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Lessons from the Conversion of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

While it is true to say that only God can ultimately convert people, it is equally true to assert that God wills to employ men as instruments in the great work of conversion. Pius XII wrote in Mystici Corporis, “As our Savior does not rule the Church directly in a visible manner, He wills to be helped by the members of His Body in carrying out the work of redemption. This is not because He is indigent and weak, but rather because He has so willed it for the greater glory of His spotless Spouse[.] … This is a deep mystery, and an inexhaustible subject of meditation, that the salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ offer for this intention.”

It is not too difficult in the case of some conversions to know which humans God principally employed to contribute to the change. We know that St. Monica’s prayers played an important role in the conversion of St. Augustine. We know that St. Thérèse’s prayers and sacrifices were instrumental in the conversion of Henri Pranzini. When it comes to the conversion of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, anyone who reads her life can easily discover that two persons were especially chosen by God to lead Elizabeth to the Catholic faith: Antonio and Amabilia Filicchi.

William Seton, Elizabeth’s husband, had inherited his father’s import-export mercantile firm. He entered into a commercial relationship with Antonio Filicchi through the firm, and what started as a mere business relationship developed into a sincere friendship as the two men began to appreciate each other’s characters. When William became very ill in the spring of 1803, he decided that it would be good if he, Elizabeth, and their youngest daughter traveled to Leghorn, Italy to stay with the Filicchi family and take advantage of the more favorable climate. The Setons ended up being quarantined for around a month upon arrival in Italy due to news of a yellow fever outbreak. William died only eight days after being released from quarantine, but Providence arranged it so that Elizabeth and Anna Maria were still to stay with the Filicchis for quite some time.

Antonio and his wife, Amabilia, attended Mass daily at their own private chapel. Both prayed the rosary regularly. They rejoiced and feasted on the Church’s big celebratory days, and they fasted during the penitential seasons. Their fasting, it turns out, beyond making their prayers for Elizabeth’s conversion more efficacious, was an occasion of grace for Mrs. Seton in another way. As an Episcopalian, Elizabeth had once asked the pastor of her congregation what was meant by “fasting,” a term she had come across in her prayer book for their Ash Wednesday service. Her pastor’s response left her unsatisfied. “Fasting,” said the Episcopalian Rev. Mr. Hobart — “well, that was an old custom…” Impressed by Amabilia’s sacrifices during Lent, Elizabeth wrote to a relative, “Well, the dear Mrs. Filicchi, who I am with, never eats, this season of Lent, till after the clock strikes three. She says that she offers her weakness and pain of fasting for her sins, united with her Saviour’s sufferings. I like that very much” [1].

What Elizabeth liked even more than the Catholic doctrine on fasting, was the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist. While still in Italy, she wrote to a friend, “How happy would we be if we believed what these dear souls believe — that they possess God in the sacrament, and that he remains in their churches, and is carried to them when they are sick!” [2]. Elizabeth’s familiarity with the Scriptures would soon enough help her come to the joy of believing in this beautiful mystery of our faith. While attending Mass at the church of Montanero with the Filicchis, a young Englishman who was present remarked in a mocking tone to Elizabeth during the Elevation of the Host, “This is what they call their real presence.” “My very heart,” wrote Elizabeth, “trembled with pain and sorrow for his unfeeling interruption of their sacred adoration; for all around was dead silence, and many were prostrated. Involuntarily, I bent from him to the pavement, and thought secretly on the words of St. Paul, with starting tears, ‘they discern not the Lord’s body’; and the next thought was, how should they eat and drink their own damnation for not discerning it, if indeed it is not there?” [3].

This striking passage from 1 Corinthians 11 that was such an aid in the faith journey of our convert saint is included in the epistle readings in the traditional Roman rite for the feasts of both Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi. The passage has been excised in the Novus Ordo and is not included in the readings for the equivalent feasts.

The Filicchis were not content to try to convert Elizabeth by offering her the good example of their edifying lives. Antonio had Fr. Joseph Pecci, a member of the famous family from which Leo XIII was to come, write up a lengthy volume on the credentials and doctrines of the Catholic Church [4]. Antonio then translated the work into English and strongly encouraged Elizabeth to read it. When Elizabeth went back to New York, Antonio wrote her several letters in which he defended Catholic doctrines against Protestant objections. Liberals in the Church today often speak as if using words to promote the faith is a capital sin, but Catholics who have read catechisms that were published before Vatican II recognize instructing the ignorant as one of the seven spiritual works of mercy.

The prayers, penances, and exhortations of Antonio and Amabilia proved fruitful. On March 15, 1805, Elizabeth made her formal profession of faith and abjuration of heresy. She received her first Communion ten days later on the Feast of the Annunciation. It is beyond the scope of this article to relate all of the good that St. Elizabeth did once she became a Catholic and founded the Sisters of Charity in our country, but needless to say, the good was immense.

Soon after her conversion, St. Elizabeth expressed to an inquiring Protestant friend that the Catholic religion offers many consolations to the dying that no other religion can afford. God was pleased to offer St. Elizabeth these consolations and more, for our saint died one of the most beautiful deaths in the history of the Church in our land. On January 2, 1821, she received Extreme Unction. Two days later, on the morning of January 4, St. Elizabeth begged her sisters to pray the Anima Christi with her. Fr. Feeney records the touching details of what happened next as follows [5]:

Sisters: “Soul of Christ, sanctify me.”

Mother Seton: “Soul of Christ, sanctify me.”

Sisters: “Body of Christ, save me.”

Mother Seton: “Body of Christ, save me.”

(At this point, a certain number of the sisters burst into tears and could not continue.)

Sisters (what remained of them): “Blood of Christ, inebriate me.”

Mother Seton (unfalteringly): “Blood of Christ, inebriate me.”

Sisters (how many? two or three?): “Water from the side of Christ, wash me.”

Mother Seton: “Water from the side of Jesus, wash me.”

(Everyone noticed the change of word in this antiphon. Whether delirious or deliberate, it was significant. At any rate, at some point in the prayer, not one single sister could continue in the prayer to assist her. And Mother Seton had to go to the end of it alone.)

Mother Seton: “Passion of Christ, strengthen me…”

Sisters: “…”

Mother Seton: “Oh good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from Thee.
From the wicked foe defend me.
At the hour of my death call me.
And bid me come to Thee.
That with Thy Saints I may praise Thee.
Forever…and ever…amen.”

After finishing the Anima Christi, St. Elizabeth made a great effort to successfully pronounce the holy name of Jesus one last time, and then she went on to her eternal reward.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, patron saint of Catholic schools, Maryland, widows, and seafarers, pray for us!

[1] White, Charles I. Life of Mrs. Eliza A. Seton, Foundress and First Superior of the Sisters or Daughters of Charity in the United States. New York, P.J Kenedy, 1904. Pgs. 96-97.

[2] Ibid. Pg. 95

[3] Ibid. Pg. 94

[4] Feeney, Fr. Leonard. Mother Seton: Saint Elizabeth of New York. Cambridge, Ravengate Press, 1991. Pg. 108

[5] Ibid. Pgs. 194-196

Image: Tony Basilio via Flickr.

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