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I don’t think St. John Paul II had St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in mind when he celebrated what it means to be a woman. But he could have. Like few others she embodied each role he celebrates in women.
We celebrate John Paul II’s feast day on Oct. 22. He dramatically changed the Church. His World Youth Days changed what it meant to be a young Catholic, his document Ex Corde Ecclesiae changed what it meant to be a university, and his Theology of the Body changed the way we looked at human love.
But he also changed the way the Church talks about women by writing extensively about the “feminine genius.” A little over 25 years ago John Paul’s Letter to Women expressed the Church’s thanks to women for their unique contributions to society, and it is uncanny how closely his description fits Mother Seton.
Elizabeth fits John Paul’s description of a wife.
Said St. John Paul II: “Thank you, women who are wives! You irrevocably join your future to that of your husbands, in a relationship of mutual giving, at the service of love and life.”
St. Elizabeth was a famously conscientious wife, and not by accident. Early on she wrote to a friend, “I must learn one thing which few women could acquire the first year of their marriage which was to let their husbands ‘Act for the best.’”
She learned to “act for the best” for her husband, too. She took him to Italy in hopes that the climate would cure his tuberculosis, and her service to him had the effect John Paul wrote about in The Family in the Modern World. He said wives’ and husbands’ lives of sacrifice were “the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross” (No. 13). Elizabeth’s husband lost his life there, and she met Jesus Christ in the sacraments of the Catholic Church.
St. John Paul II expresses his gratitude for women in their first families.
“Thank you, women who are daughters and women who are sisters!” he wrote. “Into the heart of the family, and then of all society, you bring the richness of your sensitivity, your intuitiveness, your generosity and fidelity.”
Elizabeth was a devoted daughter to both her father and father-in-law, and a loving sister. She wrote to a friend about sharing her house with her sister Mary Post, and said “the pleasure of receiving our husbands together in the evening, the company and protection we are to each other, when they are detained from us, counterbalances every inconvenience which a union of families always occasions.”
Next in the Letter to Women, John Paul is grateful for moms like Seton.
“Thank you, women who are mothers!” he writes. “You have sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and travail. This experience makes you become God’s own smile upon the newborn child, the one who guides your child’s first steps, who helps it to grow, and who is the anchor as the child makes its way along the journey of life.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was exactly this, embracing her five children as infants, and standing by them from her arms to — in three cases — their graves.
Mother Seton is truly “God’s own smile” to her children in her many letters to them. “This is your birthday, the day that I first held you in my arms,” she wrote to her daughter Anna Maria as a child. “May God Almighty Bless you my child and make you his child forever. Your mother’s soul prays to him to lead you through this world.”
Significantly, John Paul thanks women for their participation in the workplace.
“Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life — social, economic, cultural, artistic and political,” he wrote.
He said that women’s contribution was different in kind from men’s. “You make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling,” he said, “to a model of life ever open to the sense of ‘mystery,’ to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.”
Mother Seton — who interacted with her husband’s business when she had to help with the books during his illness and who led the work of the Sisters of Charity later in life — described what this “womanly” approach to work looks like. Consider the list of “work verbs” she wrote to a friend, “my days ever the same are spent in … keeping, walking, teaching, loving, and praying all the time.”
She even took joy in the difficulties of work, she said. “All day long at all kind of work, my loadstone is present,” she said. “To enjoy we must love, and to love we must sacrifice.”
St. John Paul thanked religious women too, another aspect that St. Elizabeth Ann lived out.
“Thank you, consecrated women! Following the example of the greatest of women, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, you open yourselves with obedience and fidelity to the gift of God’s love,” he wrote.
Elizabeth entered a kind of consecrated life even before she officially professed. “I have long since made the vows which as a religious I could only renew,” she told the Italian friends who introduced her to the faith.
She made private vows to Bishop John Carroll in 1809, and then official, public vows in 1813. Through her vows, she said, “the thirst and longing of my soul is fixed on the cross alone.”
As a widow and then a nun, she would personally understand what John Paul II praises in religious women: “You help the Church and all mankind to experience a ‘spousal’ relationship to God, one which magnificently expresses the fellowship which God wishes to establish with his creatures.”
Last, John Paul thanks every woman for femininity itself.
“Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.”
He said “the daily relationships between people, especially within the family, society certainly owes much to the ‘genius of women.’”
Mother Seton reveals this “feminine genius.” She didn’t write polemics or theological disquisition — she wrote letters to friends, family and Church figures. We know what she thinks about God and the Church because she expressed it to those in her circle, to increase their unity, comfort, and appreciation of God in their lives.
All these things make St. Elizabeth Ann Seton a model woman in every aspect that John Paul mentions — a true feminine genius.