holidays we must not only go to Mass, but we must also do works of mercy.”

Good Pope John set the dates for his secretary to schedule: “The day of Christmas I will go to the children in Bambino Gesu Hospital. And Dec. 26, I’m going to visit the prisoners of the Regina Coeli Prison.”

That Northern Italian marriage of devotion and service is not just at the heart of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching, it’s at the heart of what it means to be a Christian — and a Catholic.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton saw it in the northern Italian family who inspired her own faith journey.

Antonio Filicchi and his brother Filippo were business partners of Elizabeth’s husband William when the Setons were still Episcopalians. The Filicchis frequently visited America, and in fact Filippo married a woman from the United States. The Filicchis knew George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, but they also did all they could to welcome and help the Setons when Elizabeth brought her husband to Italy in an attempt to help him recover from tuberculosis.

The attempt to help him failed. He passed away, but the Filicchi family’s kindness impressed Elizabeth. She spoke with the Filicchis often about religion.

“I understand,” Elizabeth told Filippo once; “you wish that I pray, that I seek, and that I embrace your belief.”

“Pray and seek,” he answered her, “that is all I ask of you.”

That she did, and became first a Catholic, then a consecrated religious, and then a founder of schools and orphanages.

The story goes that a student once asked her, “Mother, what is that ‘benignity’ of which my catechism speaks?”

“Dear little one,” Mother Seton replied, “look at Bishop Carroll, and you will find what benignity means, in his appearance, his language and in all his manners.’”

Maybe “the strength of goodness” would have been a good definition, too. That’s what Seton saw in Bishop Carroll, and what the world saw in John XXIII.

“Men are like wine,” St. John XIII once said. “Some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.”

St. John XXIII was the second kind. The story is told that a Vatican official worried about the pope’s age and said it would be “absolutely impossible” to open the Second Vatican Council by 1963. “Fine, we’ll open it in 1962,” said Pope John. And he did, on October 11.

He died eight months later. Cardinal Angelo Comastri compared the weeks before Pope John’s death on June 3, 1963, to the last days of St. John Paul II, when pilgrims camped outside his window, praying all night.

“Jews, Buddhists, even jail inmates all communicated their sentiments to the secretary of State, because Pope John XXIII was felt to be the father of the world, the father of humanity, the father who had helped men to feel more like brothers,” he told Catholic news Agency.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s spiritual director, Father Simon Bruté, saw the same “strength of goodness” in her when she died.

“Her distinguishing characteristic was compassion and indulgence for poor sinners,” he said. “Mother’s special virtues were her attachment to her friends and her gratitude, her religious respect for the ministers of the Lord, and for everything pertaining to religion. Her heart was compassionate, religious, lavish of every good in her possession, disinterested in regard to all things.”

That “benignity” is why the Church no longer mourns St. John XXIII and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, but celebrates their lives on the anniversary of their deaths, five months apart.

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: Ioannes XXIII, by De Agostini, 1958–1963