Pope Paul VI’s ecstatic introduction of the newly canonized St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is well known. “Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a Saint!” he said. “But what do we mean when we say ‘she is a saint’?”
He gave a number of answers — “the highest level that a human being can reach,” and “a human creature fully conformed to the will of God,” someone for whom “the principle of death is cancelled out and replaced by the living splendor of divine grace.”
His words are powerful, but it takes a week like this week, filled with great saints — from St. Jerome who translated the Bible to St. Thérèse, doctor of the Church; to St. Faustina Kowalska, the Divine Mercy saint — to see just how exalted is the company Mother Seton keeps.
Perhaps above all, October 4 shows it — because St. Francis is the Ultimate Saint. Consider four hallmarks of what it means to be a saint, and how Francis and Elizabeth Ann Seton’s lives reflect them:
1. Witness to Christ is the first hallmark of a saint.
Like St. Francis, Elizabeth showed her country what Jesus Christ meant in their time.
St. Francis of Assisi “was a living icon of Christ in love with Christ and thus he made the figure of the Lord present in his time. He did not convince his contemporaries with his words but rather with his life,” said Pope Benedict XVI.
That’s what saints do: Convince others with their lives. If anyone wonders what Jesus Christ would have done in 13th century Europe, the answer is: Look at the saints of that time. Look at Francis.
Jesus would have shown that poverty was a glory and not a shame, he would have physically rebuilt the crumbling churches, he would have filled the message of Christianity with freshness and awe as a “troubadour of God,” and he would have inspired people’s love for creation.
And what would Jesus Christ have done in 19th century America? We know the answer to that by looking at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. In her, “The apostolate of helping the poor and the running of parochial schools in America had this humble, poor, courageous and glorious beginning,” said Pope Paul VI.
If Jesus Christ were alive in America in the 1800s, he would have started schools so that young people would be prepared to bring the faith to their contemporaries. Her work witnessed to the world that the Church was going to take care of her children, and it witnessed to the institutional Church that care for the minds and souls of children needs to be the perpetual priority of the Church. And that is what He did, through St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
2. Distance from the world is a second hallmark.
Like Francis, Elizabeth was in the world, not of it.
“It is St. Clara’s day,” wrote Mother Seton to a friend, referencing Francis’s closest follower. “What did she not suffer in opposing the World?”
Francis is known for the Stigmata, an outward sign of an inward commitment he had to mortification. He didn’t reject the world, but he refused to be enticed by the world’s ways; he held the world at arm’s length, to leave room for Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis, in Laudato Si, described Francis’s life of suffering this way: “The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”
This is exactly what Elizabeth Ann Seton was like.
In 1951, Bishop John McNamara of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., summed up her life this way: “There was no hedging on her part in accepting the terms laid down by Christ for one who would be his disciple: ‘Let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’”
That suffering came at a heavy price. Francis had to leave behind his father to follow Jesus; St. Elizabeth Ann had to leave a part of her family and her late husband’s family. But the words of Jesus were also fulfilled in their lives. “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life,” he said.
3. The third hallmark of a saint: Love for the Church.
Like Francis, Mother Seton was able to embrace the Church without losing her imaginative service of God.
Though Pope Innocent II rejected his plans in their first meeting, Francis was undaunted. Quite the contrary.
“Go with the Lord, brothers, and as the Lord will see fit to inspire you, preach penance to all,” the Pope told him. “When the almighty Lord increases you in numbers and grace, come back to me with joy, and I will grant you more things than these and, with greater confidence, I will entrust you with greater things.”
Rather than complain about the setback or find a way to avoid following the Church’s instructions, Francis was faithful to the Church — and centuries of Franciscans followed as a result.
St. Elizabeth Ann was the same way. “Be children of the Church,” she told her Sisters near the end of her life. And they were.
It was this spirit that inspired Pope Paul VI to have great expectations of St. Elizabeth Ann’s communities. “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,” he said. “Through the powerful example of joyful love and of selfless service rendered by religious, may the young people of America again find attraction in Christ’s invitation to follow him and to be witnesses of the transcendence of his love.”
4. Works of Mercy are the fourth hallmark of a saint.
Like Francis, Mother Seton didn’t just evangelize; she served.
“Of works of mercy, Francis of Assisi is your master and model,” said St. John Paul II.
The saint of Assisi served others tirelessly, embracing lepers, sharing the little he had with the poor, and giving them his greatest resource: time.
The same can be said of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
“The Sisters of Charity… are night and day devoted to the sick and ignorant,” Mother Seton wrote.
She advised that we do the same: “Take every day as a ring which you must engrave, adorn, and embellish with your actions, to be offered up in the evening at the altar of God.”
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 Credit: Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, attributed to Jan van Eyck, c. 1395 – 1441
This reflection was originally published in 2019.