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History of Religious Life
St. Elizabeth Seton and American Spirituality

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The sources are all drawn from the documents of the Holy See regarding Elizabeth Seton. There are four principal documents that can be consulted. There is a whole volume of the so-called Acta of Beatification, hundreds of pages of the study of Elizabeth Seton's virtues. But in terms of documents the first is the decree of her beatification and then canonization - the two decrees in which her life and virtues are synthesized. The second is the homily that Pope Paul VI gave on the day of her canonization. The third is the allocution that the same Pope gave to the American hierarchy. And the fourth is an Angelus message some time later in which Pope Paul came back to Mother Seton.

You will notice that we identify a saint and the foundress of a religious institute with American spirituality. And that for the best of reasons: she is the first Native American to be canonized. At long last we can say we've got a chance too.

First, description of American spirituality. Evidently in its substance or essentially it cannot be different from other spiritualities. The following of Christ, the carrying of the Cross, all the things we associate with the spiritual life are inherent in American as in English, German, Italian or any other. But, and Pope Paul couldn't have made more than he did in stressing that there is a qualifying aspect or form to the American way of life which then will necessarily characterize an American's approach to God. Nothing substantively different, can't be, otherwise it wouldn't be the one, holy, catholic Church, but qualifying necessarily.

Now the qualification in the spirituality is determined by the features that are typical of American culture. The features there identified, and there are ten, as characteristic of American culture which affect the spiritual life are also drawn from pontifical teaching. The wording is my own; the ideas are those of the late Pope Paul VI.

First: American culture is built on Protestant laws and institutions. Not to know that is to be living in a different American society. Not everything about Protestantism is anti-Catholic. Not a few features of Protestantism are characteristics of Catholicism. But Protestantism is not Catholicism.

Protestant laws from the beginning of our Republic place stress on the individual which grows out of the strong personalist approach to God in Protestantism that by now has affected every aspect of American society.

The institutions - beginning with our country. Our founding fathers were all, that is those who drafted the Constitution, those that give us the physiognomy of United States were either believing or formally professed Protestants. Whatever else our founding fathers wanted because they were Protestants was separation of Church and State, many reacting strongly against the establishment of Church under the State in England. In United States it is what we call the Free Church tradition, which believes that the Church and State should be completely separated.

Again, by the time the American Republic was founded at the end of the eighteenth century, that's already two hundred years after the Reformation, marriage had been completely taken over by the State. Marriage is a secular institution. Protestantism having rejected the Papacy, realized you must have some authority, so it transferred the authority that had been in the hands of the Church to the State, until now we have in the United States and already had in Elizabeth's day the State setting the moral standards of the country. I think for millions of Americans even abortion is not wrong. Why not? Because it's legalized. At any rate that's the first feature of American culture.

English language and influence. Notice I say English language and influence. By now we in United States have become so used to speaking of English without a second thought. The great German chancellor Bismark on one occasion was asked: "What did he consider the most important single fact, not event, the most important single fact of modern history?" Without hesitation, the most important single fact of modern history is that England and United States speak the same language. Which means that so much of English thought, English sentiment has been transferred, has become part of our American culture. How many of us study any of the great French or Spanish novelists or dramatists in literature, Cervantes, for example, among the Spaniards or Pascal among the French? Yet we all know Shakespeare.

Thus American culture has absorbed deeply of English thought, sentiment, ideas. And this in turn has deeply affected American thinking.

Third: The primacy of individual liberty. Whatever else our founding fathers wanted it was a nation of individuals who would be beholden to no one under God. The phrase of John Calvin that synthesizes Protestantism could be written in the masthead of American culture: Soli Deo Gloria - to God alone be the glory, no one else. Well, that's a pious phrase and as such it is correct. But spoken with Protestant lips against the backdrop of now two centuries of American history it means we are responsible to no one. And now we've got our Supreme Court canonizing individual liberty to the point of not merely permitting or tolerating but legislating crime in the name of freedom.

Fourth: Implicit subordination of Church to State. In American society we may say we began with separation of Church and State but by now we've reached a point where there is no doubt it is subordination of Church to the State. You name the enterprise in which the Church is engaged, what can we operate as Catholics without a license from the State? Name one thing. Nothing. From the marriage license which either you have or your marriage as a Catholic priest that you witness is not valid.

My Jesuit confrere Father Lawrence Flynn was on one occasion in Kentucky to assist at the wedding of his niece, while he was waiting for the bridal party to come in the Pastor stepped in and said, "By the way, did you get your license?" "What do you mean license? I have faculties to assist at the wedding." "No, I mean from City Hall. Did you get a license?" "No." "Sorry, you cannot witness the wedding." The marriage would be invalid, the children would be illegitimate.

From that to all the details that each of you know from whatever apostolic work you are engaged in. To put up these buildings you had to get a building permit and it had to meet specifications. And you'd better believe it. I've been told by people that except for religious communities we would long ago have closed our welfare institutions. We are being persecuted by the State that so far from insisting is making it almost impossible to continue conducting our institutions, hospitals, schools, welfare homes for the aged and retarded and so on. And there is nothing more pathetic than a small mind that has power. And they've got power. Subordination of the Church to the State - we had better know this.

Authority through representation. This is so typically Protestant and so characteristically American. No wonder there is so much democratization in the Catholic Church that now they are voting on everything. By one vote once strong religious communities have secularized. Twenty-one Chapter delegates, the vote eleven to ten. They are told to remove their habits, drop their superiors, go into apartments and go on open placement. That's authority through representation.

Stress on temporal well-being. Not surprising because there is so much of this world's goods that America has access to. We are the wealthiest nation in human history by every standard. We have the longest lifespan. We consume the most food. We have the least working hours. We have the highest wage scale. We have the most television sets, telephones, automobiles. Anything that in any way symbolizes a developed society, we've got it, and we have the gall to call other people undeveloped. At any rate stress on temporal well-being. Don't tell me you can live the spiritual life easily in the midst of this affluence.

Education for democracy. Elizabeth Seton built on this premise of American society. Where we as Catholics if we are really familiar with our faith would say education for salvation. But by American standards if you are going to have a representative government you need to have an enlightened citizenry. Now we know that not everybody who votes votes intelligently. But at least a country has a better chance, other things being equal, if its citizens who vote in a republic have some education. In other words a democracy is only as viable as its citizens are educated.

Tolerance as a way of life. This was inevitable. The number of Protestant denominations in United States today, I'm not sure. I'm currently revising my volume on the Protestant Churches of America. I may have told you there are thirty in the last ten years, since the last revision, thirty Protestant denominations have gone out of existence. Forty new ones, brand new ones came into existence. I don't know the latest figure, but the last that I'm familiar with was two hundred and sixty-five. Given all the cults, sects, religions, given all the variety of societies, movements - -

Do you know about Kalamazoo? Kalamazoo is not a big metropolis - give or take about eighty thousand people. There are over two thousand organizations in that one city. In United States we tolerate everything. You name it and America has it, and we call it the American way of life. This of course places a heavy responsibility on those who wish to serve God in the following of Christ. On the one hand we have freedom; on the other hand we have problems.

Finally, practicality and organization. The United States has more gadgets, more gimmicks, more instruments, more pieces of machinery than I dare say any other civilized nation in history. We try to reduce everything to practice. Only the United States could have produced a William James - American practicality. William James was a believer of sorts, but he said, speaking of God, "There are certain divine attributes that I don't think are important." Why not? "Because you can't do anything with them." In other words pragmatism would even reduce God to: what can you use Him for? God is only as important for many Americans as He serves a function.

Organization - we've got it. Whenever two Americans meet they form an organization. And where there are three they start two organizations. So much for the characteristics.

There was a deep appreciation in Elizabeth Seton of the presence of God's grace in those who are Christians indeed but not Catholic. Never in Papal history, there was never an occasion to do this, did the Pope in declaring a saint say that she began her ladder to sanctity as a Protestant. In other words Protestants can be good people. God's grace is both given to those who are Christians but not Catholics and many cooperate with that grace. I just wish that all Catholics were as responsive to God's grace as some Protestants that I know. And consequently in dealing with Protestants, which has been almost my middle name, I found it simply natural to know as much as I can about them that is good and build on that. It invites respect from them, keeps them from becoming defensive, and opens them for further grace which I as a Catholic am confident I can share with them.

Second, the necessity of Catholic schools. Notice this is not merely the necessity of Catholic education but of Catholic schools. Catholic schools in many quarters including Catholic ones are on trial now. In one year Chicago Archdiocese closed twenty-six of its Catholic schools and sold the buildings to the Public School system. And you know why? Because the sisters who had been teaching in them had lost their commitment to Catholic schools. Undoubtedly one reason why the Church canonized Elizabeth Seton in this convulsive age of the Church's history. The Pope couldn't be clearer. One reason, he said, she is being raised to the honors of the altar is to remind Catholics that what she started in her day is more than ever needed in our day: we need Catholic schools and conducted by religious.

Third, concern for the poor. Though Elizabeth Seton was herself from a well-to-do family by human standards in those days, yet from her youngest years, even as a child, as a young wife and mother, then as a widow, and by that time she became quite if not destitute poor herself, she had a great love for the poor, admitting in one of her letters - this was after she was widowed - that she was supporting six children of her relatives.

It also tells you something about how vocations come into being. Vocations are born in good Christian homes. Concern for the poor and therefore to educate the poor, care for the poor. There is a loss in religious institutes today engaged in very important apostolates like education, hospitals, welfare work. We must look to whom we are caring for and serving among the people of God. All too often, all too often it is those who can afford our services. Who can afford to pay the $2200. tuition to go to Loyola school on Park Ave where I live? No wonder the Church is so often identified with the rich. And we are living in an age in the Church's history, surely in our country, where her institutes will disappear. I make bold to say those only will survive who themselves practice poverty and concentrate in their care of the poor. All others God's justice will wipe out.

"Evangelizare pauperibus misit me." He sent me to preach the gospel to the poor - the words of the Savior. Christ opened His public life, as recorded in Luke's gospel, in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He read the scroll and read this passage from Isaiah, closed the scroll and told the astonished audience, "This day these words are fulfilled before your eyes." Christ came to preach especially to the poor. As Pius XI during his reign sadly declared, "The Church has lost the poor."

The transforming power of the Eucharist. Elizabeth Seton more perhaps than other saints or those with special charisms that we have so far seen, emphasized the importance of devotion to the Eucharist as Communion and as Presence. This by the way was in the heyday of Jansenism, when people did not go to Communion often and the Eucharist had nothing of the high sublime respect that it now enjoys. For her a convent began the moment there were even two sisters and the Blessed Sacrament. This is a good paraphrase of Elizabeth Seton's Eucharistic theology: No Blessed Sacrament, no convent. And I would add, as good a convent as the members are devoted to that Blessed Sacrament.

"Confronting secularism with the Cross." That is a direct quotation from Pope Paul VI. How did Christ overcome the world? By the Cross. That doesn't mean that the Church will not do other things. But the one thing she has to do if she is going to follow in the footsteps of her Master and along with Him fulfill the purpose of the redemption she must be a Church that not only bears the Cross or tolerates the Cross but loves the Cross. Elizabeth Seton had more than her share of the Cross. Criticism, misunderstanding, though also a loved husband. She died at the age of forty-seven, which is very young; she wore herself out. You don't work through sleepless nights, travel as much as she did and care for so many sick and diseased people without suffering the consequences. She died under the Cross; that's why her work lasted and why she has been canonized.

As you read the letters, especially, of Elizabeth Seton you are struck on the one hand by her simple docile: obedience and on the other hand by her strong almost 'feminist' sense of autonomy. She would write to bishops: in one paragraph humbly ask their advice, in another paragraph tell them what she thought. They would write back and she'd write back again. But once she recognized that the ones who were speaking to her had authority she had no difficulty obeying.

Finally, adaptation to American culture. There are two words that sound almost alike but they are poles apart. They are adoption and adaptation. Elizabeth Seton's charism was not an adoption of American culture; it was adaptation to American culture. In other words, not only being a Native American but a well-educated person, a much traveled person, one who by the way also used other cultures besides her own - -

It takes considerable supernatural skill, grace from God, to know what is good in American society to which our spirituality can be adapted and what is simply foreign even to our faith. More than one American community or what we say is of foreign origin has been unnecessarily placed on the defensive for not being American enough. As I've told Major Superiors and Chapters, "People who talk that way to you don't know what they are talking about." United States has room for many cultures. The one thing that those who are seeking perfection in United States dare not do is in the laudable effort to be American to cease even to be Christian. And it's not impossible.

Now the Church's expectations. The four elements that have been taken from the Church's documentation on Elizabeth Seton. The first hope that the Church has is to help convince Americans that America, modern America is fully consistent with evangelical holiness, that you can not only save your souls, you can become holy in following the gospels in modern United States; and not only by suffering or by persecution, but there are elements in American society that are positively conducive to sanctity. Name two things in American culture in United States that are positively conducive to sanctity. Generosity and freedom, properly understood. For example, I think Americans would have no trouble accepting Benedict Joseph Labre. He was the saint who could hardly find a confessor because he was so odoriferous: thirty years, forty years that he didn't take a bath. American tolerance and respect for other people's even oddities and idiosyncrasies. In other words no matter how exotic the grace, in the United States people will allow you to cultivate it.

Second, Elizabeth Seton is declared by the Church to be a pattern of the true role of women in the Church. Not merely the role of women but the true role. Name three characteristics of Elizabeth Seton that should characterize the true role of women in the Church today. Women in the United States can become holy as wives, as mothers, as widows and as religious. One characteristic is great concern for children. Isn’t sad that so many women in the name of feminism have rejected children! Another feature of Elizabeth Seton that Catholic women in today's Church can emulate is respect for the Church's authority.

Third expectation: Strength and growth of Catholic institutions of learning conducted by religious. The Pope in canonizing Elizabeth invoked her aid that many religious especially religious women would follow in her footsteps; discover the vocation that God must be giving to thousands to in many cases reestablish schools that have gone out of existence. Catholic schools are on trial and their future is precarious; it is only as assured as we shall have dedicated religious vocations of religious women.

Finally, the Church expects in imitating Elizabeth Seton and through the graces that she can obtain for the Church progress in the Ecumenical Movement. We make as much progress in the Ecumenical Movement as we Catholics do two things. First as we ourselves are good Christians. As the Church has been telling us since John XXIII, there was division in Christendom because Catholics were not good Christians. It was sin that divided us; it will be virtue that will unite us. There is no better way of promoting the Ecumenical Movement than sanctity among Catholics. How the Protestants love to see a well-behaved, truly God-fearing Catholic!

The second thing and both are reflected in the life of Elizabeth Seton, is a great love for those who are Christians but not Catholic. You combine those two and the Ecumenical Movement is solved; a truly holy Catholic Church whose members love because they respect the grace in those who are not Catholic and there will be no problem about uniting a dismembered Christendom.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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