“The union of my soul with God is my wealth in poverty and joy in deepest affliction.” – St. Elizabeth Ann Seton
As we examine the lives of saints who exemplified the role of a missionary entrepreneur, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton must be near the top of the list. St. Elizabeth’s life testifies time and again to how it is possible to persevere in an intimate relationship with God in the nitty-gritty of the world, and to affect lasting change through missionary zeal and sound entrepreneurial judgment.
St. Elizabeth the Missionary
Born into a prominent Protestant family, St. Elizabeth’s childhood formation in natural virtue and intellectual work drew her from an early age to God and to service of those in need, especially children. After she married, she assisted her husband with prudent advice and emotional support, and, after she spent time in Italy, found herself increasingly drawn to Catholicism.
After her husband’s bankruptcy and death, St. Elizabeth converted to Catholicism, even though that meant sacrificing social status and some of her relationships. In 1809, she founded a religious order, soon to be known as the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. She opened a school in Maryland to offer free education for girls, and houses of the order spread rapidly to Philadelphia, New York, and beyond. In all of her evangelism and missionary work, St. Elizabeth led with joy rather than puritanism or dogmatism. She witnessed to the reality that loving others in truth is Christ’s plan for us. Cheerfulness prepares minds, she taught, for noble action.
Both before and after her conversion, St. Elizabeth was imbued with a strong sense of the urgency of spreading God’s Love. Bishop Robert Barron, in a commentary on Evangelii Gaudium, describes the missionary’s need to share the Gospel as a “positive emergency.” Christianity is about something so extraordinary that everyone needs to know about it for salvation. This is what St. Elizabeth lived when she served on the streets and gave her money to caring for others. This is what St. Elizabeth points out when she said, “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.” As St. Elizabeth demonstrated, our lives as missionaries have to be oriented toward this urgent, radical thing that is Christianity!
St. Elizabeth the Entrepreneur
When St. Elizabeth Ann Seton died in 1821, the order she had established had already spread to twenty locations. The explosive spread of her order stems from how it responded to a genuine need that people had at that time. The vocation of the entrepreneur is first to see the needs in society, then to respond to those needs with goods and services. With the help of those who chose to follow her commitment to Christ, St. Elizabeth did just that: She lived her love for God in a very entrepreneurial way, creating systems, structures, and services that served genuine needs and transformed lives.
St. Elizabeth was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975, becoming the first citizen born in the United States to be canonized a saint. St. Elizabeth’s entrepreneurship was not self-focused. It was not about doing her will, but about responding to the real suffering she encountered in a way that God willed to work through her: “The first end I propose in our daily work is to do the will of God,” she said, “secondly, to do it in the manner He wills it; and thirdly to do it because it is His will.”
To draw a business connection, one of the leadership insights that St. Elizabeth’s life demonstrates is the snowball effect: Growth occurs because of small, targeted changes that add up to one larger goal. St. Elizabeth’s life beautifully displays how little decisions add up to a lifetime of work. While St. Elizabeth was not even born into a Catholic family, a series of saying yes to God in little ways accumulated, resulting in the powerful snowball of a new religious order, new educational institutions, and so on.
For Us: Acting Boldly for God
For us, a major lesson from St. Elizabeth’s life lies in how she was unafraid to make calm, bold decisions for God. St. Elizabeth realized that action according to our best judgment is required of us, even if we lack absolute certainty. She prayed, “If I am right Thy grace impart still in the right to stay. If I am wrong, oh, teach my heart to find the better way.”
As missionary evangelizers and entrepreneurs, we have to be willing to prudently accept risk as we act toward what we believe God is calling us to. Waiting for absolute certainty means we will never act! God calls us to step forward in faith, and to continue unless He makes it quite clear that we are not following His path. If we find out we’ve made a mistake, then we need to humbly ask forgiveness and move on. But we cannot be afraid to act!
Related to this, in The Hidden Power of Kindness: A Practical Handbook for Souls who Dare to Transform the World, One Deed at a Time, Fr. Lovasik points out that action is good for us as well as good for those we are serving:
Action is one of the most effective forms of self-encouragement and good cheer. There is something intrinsically humble about action. When you act, you come to grips with reality. Action does not make your problems magically disappear, but unlike talk or dreams or merely good resolutions, it does begin to solve them. As long as you act, there is limitless hope for you and very little room for gloominess.
For Us: Perseverance through Pain
Another lesson we can absorb from St. Elizabeth is how to respond to grace even as we suffer, and to keep going even if we are spiritually, mentally, or physically limping. In the daily frustrations, it was St. Elizabeth’s true devotion that stabilized the other sisters who joined her. As St. Elizabeth was a prolific writer, her letters testify to her struggles with her own illness, the death of family members, misunderstanding, and other pains. Yet, through all the pain, she loved. “He gives us every grace.… this grace is able to carry us through every obstacle and difficulty,” St. Elizabeth said. In these words she reminds us of the sufficiency of God’s grace.
It might be asked, if God’s grace is always available to us, how is that so many people break under the burden of their crosses? We know that God gives us the grace to carry the cross of today. But on top of that, we can be tempted to add the cross of yesterday, of things that cannot be changed. On top of that we can be tempted to add the cross of tomorrow, our fears and anxieties for the future. Instead of bearing the anxieties of both yesterday and tomorrow, St. Elizabeth cast her energy into the present moment, and encountered God’s grace and sufficiency there. This is a reminder to us that, as we persevere through pain, we must not carry what we are not meant to carry in the moment.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Intercession
Especially for entrepreneurs who seek to innovate in education, St. Elizabeth is the perfect patron. St. Elizabeth’s life is a witness to bold action and perseverance, inspired by love of God and lived in authentic service to others. For all of us, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s words are well worth reflection: “Contemplate how you are being asked to give your heart to God amidst your everyday activities. Be prepared to meet your grace in every circumstance of life.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us.