They say teachers learn much from their students.
One iconic Catholic teacher, Elizabeth Ann Seton, seems to have learned quite a bit from the iconic student, St. Thomas Aquinas, even though their lives were separated by more than five centuries.
Thomas was born in 1225 and began studies with the Benedictines at Monte Cassino only five years later. His Catholic education led him to a vocation to the priesthood, and by the age of 20 he was studying at the University of Paris. He met Albertus Magnus and studied under him at Cologne three years later, becoming magister studentium (master of students).
Aquinas was a quiet, careful student — so much so that he had the reputation of being a bit of a dunce. Albertus Magnus defended him to the students saying, “You call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”
His teacher protected him like a father, much the way Mother Seton took her pupils under her wing.
“I am as a mother encompassed by many children of different dispositions,” she wrote of life as a teacher, “not all equally amiable or congenial, but bound to love, instruct and provide for the happiness of all, to give the example of cheerfulness, peace, resignation and consider individuals more as proceeding from the same origin and tending to the same end.”
That Thomas Aquinas the student found a father figure in his great teacher was particularly significant because his own family had turned against him. He wanted to become a Dominican Friar in St. Dominic’s newly founded Order of Preachers, but his family wanted him to be a monk. The Dominicans tried to stay one step ahead of his family and arranged to transport him to Rome. His brothers stopped him on the way and physically seized him to prevent him from going, until Thomas finally escaped from his own family home.
Elizabeth Ann Seton also had to deal with a family that didn’t understand her new Catholic faith and new vocation. While she faced nothing as dramatic as St. Thomas’s escape, she too found solace in a new protective parental figure, our Lady.
In 1804, after the fateful trip to Italy that brought her into contact with the Catholic faith and inspired her love of the Blessed Sacrament, she had to decide what part of her newfound faith she would share with her still-Protestant children.
“Anna coaxes me when we are at our evening prayers to say Hail Mary,” she said. Her daughter would say to her: ‘Oh do, Ma teach it to us! Even little Bec tries to lisp it, though she can scarcely speak.”
Elizabeth wrote in her journal, “If anyone is in heaven his Mother must be there … so I kiss her picture you gave me, and beg her to be a Mother to us.”
That same year, Elizabeth showed the extent to which the great Aquinas had become a teacher to her — and to all of us.
She described to the Filicchi family in a long letter the rites through which she entered the Catholic Church.
“I was called to the little room next the Altar and there professed to believe what the Council of Trent believes and teaches,” she said, “laughing with my heart to my Savior, who saw that I knew not what the Council of Trent believed, only that it believed what the Church of God declared to be its belief, and consequently is now my belief.”
Her trust was in the Church, not St. Thomas Aquinas, but it was St. Thomas’s careful scholarship that shaped the Council of Trent, with several passages from his works becoming — almost verbatim — defined dogmas of the Church. That came only after years when the Church was initially suspicious of his work, because of an early misunderstanding, and carefully investigated it.
Elizabeth did, however, mention her debt to St. Thomas Aquinas’s Eucharistic piety. She refers to Eucharistic hymns, written for the feast of Corpus Christi.
You can even hear echoes of St. Thomas Aquinas’s Panis Angelicus (Bread of Heaven) in her words.
“As certainly true as that bread naturally taken removes my hunger — so this bread of angels removes my pain, my cares, warms cheers sooths contents and renews my whole being,” Elizabeth wrote about the Eucharist. “Jesus then is there. We can go, receive him; he is our own.”
The Bread of Angels is made
the Bread of man today:
the Living Bread from heaven
with figures dost away:
O wondrous gift indeed!
the poor and lowly may
upon their Lord and Master feed.
A last point of comparison between Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Thomas Aquinas is their realizations that there is only one thing that matters in the end: God, and he alone.
The story goes that on December 6, 1273, three months before his death, St. Thomas Aquinas had a supernatural experience after Mass — a prolonged state of ecstasy. No one knows what he saw or heard, but he stopped working after that. It is said that his secretary, Reginald of Piperno, begged him to return to work, and he replied, “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.”
In one version of the story, Thomas was praying before an icon of the crucified Christ, and the Lord said to him, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas answered, “Nothing but you, Lord.”
In the same way, Elizabeth prayed to Jesus: “Live always in me, and let me live perpetually in Thee and for Thee as I live only by Thee.”
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.