Friday, January 6, 2012

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

"We must pray literally without ceasing—without ceasing—in every occurrence and employment of our lives . . . that prayer of the heart which is independent of place or situation, or which is rather a habit of lifting up the heart to God as in a constant communication with Him."--Elizabeth Ann Seton

Today is the feast day for Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), the first person born in the United States to be canonized by the Catholic Church (1975). She is the patron saint of Catholic schools.

Born in New York to a prominent Episcopalian family, Elizabeth Ann Seton was left motherless at the age of three. Even as a child, she was dedicated to Christianity, wearing a small crucifix around her neck and taking delight in reading the Psalms. Psalm 23 remained her favorite prayer throughout her life. When she was 19 years old, Elizabeth married a New York businessman, to whom she was devoted. The couple had five children. Despite her many household duties, she found time to organize prominent women in New York City to visit the sick poor in their homes and bring them and their families sustenance. Inspired by the work of Saint Vincent de Paul, the group was called informally the "Ladies of Charity."

In December 1803, Elizabeth Ann Seton was widowed and lived for a period of time in Rome with the Italian family of her husband's business partner. Here she was introduced to the Catholic faith, and in March 1805 was received into the church, amid the protests of her family and friends. Faced with the necessity to support her children, Mrs. Seton sought teaching positions. In 1809, after several difficult years, she accepted the invitation of the Sulpicians Order to teach in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Here she founded the Saint Joseph's Academy and Free School for the education of Catholic girls, the first such school in the United States. She also established a religious community in Emmitsburg dedicated to the care of the children of the poor. She died at the age of 46 of tuberulosis, having already buried two of her daughters.

You can get a glimpse of the soul of this saint in the book Elizabeth Seton: Selected Writings edited by Ellin Kelly and Annabelle Melville. Here is a benediction that she wrote toward the end of her life:
Mary Queen and Virgin pure!--as poor unfledged Birds uncovered in our cold and hard nests on this Earth we cry to her for her sheltering outspread wings--little hearts not yet knowing sorrow--but poor tired and older ones pressed with pains and cares seek peace and rest--O our Mother! and find it in thee.--

Monday, January 2, 2012

Saint Genevieve of Paris

Saint Genevieve by Hugo van der Goes, 1479

Women saints are exemplars of faith whose charitable work often resulted in the creation of new institutions and new precedents that changed the course of history. Saint Genevieve (420-502), the Patron Saint of Paris, was one of these saints, and January 3 is her feast day.

This faith-fueled woman is a saint for our time, especially because she appears to have been mentored by Saint Germanus (378-448), Bishop of Auxerre, who led the Church's fight against the Pelagian heresy in Britain at the behest of Pope Saint Celestine I. Pelagius (354-420) believed that man can be sinless and good all on his own and has no need of God's grace. The story goes that on his way to Britain in 429, Germanus stopped in Nanterre, France, where Genevieve, a young girl born of well-to-do parents, confided to him that she wanted to live only for God. Germanus encouraged her and sent her the veil of a dedicated virgin. When Genevieve's parents died when she was 15, she went to live with her godmother in Paris, where she devoted her days to prayer and charity and was reportedly visited again by Germanus.

Her life of devout piety though is not why Genevieve is the patron saint of Paris. In a foreshadowing of the peasant military heroine, Saint Joan, Saint Genevieve is credited with averting the destruction of Paris--twice. The first time was in 451, when the ferocious Attila the Hun was on a course straight for Paris. Genevieve told the terrified Parisians not to flee the city but to remain in their homes, fast, and pray, and she organized a prayer marathon. Abruptly Attila changed course, leaving Paris intact. The second time was when invading Franks had blockaded the city in 464. Genevieve ran the blockade to bring food to the starving Parisians. Later she pleaded successfully for Parisian prisoners of war to the Frankish King Childeric, and King Clovis liberated captives at her urging.

Hugo van der Goes painted Saint Genevieve on the outer panel for a diptych that depicted the Fall of Man on one side and the Redemption (the Lamentation of Christ) on the other, indicating the high esteem either he or his patrons (or both) had for Saint Genevieve 1,000 years later. She is also considered a patron saint of young girls.