Note: This article is the first in a new series titled, “Saints & Tradition,” which will look at the ways in which the traditional practice of the Catholic faith has impacted the lives of the Saints.
In 1804, Elizabeth Ann Seton was the recently-widowed wife of an unsuccessful businessman, the mother of five children, and a practicing Episcopalian who had been raised by an unbelieving physician. Yet an encounter with the Latin Mass in Italy would change her life forever, putting her on a path that would include founding a religious order and becoming the first American-born Saint.
Elizabeth’s husband William had always been unhealthy. In the Fall of 1803, the couple and their oldest child Anna Maria set sail for Italy in hopes that the better climate would help William’s deteriorating condition. Sadly, when they arrived they were put into a 25-day quarantine, which proved to be too much for William’s delicate constitution. He died shortly after they were released.
While waiting to return to New York, Elizabeth and her daughter stayed in Livorno, Italy with Filippo and Mary Filicchi, devout Catholics who were business associates of William. Filippo and his brother Antonio made it their mission to convert Elizabeth to the Catholic faith. Filippo gave her Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales and took Anna and her on a trip to Florence to see the beautiful Catholic sites there. In Florence, Elizabeth became more open to Catholicism, but it was later, after attending Mass in Livorno for the first time, that Elizabeth truly set out on the path that would lead her to Rome.
Elizabeth had been raised in a scientific household. Her father Richard Bailey was a physician and a public health officer. He was skeptical of religion, and for a while Elizabeth shared his skepticism. Eventually, however, Elizabeth embraced Christianity in the Episcopal Church, but she retained her practical view of the world. Years later, when she went to Mass she encountered mystery and was awe-struck by it. The silence, the reverence, and the solemnity of the Mass revealed an aspect of existence she had previously denied. It brought the devout Protestant to tears. In a letter to a friend, she wrote, “I don’t know…for I was at the side of the altar, so that I could not look up without seeing [the priest’s] countenance on which Many lights from the altar reflected, and gave such strange impressions to my soul that I could but cover my face with my hands and let the tears run.”
At another Mass soon afterward, during the elevation of the Host, someone whispered to Elizabeth, “this is what they call their real presence,” presumably to help her understand the Mass better. But Elizabeth was offended. She writes, “My very heart trembled with shame and sorrow for his unfeeling interruption of their sacred adoration for all around was dead Silence and many were prostrated.” Although Elizabeth did not yet believe in transubstantiation, she intuitively understood the sacredness of the Mass, particularly the sacredness of the moment of elevation and what it proposed: “I don’t know how to say the awful effect at being where they told me God was present in the blessed Sacrament.” It was this possibility—that God Himself was present at the Mass—that embedded itself into Elizabeth’s soul.
Clearly grace was working in Elizabeth—grace working upon nature. The way in which the Mass was celebrated—the silence, the prostrations, even the candlelight—all conveyed to Elizabeth the sacredness of the moment. Even on a scientific, practical soul, this had a profound impact. Soon afterward she returned to New York, and she continued to be drawn to Catholicism. Although her family and friends—particularly her Episcopal minister—tried to convince her otherwise, Elizabeth could not shake the desire to encounter God Himself, “present in the blessed Sacrament.”
When Elizabeth finally made the decision to convert, she couldn’t contain her longing for the Eucharist. Although she had read many defenses as well as attacks regarding Catholicism during her investigation, it was the presence of God that she had powerfully experienced in that small Italian church that pulled her to Rome. On the night before she was to receive Communion for the first time, she barely slept. After receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist, she wrote, “It seemed to me my King had come to take his throne…At last. GOD IS MINE and I AM HIS.”
Quotations taken from Elizabeth Seton: American Saint by Catherine O’Donnell.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.