MY STORY AND ST. ELIZABETH SETON
One of my very favorite saints is Saint Elizabeth and Seton, a beautiful Saint, an American wife and mother, foundress of a religious order and responsible, indirectly at least, for the start of my life as a vaticanista.
I have to go back to the summer of 1975.
The Pontifical North American College in Rome had received a letter from a priest in New York, Fr. Joseph Dirvin, who had written a book about Saint Elizabeth Seton and had been asked to go to Rome in mid-August of that year to set up an office that would be a kind of public relations center for the September 14 canonization of the future American saint.
Fr. Dirvin, secretary of St. John’s University, was an authority on the life of St. Elizabeth. His biography of her was entitled, “Soul of Elizabeth Seton; Spiritual Portrait.” In 1980, in fact, he became an advisor on an American-produced film on St. Elizabeth, “A Time for Miracles,” based on his book.
Father Dirvin told NAC he would be working with journalists, giving interviews, arranging for tickets for visitors to Rome for the canonization, giving suggestions to people about hotels, hosting dinners and cocktail parties, etc. He asked his friend at NAC if a seminarian would be available to help out from mid-August to about September 20.
Fr. Dirvin was told that, for what he would be doing in Rome, it would be much better to have someone run the office who knew the city of Rome, who spoke good Italian, who could be in touch with the press, organize receptions, and supply his office with anything he would need during his month in Rome. My name was put out there for consideration.
He wholeheartedly approved the idea and the two of us met just before Ferragosto August 15, the feast of the Assumption, and we set up the office together in a suite of the brand new hotel Cicerone. From the middle of August in 1975 until his death in July 1993 we became and remained very good friends.
Helping him organize and run the office in Rome was a joyful and extremely fulfilling time in my life. I not only learned a great deal about this amazing saintly woman, I was also blessed to meet many people who had the same love as I did for Elizabeth Seton. I met many of the pilgrims coming to Rome for the canonization, as well as so many priests, bishops and cardinals from the United States and the Roman Curia.
This time would be, as I now look back on it, the start of what are now my four decades in Rome.
There are too many stories to tell here today in this column about that amazing month, culminating in the September 14, 1975 canonization of Saint Elizabeth Seton. However, there were two people I met in that month with Fr. Dirvin who totally changed my life.
One of those persons was Al Shuster, the newly-arrived Rome bureau chief for the New York Times. Al was fascinated by the Vatican, by the Catholic Church, and knew his time in Rome would be covering both of them. One of his first interviews was with Fr. Dirvin and his first questions were, “Why does the Church need saints? Why does the world need saints?”
Al was so intrigued by his conversation with Fr. Dirvin that he came back for a second visit. At the time he asked me if I had come from New York as well. I said no, I’m living in Rome, and I’m actually looking for a job. Al asked me to come to the New York Times office after the canonization and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.
I ended up working for the Times for several years until a global economic crisis forced major media organizations to downsize, and I was a casualty. However, I turned to freelance writing for years, focusing on the Catholic Church and the Vatican, eventually becoming what here in Rome is known as a vaticanista, a person who focuses on and becomes (or tries to!) an expert in Vatican affairs.
In 1990 I was asked to work for the Vatican Information Service (VIS), an office within the Holy See Press Office that had been created in late 1989 by St. Pope John Paul. I was with VIS until 2005 when I was named by EWTN as the network’s first Rome bureau chief. I am now, of course, bureau chief emerita but still serve the network through television, radio, and this column.
The second person I met who changed my life was Cardinal John Joseph Wright, perfect at that time of the Congregation for Clergy. He was the first American to ever hold such a high-ranking position in the Vatican.
Cardinal Wright had a great love for Saint Joan of Arc and he seemed to trust anyone named Joan! One day after the canonization, in fact, he gave me a very beautiful metal that he had designed, featuring Joan of Arc, and asked me if I was available to be his private secretary on weekends for personal correspondence. His priest secretary in the Vatican was Fr. Donald Wuerl, later to become, as you all know, Cardinal Wuerl.
I told him I was delighted beyond telling to accept the offer! Cardinal Wright dictated correspondence to me at 5 PM on Saturdays, I typed up all the letters on Sundays in my home, and on Mondays, during a two-hour lunch break at the Times, I delivered the finished correspondence to the cardinal.
Today is not the time or place to tell all the wonderful stories of the four years that I was Cardinal Wright’s secretary. There were so many beautiful moments, including the occasional dinner after a period of dictation, or Sunday morning Mass in his chapel with Fr. Wuerl and the nuns who lived in the residence.
I could easily write a mini book about what I learned about the cardinal, his family and friends, the Vatican, and the Catholic Church during those four years that I was privileged to be his secretary. All of our meetings, all of our conversations, became the foundation for what would be my life as a vaticanista.
Cardinal Wright died in August 1979 and it was one of the biggest losses in my life up to that point.
There are no words to express my gratitude to God for having given me these occasions and friendships, and to these friends for the time we spent together. Just writing these words makes me smile at the memories of those many happy encounters!
And so I must end with a great thank you to Saint Elizabeth Seton! And obviously to the late Fr. Dirvin for bringing us together.
Happy feast day, Saint Elizabeth!
SAINT ELIZABETH ANN SETON’S STORY
(franciscanmedia.org) – Mother Seton is one of the keystones of the American Catholic Church. She founded the first American religious community for women, the Sisters of Charity. She opened the first American parish school and established the first American Catholic orphanage. All this she did in the span of 46 years while raising her five children.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton is a true daughter of the American Revolution, born August 28, 1774, just two years before the Declaration of Independence. By birth and marriage, she was linked to the first families of New York and enjoyed the fruits of high society. Reared a staunch Episcopalian, she learned the value of prayer, Scripture and a nightly examination of conscience. Her father, Dr. Richard Bayley, did not have much use for churches but was a great humanitarian, teaching his daughter to love and serve others.
The early deaths of her mother in 1777 and her baby sister in 1778 gave Elizabeth a feel for eternity and the temporariness of the pilgrim life on earth. Far from being brooding and sullen, she faced each new “holocaust,” as she put it, with hopeful cheerfulness.
At 19, Elizabeth was the belle of New York and married a handsome, wealthy businessman, William Magee Seton. They had five children before his business failed and he died of tuberculosis. At 30, Elizabeth was widowed and penniless, with five small children to support.
While in Italy with her dying husband, Elizabeth witnessed Catholicity in action through family friends. Three basic points led her to become a Catholic: belief in the Real Presence, devotion to the Blessed Mother and conviction that the Catholic Church led back to the apostles and to Christ. Many of her family and friends rejected her when she became a Catholic in March 1805.
To support her children, she opened a school in Baltimore. From the beginning, her group followed the lines of a religious community, which was officially founded in 1809. (photo from Seton shrine)
The thousand or more letters of Mother Seton reveal the development of her spiritual life from ordinary goodness to heroic sanctity. She suffered great trials of sickness, misunderstanding, the death of loved ones (her husband and two young daughters) and the heartache of a wayward son. She died January 4, 1821, and became the first American-born citizen to be beatified (1963) and then canonized (1975). She is buried in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Elizabeth Ann Seton had no extraordinary gifts. She was not a mystic or stigmatic. She did not prophesy or speak in tongues. She had two great devotions: abandonment to the will of God and an ardent love for the Blessed Sacrament. She wrote to a friend, Julia Scott, that she would prefer to exchange the world for a “cave or a desert.” “But God has given me a great deal to do, and I have always and hope always to prefer his will to every wish of my own.” Her brand of sanctity is open to everyone if we love God and do his will.
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is a Patron Saint of: Catholic Schools, Educators/Teachers, Loss of Parents, Widows