An American saint


A few weeks ago we could not miss the news that two former popes, John Paul II and John XXIII, had been officially recognized as saints by the Roman Catholic Church. But saints are not part of my world. Protestants still believe—and rightly so—that the Reformers of the sixteenth century were justified in resisting this Catholic dogma. After all, Christ is the only Mediator and he does not need the assistance of Mary or thousands of saints. Adventists have one further objection. They believe that these ‘saints’ are not in heaven but must still wait—just as billions of other people who have ever lived on earth—for the resurrection of the last day.

This explains perhaps why I hesitated before I bought a book about an American saint. But in the end my curiosity won the day and I purchased, two weeks ago, the book American Saint, the biography of Elizabeth Seton, written by Joan Barthel. Now that I have read the book, I certainly do not regret my purchase. On the contrary.

It would be an understatement to say the Elizabeth Seton was a remarkable woman. Her life started in the context of American high society in New York, in the final decades of the eighteenth century. She had a protected youth and a happy marriage that was blessed with four children. But things changed. After the bankruptcy of the firm in which her husband had a major share and, not long after this,  the death of her husband, Elizabeth went through a period of extreme poverty, in which she had take a number of boarders into her home to get some income and was largely dependent on gifts from others.

The factor that affected the rest of Elizabeth’s life most was her conversion to Catholicism. She left the Episcopal Church (the American version of Anglicanism) and eventually became the founder of the first religious order for women: the Sisters of Charity. The manner in which she succeeded in finding her way (and often pushing her will) in the Catholic male world of her time gives an extra dimension to this book.

The book is based on careful research but reads as a novel. Al in all, it is very much worth its money. But it has a special interest for an Adventist (like me) who likes reading about history. Around 1800 the total number of American Catholics was limited to about 50.000.  The anti-Catholic sentiment would reach its climax later in the nineteenth century, but Elizabeth was already experiencing how a person became a social outcast in America by embracing the Catholic faith.  The book offers an extremely interesting insight into this aspect of American history. It describes the anti-Catholic world in which Adventism originated and helps the reader to better understand the strong Anti-Catholic feeling that was to dominate Adventism ever since. This is, in particular, true for non-Americans who, two centuries later, wonder why this anti-Catholicism continues to be so strong in their faith community.

Was Elizabeth a ‘saint’? The Catholic Church officially canonized her in 1975. I cannot accept the theology behind the canonization process. But through the reading of this book I met a very special woman. She was intelligent, courageous, had some strong feminist traits, but was, most of all, an inspiring person of faith.  She was someone who lived for other people.  She was a very special woman. In short: I would call her a saint!