I love the Stations of the Cross and recently noticed that our lives have the same shape as Christ’s Via Crucis. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s certainly did.
To show how, here are the Stations of the Cross following Mother Seton’s life.
The images I sketch of Elizabeth’s lifelong way of the cross are based on an exhibit called “The Face of Sanctity, the Human Face” from the 2015 New York Encounter, an event organized by the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation.
Lord Jesus, in your Way of the Cross you show the shape of each of our lives, because we were born to follow you and you were born to show us the way.
Thank you for giving us your daughter, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton — wife, mother, widow, teacher and religious — as our guide. May we make her words our own when she said, “[I was] not only willing to take my cross but kissed it too.”
First Station: Jesus is condemned by Pilate.
Elizabeth, like all of us, was born “condemned” — her heart wounded by original sin. “O see, in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived,” says Psalm 51:5.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley experienced the effects of original sin harshly. She lost her birth mother as a small child and gained a stepmother who was “cold and distant to her.” She grew up feeling condemned and alone, and even once considered taking Laudanum to end it all. Later she was overwhelmed by “The praise and thanks of excessive joy not to have done this horrible deed! A thousand promises of eternal gratitude.”
Lord Jesus, you, who were innocent, accepted condemnation by Pilate to save us, the guilty. Help all those who feel condemned to misery discover that you entered our darkness to lead us out.
Second Station: Jesus accepts his cross.
Elizabeth began her adult life by accepting a cross. Marriage, says the Catechism, “gives [couples] the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him.”
Elizabeth Seton found a husband immediately — and found immediate burdens, too. The children came quickly: in her first, second, and fourth, sixth and eighth years of marriage. Her husband didn’t share her deep faith, causing her sorrow. Then he inherited his father’s business, and its stresses. Yet she said these were the happiest years of her life.
Lord Jesus, you accepted your cross with gratitude. Help married couples learn that “Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy, and perfect love can make it a joy.”
Third Station: Jesus falls for the first time.
Let’s compare each of Christ’s three falls to the great blows of life that knock us down. Elizabeth’s widowhood was that — but she found that marriage “gives [spouses] the strength … to rise again after they have fallen,” the Catechism teaches.
When William Seton became ill with tuberculosis, Elizabeth took him to Italy. But when the couple arrived there they were forced into “the dungeon of Lazaretto” to be quarantined. The experience reminded Elizabeth of the solitary abandonment of her youth, and not long later William was dead. But she was consoled by “the sweetness of the sound” of “him pronouncing the name of his redeemer.”
Lord Jesus, we learn from your fall under the weight of the cross that our own suffering has meaning and purpose. Give us the strength to rise again like you did.
Fourth Station: Jesus meets his mother.
“The Mother of God is a type of the Church,” says the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium. Next on her journey, Elizabeth met her ecclesial mother.
In Italy, Elizabeth met Mother Church in a big way. She was “speechless before the richness of imagery in the Catholic Liturgy,” according to The Face of Sanctity. She saw Catholics kneeling before the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and said, “How happy would we be if we believed what these dear souls believe!”
Lord Jesus, from your encounter with your mother, you drew the strength to carry the cross. Give us that grace in our encounter with Mother Church.
Fifth Station: Simon helps Jesus carry the cross.
Elizabeth needed help with her cross, and got it. Lay people “are made sharers in their particular way in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly office of Christ,” says the Catechism.
For Jesus, Simon of Cyrene shared the cross. For Elizabeth, her husband’s Italian friend Antonio shared the cross. “Antonio Filicchi showed me how to make the sign of the cross!” Elizabeth reported to a friend. “The sign of the cross of Christ on me! … what earnest desires to be closely united with him who died on it.” Later, he would also help her on her way, like Simon, accompanying her to New York.
Lord Jesus, you accepted the help of Simon. We want to help you also, when we see you in those who need our assistance.
Sixth Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
“Let charity be genuine,” says the Catechism. “Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.” Elizabeth encountered life-changing charity.
Elizabeth didn’t only receive instruction from Antonio. His wife’s hospitality left an impression — literally. Like a Veronica, Amabilia Filicchi reproduced Elizabeth’s image in her popular painting, and also left an image of Christlike spousal love. Elizabeth was “deeply struck by the union [the Filicchis] experienced within the Eucharist: A depth of union she knew she did not have with William,” according to The Face of Sanctity exhibit.
Lord Jesus, when Veronica consoled you on the way of the cross, you left your image with her. Forever after, Christian charity bears your image.
Seventh Station: Jesus falls a second time.
Then Elizabeth faced another upheaval: conversion to the Catholic Church. “All … must be prepared to confess Christ before men and to follow him along the way of the Cross,” says the Catechism.
“Elizabeth was left more alone than ever in the face of a decision that threatened to leave her more so: Her year-long agony over the decision to enter the Catholic Church,” says The Face of Sanctity. She was making a choice that would alienate family and friends, and she wrote to the Filicchis that she was “On my knees beseeching God to enlighten me to see the truth, unmixed with doubts and hesitations.”
Lord Jesus, at your seventh station, you have traveled a hard road. But a harder road lay ahead. You get up from your fall, and begin again.
Eighth Station: Jesus greets the daughters of Jerusalem.
Elizabeth gained new daughters of her own to instruct. “The fourth commandment” honoring your parents “extends to the duties of pupils to teachers” and vice versa, says the Catechism.
Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore took an interest in the newly Catholic Elizabeth Ann Seton. She would soon move to his city and start a school for girls. “It is expected I shall be the mother of many daughters,” she wrote. Like Jesus on the Via Crucis, Elizabeth redirected her priorities. And new “daughters” kept coming.
Lord Jesus, you said “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and your children.” Help us reorient our lives according to your call.
Ninth Station: Jesus falls a third time.
The next weight placed upon Elizabeth was a new vocation. The consecrated person “surrenders [her]self to the God [she] loves above all else,” says the Catechism.
Taking vows brought joys but also new stresses. In particular, Elizabeth had a deeply difficult experience with an appointed superior, and found no relief from her bishop. It all served to “create in my mind a confusion and want of confidence in my Superiors which is indescribable,” she said. But she added “How good is the cross for me; this is my opportunity to ground myself in patience and perseverance.”
Lord Jesus, give us the patience and perseverance you showed as you were knocked to your knees again and again on the way of the cross.
Tenth Station: Jesus is stripped.
Elizabeth found her vulnerabilities laid bare by her new vocation. The call to the religious life is a call “To follow and imitate Christ more nearly and to manifest more clearly his self- emptying,” says the Catechism.
Elizabeth wrote of the “poverty and sorrow” she faced. “Struggles in the formation and structure of the new order were not the only test,” says The Face of Sanctity. Two of her sisters-in-law joined her in her new faith and her vocation but soon “Elizabeth would lose both of them and her own daughter Rebecca to tuberculosis.”
Lord Jesus, you were stripped of more than your clothes. You lost your friends, your family, and the crowds who followed you. But the Father’s will was enough for you.
Eleventh Station: Jesus is nailed to the cross.
Holiness comes from nailing ourselves to our daily duty. As Benedict XVI put it, citing St. Hilary, “Access to Christ is open to all, on condition that they divest themselves of their former self, nailing it to the Cross.”
Mother Seton at times had the worst of both worlds: the hardest parts of being a religious and the hardest parts of being a mother. Her oldest child “Annina’s death left Elizabeth in the most debilitating grief she had ever experienced.” She learned that “We are never strong enough to bear our cross; 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.”
Lord Jesus, you were nailed to the cross of God’s will. Help us realize that our surrender to our vocation is surrender to you.
Twelfth Station: Jesus dies on the cross.
Death comes to all. Elizabeth knew well that a Christian “can transform his own death into an act of obedience and love towards the Father, after the example of Christ,” as the Catechism says.
Elizabeth prayed often regarding her death. “The dear, dear, dear adored will be done at every moment of [my life]” she prayed. “And when it is all over, how we will rejoice that it was done!” At last she joined her Lord, and her husband and daughters, in death.
Lord Jesus, you committed your spirit to your Father, and then you were gone. Give us the grace of dying in your grace.
Thirteenth Station: Jesus’s friends take him down from the cross.
Solidarity, friendship, “is a direct demand of human and Christian brotherhood” — and sisterhood!— sealed “by Jesus Christ on the altar of the Cross,” says the Catechism.
In the end, it was left for Elizabeth’s friends to share her letters and her life. “One hallmark of Elizabeth’s life is the intensity and depth with which she lived her relationships,” says The Face of Sanctity. To a friend she wrote: “There is not an hour of my life in which I do not want either the advice or soothings of friendship.” But she wrote to another, “the tenderest interest you ever can bestow on me is only a stream of which [Jesus] is the fountain.”
Lord Jesus, you said, “No greater love has a man than to lay down his life for his friends.” May we gratefully receive your sacrifice as your first friends did.
Fourteenth Station: Jesus is laid in his tomb.
Last, Mother Seton entered into heaven. “Invoke her protection, now that we have the certitude of her participation in the exchange of heavenly life … the Communion of Saints,” Paul VI said at her canonization.
“Eternity, oh how near it often seems to me!” St. Elizabeth Ann wrote. She said she longed for “the gift of heaven in order that certain duties may be fulfilled, and the path that leads to a state of immortality and perfection.”
She found it. As she told her sisters on her deathbed: “One communion more — and then eternity!”
Lord Jesus, thank you for opening our way to heaven by your Way of the Cross. May we rest in death as you did, and rise again with you. Amen.
Lord Jesus, you told us that “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” As our meditation on your Way of the Cross ends, our own Way of the Cross begins. We ask the intercession of your Blessed Mother and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to walk it faithfully
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 from Mother Seton’s Stations of the Cross miniature reliefs in the Chapel of the historic St. Joseph’s House in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Click here to view all Seton Reflections.