Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Catholic Conversion of Saint Elizabeth Seton

On this feast day of Saint Elizabeth Seton, I am sharing the text of my article on her “conversion story” as it appeared in my monthly column in Magnificat, in the August 2017 issue.

Elizabeth Seton, America’s first canonized saint, entered the Catholic Church at the age of 30 after a long, profound, and beautiful Christian and human journey. Born in New York in 1774, the influence of her mother's family helped her to find Christ and begin to follow Him within the Episcopalian (Anglican) tradition. As a Protestant, young Elizabeth was devoted to reading and meditating on Scripture and doing works of mercy. Meanwhile, as a member of New York's refined society, she received a thorough education, made connections, and at the age of nineteen married William Seton, whose family shipping business carried goods from the port of New York to many places in Europe.

In nearly ten years of marriage, William and Elizabeth Seton had five children, and Elizabeth assisted her husband with managing the business during difficult times. She continued to grow in her faith, entrusting everything in life to God's providence. During this time, however, William's health declined, and they decided to go to Italy in the hope that a change of climate might help him recuperate. William had formed a strong friendship with two remarkable Italian merchants in Livorno, Filippo and Antonio Filicchi. The Filicchis were devoted Catholics, and this trip would be decisive for Elizabeth's future.

William grew worse on the voyage, and when they arrived in Livorno he was on the point of death. With the Filicchi family's help, Elizabeth cared for her beloved husband in his last days and helped him embrace faith in Christ before his death in 1803. In her grief, the Filicchis welcomed her into their family circle. In the ensuing weeks, Elizabeth found herself naturally immersed in the home life of a Catholic family. Through the ordinary circumstances of their lives, their conversation and explanations, and their affection and friendship, Filippo and Mary, Antonio and Amabilia Filicchi, their children and households touched Elizabeth's heart and opened her to the fullness of Catholic faith. Above all, the ardent love, joy, and intimacy they experienced in the Mass drew Elizabeth to discover the incomparable truth of Christ's real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. She was deeply struck by the way Jesus, whom she already loved and to whom she had already entrusted her own life, was so concrete and so accessible to His people in the Eucharist.

Elizabeth had come to love the Catholic Church through her friends the Filicchis in Italy, but when she returned to Protestant-dominated America, she didn’t know what to do. She wrestled with uncertainties and fears even as she continued to be powerfully drawn to Jesus in the Eucharist. Antonio Filicchi encouraged her to write to a priest he knew in Boston, who counseled her to trust in the God whose grace was bringing her to the fullness of Catholic faith. Thus she determined to rely on Jesus completely, and to follow His call. In the face of opposition from family and her social milieu, but also with the support of her new friends who had pointed out the way to her, Elizabeth Seton was received into the Catholic Church on March 14, 1805. The early adventures of her life had led to this great fruition. Her later journey into consecrated life, to becoming the foundress of a religious community, and to sanctity was soon to begin.