What does Nicole Kidman have in common with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint? Not a lot, at first glance, except for the most important similarity: they both came (or, in Kidman’s case, came back) to Catholicism after failing to find spiritual fulfillment in other faith expressions. For Seton, it was the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist that brought her in. Like C.S. Lewis, the Anglican understanding of Christ symbolically in the Eucharist was just not enough.
Born in the colony of New York in 1774 (before the United States became a nation), Elizabeth Ann Bayley was very active in her Anglican faith. Married at nineteen, she had a very different outlook on faith from that of her husband, William Seton. Jesuit Bernard Bassett describes Elizabeth’s faith as “earnest, sincere . . . with a marked evangelical streak,” while William, in contrast, was “not very religious . . . part of a new breed of men [for whom trade came first], who we would call executives today.”
In her young, married life, Elizabeth gradually amassed a variety of spiritual beliefs, often confusing those around her. She would wear a Catholic crucifix, supported those who chose the cloistered life, liked the doctrine of saints and angels, and appreciated spiritual practices from many different sources, including the quiet, constant faith of Quakers, the emotionalism from philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, strict Calvinist beliefs on sin and punishment. She even practiced meditation, which was highly unusual for the 1800s.
She became deeply close to a cleric at her Anglican church, Henry Hobart, whom she looked to as an important spiritual guide and religious authority. “Elizabeth was in love with God, and Henry Hobart was the man charged in God’s providence with bringing this love to a higher earthly potential,” writes Fr. Charles P. Connor.
In 1802, William Seton’s health began to fail, and he was advised to move somewhere with a gentler climate in order to heal. Because of family and business connections, the “gentle climate” chosen was the Italian countryside. While in Italy, the Setons’ closest friends were devout Catholics. It is unknown whether they exerted any influence over William’s faith, but they certainly impacted Elizabeth’s. After William’s death in 1803, she traveled extensively with them to Catholic shrines and holy places, and her writings began to reflect a deeper penchant for Catholic theology.
In a letter from that period, she wrote of her longing to believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist: “How happy I would be, even so far away from all so dear, if I could find You in the church as they do . . . how many things I would say to You of the sorrows of my heart and the sins of my life.”
Upon her return to the United States, her Anglican friends and family were shocked by her “new” Catholic beliefs; Henry Hobart, once deeply supportive of her unique religious expression, became a harsh critic. But convinced through prayer and meditation on several Catholic texts, the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist was her catalyst. She knew that Catholicism was the faith expression she had been longing for and went on to do incredible work through it.
--Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
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