It can be hard to follow the popes – to accept direction from outside ourselves and to respect every pope, the ones we like and the ones for whom we don’t have a natural affinity. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton could easily be the patron saint of people who choose to follow the pope even when it’s difficult.
We call to mind the pope every year when we celebrate the feast of the Chair of St. Peter on Feb. 22. Last year on this feast day, my daughter made this observation about it on social media: “When you’re so holy, even your chair gets a feast day.” That is kind of true and kind of not true. A chair that St. Peter used really is preserved in the Vatican, but the day is not about that chair; it’s about the authority granted to the papacy by Christ.
Chair in Latin is cathedra. That’s where we get the words “cathedral,” which is the seat of the bishop, and ex cathedra (“from the chair”), when the pope issues an important statement with the full authority of his office.
Jesus in today’s Gospel tells “Simon, son of Jonah” that “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church … I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The Catechism says that this authority has been given to all the popes from Peter onwards. The pope “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity” of the Church, it explains, and “the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”
But before Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom to Peter, he asks his Apostles, “Who do people say the son of man is?” It is Peter who answers, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”
“Blessed are you,” Jesus replies, before giving him his special commission. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my heavenly Father.”
Peter became a leader for the whole Church, but only after he followed Jesus Christ on behalf of the whole Church.
It is easy to follow St. Peter, since we know and love the stories about him in the Bible. It is even easy to follow a pope who’s an inspirational figure, like Pope Francis is to so many. But it’s difficult to follow one who is not inspirational to us.
It was harder for a Protestant in early America to follow the pope. In a country that had just declared independence from a foreign power, the pope was an Italian potentate who lived across the sea.
It was even more difficult for St. Elizabeth Ann because, when she did convert and become a follower of the pope as a Catholic, she personally suffered hostility from the people she loved and respected most.
Why did she do it? Because, “I seek but God and his church, and expect to find my peace in them, not in the people,” she said.
She took to praying a prayer of Pope Pius VII to cope: “May the most just, the most high and the most amiable will of God be in all things fulfilled, praised, and exalted above all forever.”
It was not the pope’s land of origin or his personality that she submitted to, but the origin of his office and the Person who chose him. She was a follower not of human rulers, but of Jesus Christ and His will for His Church, which includes the papacy.
Elizabeth’s relationship with Christ led her to follow Peter, not the other way around. She literally turned toward the Church because of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
Elizabeth was visiting St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New York after learning about Catholic doctrines, but before becoming Catholic. St. Paul’s is a short distance from St. Peter’s Catholic Church. “I got in a side pew which turned my face toward the Catholic Church in the next street, and found myself 20 times speaking to the Blessed Sacrament there …. Tears plenty, and sighs as silent as deep as when I first entered your blessed Church of Annunciation in Florence, all turning to the one only desire to see the way most pleasing to my God, which ever that way is.”
The experience made St. Elizabeth Ann the kind of woman who inspired others to follow Jesus and his Church. She became a great leader the same way she became a great follower. She often pointed her congregation to Christ, and often said the same thing she told them a few days before her death: “Be children of the Church, be children of the Church.”
Because of that, Pope Benedict XVI called her a “towering figure” who “with great tenacity and foresight, laid the foundations of what is today a remarkable network of parochial schools contributing to the spiritual well-being of the Church and the nation.”
Not only that, Mother Seton also founded The Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first congregation of women religious started in the U.S., and those sisters went on and founded more schools, as well as orphanages, hospitals, and other ministries.
What began in humility and suffering became St. Elizabeth Ann’s greatest glory.
It always follows the same trajectory. We have to humble ourselves to follow God’s will to the full. St. Peter is well-loved because despite his weaknesses, he did that successfully.
It is allegiance to Jesus Christ in his Church that matters. Blessed are the poor and blessed are the meek — for the glory of heaven is theirs.
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 credit: The disciples Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of the resurrection by Eugène Burnand