St. Thomas of Villanova and Mother Seton: The Struggle to Do What You Should

St. Thomas of Villanova and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton show us that obedience is the path to great works, and humility is what makes all the other virtues possible.

It’s remarkable what can happen when you do what you are supposed to do — and do it to the full.

St. Thomas of Villanova is a colossal figure, a saint celebrated in great paintings, with organizations all over the world named for him. As the “Beggar Bishop” of Valencia he was a major figure in leading Spain to deepen its commitment to the Catholic faith.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton also accomplished extraordinary feats. She is credited with planting the first seeds of America’s Catholic school system; she founded the country’s first congregation of women religious and became the nation’s first canonized saint. Her name is affixed to churches, campuses and organizations, and her devotees are countless.

The most extraordinary thing about them, though, is the ordinary way they became saints. They did not achieve sanctity by doing unusual things, but by embracing their everyday tasks with every fiber of their being.

They both began pursuing holiness when they were very young.

Thomas Garcia Martinez was born in 1486, the son of a wealthy miller on a family estate with a house chapel and a coat of arms. His family had a deep Christian faith.

Rather than define himself by his wealth, the young Thomas was known for giving away even the clothes on his back.

As Thomas grew and went to school, he threw himself passionately into his studies — so successfully that as a young man he was offered a professorship at the University of Salamanca. He refused the position in order to join the Order of Saint Augustine.

Elizabeth Ann Seton also pursued God passionately as a child. She was born Elizabeth Ann Bayley in 1774 and recounted the day as a teenager that she committed herself to God.

“When my father was in England I jumped in the wagon that was driving to the woods,” she said. “I thought at the time that my father did not care for me. Well, God was my Father — my all. I prayed — sung hymns — cried — laughed in talking to myself of how far he could place me above all sorrow. … I am sure in the two hours so enjoyed [I] grew 10 years in my spiritual life.”

They say the best way to know the will of God is to throw yourself whole-heartedly into your state in life.

Elizabeth and St. Thomas certainly did that.

Elizabeth’s first vocation was to be a wife and mother. She married William Seton and would soon say, “The only word I have to say to every question is: I am a mother. Whatever providence awaits me consistent with that plea, I say Amen to it.”

Elizabeth sacrificed her own pursuits to take care of her husband’s business when he became sick with tuberculosis and then taking care of him when he didn’t recover, traveling to Italy in hopes of a cure.

She saw her visit to Italy as a success in two ways: First, her husband died more devoted than ever to Jesus Christ in their Episcopalian faith; second, she discovered the depth of Catholic devotion to Jesus, especially in the Blessed Sacrament.

However, both successes came at a steep price. She was widowed and then converted to Catholicism at a time when conversion meant risking friends and her station in society.

“We are never strong enough to bear our cross,” she said. “It is the cross which carries us, nor so weak as to be unable to bear it, since the weakest become strong by its virtue.”

Elizabeth’s conversion led her to the religious life and, urged on by her confessor, she became a foundress of a religious community and school.

Thomas of Villanova also followed the urgings of the Holy Spirit, which came by way of his religious superiors.

He was assigned to teach college students, as well as serving as counselor and confessor to King Charles V. To fight against the temptation of pride occasioned by his lofty position, he lived an austere life, even selling his straw mattress to the poor.

When he was named Archbishop of Granada he refused to take the position, and was offered the archbishopric of Valencia after that. He refused again. Eventually, Thomas’s superiors insisted that he become archbishop, and he reluctantly complied under obedience.

He would later say that humility was what made all the other virtues possible:

“Humility is the mother of many virtues because from it obedience, fear, reverence, patience, modesty, meekness and peace are born… He who is humble easily obeys everyone, fears to offend anyone, is at peace with everyone, is kind with all.”

Elizabeth Ann Seton also found that obedience only came with humility.

She struggled with obedience, saying at one point:

“Circumstances have all so combined as to create in my mind a confusion and want of confidence in my Superiors which is indescribable. … I have endeavored, to do everything in my power to meet the last appointed Superior in every way; but after continual reflection on the necessity of absolute conformity with him and constant prayer to Our Lord to help me.”

Elizabeth found obedience hard, but its fruits in her life were many.

After reluctantly accepting the archbishopric of Valencia, Thomas threw himself into pastoral work. He visited each parish personally to determine the people’s needs, then worked to meet those needs.

Proactive charity became his hallmark. “If you wish God to anticipate your wants, provide those of the needy without waiting for them to ask you,” he would say. “Especially anticipate the needs of those who are ashamed to beg. To make them ask for alms is to make them buy it.”

He found plenty of needs. He started a seminary to better form his priests, but also set up a school for Islamic converts. He became known as “Father of the Poor” by turning his own home into a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.

St. Thomas’ life of charity is much like the life of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton; she also trained her own Sisters, provided for the poor and taught their children.

“What great profit you gain from God when you are generous!” St. Thomas said. “You give a coin and receive a kingdom; you give bread from wheat and receive the Bread of Life; you give a transitory good and receive an everlasting one. You will receive it back, a hundred times more than you offered.”

Obedience as a virtue has gone out of fashion. We tend to see it as a humiliating infringement of our freedom. But St. Thomas of Villanova and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton knew what all saints know; that in obedience and humility to God’s will lie true freedom. And great works.

TOM HOOPESauthor 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: Santo Tomas de Villanueva by Francisco Camilo