Musing on Mother Seton

Author’s Note: This musing turned out longer than I had planned, so there will be no musing/meditation tomorrow. Sorry, but I feel like this one is two days’ worth of reading, anyway. Still, I hope you enjoy it!

A Musing on Mother Seton (and Why I Admire Her So Much)

Anyone can be a saint. A saint can be anyone from anywhere at any time in history. We are all called to holiness — to be a child of God who strives to preach the Gospel.But, when I say “think of a saint,” you probably think of an Apostle, early church martyr, or Doctor of the Church – odds are, they’re male, they’re European (or from the Holy Land), and they’re a religious or priest.

Saints can come from any walk of life, but the majority of the canonized saints — and the most well-known ones — are European (or Middle-Eastern) male religious/priests: Saints Peter and Paul, and any of the other Apostles; St. Benedict; St. Augustine; St. Francis of Assisi; St. Dominic; St. Thomas Aquinas; St. Ignatius of Loyola; St. John of the Cross and so on.

That is not to say that any of the aforementioned saints are not worth studying, imitating, etc. They are. They are awesome, and I want to imitate their love for Christ and His Church in every moment of my life.

However, I’ve found that sometimes it’s harder to relate to these saints. They were from another country, another time, another vocation, etc. But, in my own life, I have been blessed to spend time at parish named for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Mother Seton is awesome, as are all the saints – canonized or not. But, unlike many of the aforementioned saints, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton seems more ‘approachable’ to me — as a lay, American woman — for three very simple reasons:

She was an American woman.

The Church recognizes 17 canonized American saints, but only three of them were born in (what is now) the United States: Mother Seton and Saints Katherine Drexel and (newly canonized) Kateri Tekakwitha.

Mother Seton was born in the British colony New York in 1774 — so, the American Revolution took place during her childhood. During her lifetime, she would have experienced things like George Washington become the first U.S. President; Washington D.C. established as the nation’s capital; and the newborn United States fight with former mother-country Britain during the War of 1812.

Today, Mother Seton’s remains are enshrined at the National Shrine in Emmitsburg, Maryland. There is also a shrine to her near her former home in New York City.

Mother Seton is the patron saint of Maryland and American Catholic schools (as she founded the first free ones in America).

As a relatively new country, there aren’t very many canonized American saints yet.

But the ones that we do have truly embody many of those ideals and virtues that Americans and Catholics alike greatly value: courage, independence, a strong will, generosity, benevolence, kindness, and so on.

She was a wife and mother.

Tying into the above point, Mother Seton’s life attests that people from any vocation can become saints. Everyone is called to holiness, and people in all vocations and walks of life will have their trials to overcome.

Elizabeth Bayley was married to William Seton when she was 19. They had five children together, and – despite her busy life as wife and mother – she helped organize a lady’s charity group that would distribute food to the poor.

Her husband, whose shipping company had went bankrupt, was in poor health, and the family sailed to Italy for William’s health. He died on the way, and Elizabeth Seton landed in a foreign country as a widowed mother to her five children.

As a wife and mother, Mother Seton had her own struggles; but she was still able to live a noble and charitable life. We do not have to be a religious or a priest to do the same.

She was a convert.

Saints can come from any kind of initial religious background, and Mother Seton can attest to that. She grew up in a devout Episcopalian household. Her husband and children, too, were raised in the Episcopalian faith.

After her husband died en-route to Italy in 1803, Elizabeth stayed with the her late husband’s friends – the Filicci family, a prominent Italian Catholic family.

The Filiccis introduced Elizabeth to Catholicism, and when she returned to New York, she continued studying the Faith and finally converted in 1805.

After her friends and neighbors found about her conversion, she was shunned and avoided by many members of her community. Many parents withdrew their children from her school, which she had started to support her family.

In the years following, Mother Seton founded the first free Catholic school in America and started a religious order – the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph – in Emmitsburg. Her daughter Catherine was among the first sisters to join her.

In common with many saints, St. Elizabeth had a special devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother. Truly, her conversion was whole-hearted, and despite the social stigma of the time, she became an important figure in the Church’s history in the United States.

In Summary

I believe that we like to find people that we can relate with – someone who’s on “our level,” so to speak. Whether it is in life, literature, or anything else, we like encountering people who are like us in some aspect.

Our mindset is: “If she can do it, then I can do it, too.” If we are like them, in some aspect or other, whatever they achieve, we realize we can achieve, too.

So, why should our spiritual lives be any different? If the saints can share God’s Love and Joy in the world, despite all the adversities in their way – torture, loneliness, abandonment, persecution, alienation, and personal attachments – why can’t I do the same?

That’s why I admire St. Elizabeth Ann Seton so much: because, as a lay, American woman, she and I are alike. And, if she can become a saint, then I can become a saint, too.

We all have saints that we relate to because we have common ground with them – shared life experiences, trials, vocations, etc. We admire them because they are like us – and they are holy.

And that is why I love all the saints, including Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton! They all give me the hope that…

If they can do it, then I can do it, too.

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Musing on Mercy & Justice

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The Mercy of Valjean and the Justice of Javert

Author’s Note: This musing is based on my knowledge and understanding of the musical “Les Miserables” and its movie adaptation that was released in theaters last December. I fully admit I have never read the book “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo, and I realize there are differences in characters, plot, etc. between the musical and its source material. Still, I hope you enjoy it!

Meditation on Mercy & Justice from “Les Miserables”

In 19th century France, the starving teenager Jean Valjean, in desperation, steals a loaf of bread to feed himself and his family members. For his crime, and various escape attempts, he is imprisoned for 19 years. Upon his release, he finds little welcome in the world outside prison. He is treated as an outcast, because of his brand as an ex-convict. He struggles to find food and shelter, as few are willing to help him. As he sleeps in a graveyard, a bishop finds him and offers him food and shelter for the night.

Later that night, Valjean takes advantage of the bishop’s kindness by stealing his silver. The police arrest Valjean and return him to the bishop, as Valjean claims that the bishop gave him the silver as a present. The bishop confirms Valjean’s story, and by doing so, saves him from returning to prison:

“And remember this, my brother,
See in this some high plan.
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs,
By the passion and the blood,
God has raised you out of darkness” (Valjean Arrested / Valjean Forgiven)

Because of this act of mercy, Valjean realizes the sinfulness of his life as a criminal and commits himself to God. Valjean expected justice, but received mercy instead. He sees and experiences the bishop’s and, more importantly, God’s love for him. And thus, sees his unworthiness, and desires to change his ways by committing himself to God.

And, because of the bishop’s single act of mercy, Valjean, in turn, becomes an apostle of mercy – spreading Christ’s love and forgiveness throughout the rest of his life.

Because of Valjean’s commitment to mercy, he:

  • rescues a man who was trapped under a cart;
  • reveals himself as the ex-convict Jean Valjean, to save an innocent man (whom the police had identified as Valjean) from going to prison;
  • saves the prostitute Fantine from jail and ensures she receives medical care;
  • saves Fantine’s daughter Cosette from her unloving caretakers and adopts her as his own daughter, continuing to provide for her;
  • joins the revolutionaries, trying to help as many of them as he can, and ultimately saves Cosette’s boyfriend, Marius;
  • spares the life and career of his ruthless pursuer, the policeman Javert; and
  • continually gives money to the poor and various charities, etc. throughout the course of the story.

Conversely, the police inspector Javert, who pursues Valjean after he broke parole, has committed himself to justice. He simply cannot allow himself to do anything except what is right by the law. He tells Valjean:

“Men like me can never change
Men like you can never change…
My duty’s to the law…
Dare you talk to me of crime
And the price you had to pay
Every man is born in sin
Every man must choose his way” (The Confrontation)

He believes that men are set in there ways: they are either good or bad, and their choices prove their character. Because Javert has dedicated himself to following the law and punishing those who do not, he believes he is a good man. Those whom he pursues, like Valjean, because they broke the law, are bad.

And neither can change. Good men cannot become bad; and bad men cannot become good.

Yet – unlike Valjean, the apostle of mercy – Javert is an administer of justice. No long-term goodness comes from his actions; he does not directly impact anyone’s lives for the better. He arrests and imprisons those who commit crimes; he “cleans the garbage off the street” (Look Down). He has no sympathy for the poor, and only looks to please the rich.

Valjean spreads his virtue through God’s grace and love; Javert spreads his through his position and the force of the law.

The difference source of their virtues results in different lives, different impacts, and different fates.

Even so, Javert admits that “every man is born in sin,” but will not admit that he is guilty of any sin, seemingly, except for original sin. He is committed to goodness, perfection, and the law.

But, after Javert infiltrates a group of rebels and fails in his deception of them, Valjean spares his life and allows him to go free, allowing the rebels to believe he did kill Javert. Later, Javert catches Valjean as he carries the unconscious Marius home; Valjean pleads for Javert to let him take Marius to a hospital, and he will return and “all our debts are paid.”

Yet, as Valjean walks away with Marius on his back, Javert tells him to stop. Valjean continues to walk away, and Javert cannot bring himself to shoot Valjean.

Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert! (Javert’s Suicide)

Javert cannot reconcile himself to accept that has received mercy, and – though unwilling – has shown mercy in return. He cannot accept that he lives because of the goodness of a criminal; and, because of this, he jumps off a bridge into the river, ultimately killing himself.

He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right...
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved? (Javert’s Suicide)

Here is the difference between the two, and the focal point:

As Javert could not accept, justice and mercy are not mutually exclusive. One can accept both, as justice is what we deserve from God, but mercy is what we receive. A man can change, but only through God’s mercy.

Through our sin, we fall; through God’s grace, we rise.

Justice and mercy are both virtues; neither is a weakness. And, because we have received mercy from God, we must show mercy to others (as Javert could not understand or accept). Justice, or giving someone his/her due, is also a righteous thing. In our society, we recognize that those who commit dangerous crimes should be kept apart from the public for safety.

But, as Javert did not understand, there must be a balance between the virtues. In some cases, we can and should show mercy; in others, we might not have that ability (such as a judge during a court case).

The hard part is knowing when to show justice, and when to show mercy.

But, when we pray, we cross our fingers right over left – mercy over justice. We pray for mercy; we appreciate when others are merciful to us; and we hope that our mercy toward others is not abused.

Yet, that is the risk with mercy. Like love, it is a virtue that many can take advantage of. Just so, we have taken advantage of God’s mercy toward us by continuing to sin; still, he continues to show us mercy, despite repeatedly injuring Him.

So, we must – to the best of our ability – show mercy to our brothers and sisters. And when they abuse our ‘pity’ and ‘leniency,’ we must show them mercy once again, in the hopes that they will realize our love for them and change their ways.

The rippling effects of mercy, seemingly, flow out much farther than those of justice. In Valjean’s case, through the bishop’s mercy toward him, many lives were saved and changed for the better. In Javert’s case, many criminals were imprisoned, and he advanced further in his career.

Thus, we should continue to cross our fingers right over left – mercy over justice. For “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy” (Matt 5:7)

For further reading about Les Miserables and Catholicism, check out this FOCUS blog post. Kudos to its author! Very well written, and much shorter than my stuff. 🙂

Essay on Bl. JP2’s Vocation Story

Author’s Note: This essay was written in 2009 as part of a school assignment.

God’s Windmill

Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Counsel so as to “open the window and let the fresh air reinvigorate the Catholic Church.” Oftentimes in the Bible, God’s spirit is represented as a strong wind, like at Pentecost.

Many individuals have answered God’s call thanks to His strong push: Peter and the Apostles, the early martyrs, and even present-day saints like Fr. Emil Kapaun and Blessed Mother Teresa. Among them who answered God’s call was Karol Wojtyla or, as he later became known, Pope John Paul II. He became a windmill for God’s will to direct towards the great leader that he would become.

As a young man, Karol Wojtyla grew up in a devout Catholic family. He served as an altar server nearly every day, but he took great pleasure in acting and performing on the stage. His natural charisma drew him towards the stage, but at the same time, he wanted to help others.

This preference of selflessness was a working of God’s Will, and Wojtyla had a great than usual inclination towards God. When he was about to move to Krakow to attend college, his parish priest told him that he should consider the priesthood. Although he had a great love for the theater, Wojtyla also had great charisma and deep insights into philosophy.

When the Nazis occupied Poland, Wojtyla had to make very important decisions. He decided to help Jews escape from Krakow, and thus grew in self-knowledge. He came to Mass everyday and was invited to join an illegal rosary circle by his mentor. Through his meditation, Wojtyla grew unsatisfied with earthly existence and yearned for something more.

He saw quickly the evil surrounding his beloved countrymen and desired to do something to give them hope, to help them survive. He became open to God’s call.
While he was working in the quarry under the Nazis, he became romantically involved with a female friend. They both considered marriage, but Wojtyla was unsatisfied with this idea, and did not feel called to become a husband and father. His prayers became even more intense, with the passing of his father and an increase of violence in Poland.

Over time, Wojtyla became persuaded to the celibate lifestyle. He did not feel called to be a husband, but wished to serve God. Yet, at the same time, he desperately wanted to be an actor. One night, on his way home from work, a truck hit Wojtyla and this further opened his eyes to what he was called to be. Yet, the clearer his vocation became, the more fervent his desire to act grew. “I want to be an actor,” he told his father. Nevertheless, the Nazi regime grew stricter, and universities and theaters were shut down. Any Polish work – literature, poetry, play, art, etc. – was forbidden.

The passing of his father became further confirmation to Wojtyla that he was to join the priesthood. Finally, Wojtyla approached the Bishop of Krakow, Cardinal Sapieha, in 1942. The cardinal questioned his motive in asking to join the seminary. “Wouldn’t you want to pursue your interests,” the cardinal asked Wojtyla. “I would be pursuing my interests,” the young man answered him. And with that, Karol Wojtyla entered the seminary.

During his study at the “underground seminary” run by the cardinal, Wojtyla led a group of Polish people in a chant of their national anthem. This sparked a slew of arrests by the governing Communist regime of the U.S.S.R. This brought into question Wojtyla’s sound motivation: was he doing this to lead others against the Communists or was he truly following God’s will? Wojtyla answered with complete obedience and a willingness to serve others, especially after the Nazis left Poland decimated. Certainly, Wojtyla had the capability to become. He had charisma, a love of virtue, a deep insight of God’s law, and a willingness to serve those in need.

These abilities led Karol Wojtyla to become a man of action, a man of discernment. He helped his fellow seminarians clean up the university, and tried to persuade others from starting a violent revolution against the Communists. He once again reflected that same young man that helped his university professor and his Jewish friends escape from the Nazis. He realized that there was a peaceful of fighting against the Communists, that it dwelt in the youth, and that he must give Poland a reason to hope.

Karol Wojtyla would accomplish all of these things. He would give Poland a reason to hope. He would guide the youth away from worldly desires and towards the eternal rewards that God alone offered. He would be instrumental in bringing about an end to Communism in Eastern Europe. In addition to all of that, Karol Wojtyla would help teach the nations of the world solidarity and patriotism, the way God viewed it. And on top of all that, he became a light to the nations as one of the most beloved Pontiffs of all time. Who would have thought that this would-be actor would one day bring down the Iron Curtain and become a guiding star to God’s Eternal Paradise?