Ash Wednesday and the Witness of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

by | Feb 22, 2023 | Formation, Reflections

An important step in Mother Seton’s conversion took place on Ash Wednesday, when she first entered the Catholic Church.

Lent has begun. Easter is 40 days away. It is because of Easter that Lent exists; this penitential season prepares us for the joyful celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. The more focused we are on God, the more joyful will our celebration of Easter be. Everything we do during Lent is directed to this end: orienting our lives more and more towards our heavenly Father. That is, Lent is a time of conversion, and one of the best ways to convert, to orient our lives towards God, is by fasting.

It might seem strange to think of Lent as a time of conversion. Normally when we think of someone converting we imagine what Mother Seton did: she was Anglican and then she converted to Catholicism. This type of conversion is about entering into union with Christ’s Church. However, when the Popes tell us that we need to convert, they mean a different sort of conversion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it a second conversion – turning ourselves more and more towards God every day.

When Jesus began his public ministry, the first thing He urged everyone to do was to convert. As we begin Lent, Our Lord is once again telling us that we must convert. In Greek the word for “convert” is Metanoia which literally means a “change of mind”. The word is used 22 times in the New Testament to signify a conversion of one’s entire life to the Lord. It has two dimensions: we turn away from sin; we turn towards God. This two-fold movement of conversion is realized in part by bodily disciplines such as fasting (Dan 9:3-5), which help us to focus less on ourselves and more on God and others.

Fasting is not the most popular of topics. We very rarely hear or talk about it; which is strange, because throughout Sacred Scripture, there are countless models of fasting. Moses fasted 40 days before receiving the Law and then, after destroying the golden calf, 40 more days. The prophet Elijah also fasted for 40 days on Mt. Sinai. Even Our Blessed Lord fasted for 40 days in the desert. In His Sermon on the Mount (the compendium of all Jesus’ teaching), it is clear that Jesus expects all of His followers to fast. In that homily He never commands his listeners to fast, but He assuredly expected them to do so. That is why He said, “When you fast…” before going on to explain exactly how they should fast.

Ever since then, based on the teaching and example of Christ, the Church has always taught the importance of fasting (Catechism, 1434). Every time we want to receive communion, we have to fast for at least an hour. But in a special way, Holy Mother Church has said that every Friday and all of Lent are “intense moments” for penitential practices “such as fasting” (Catechism, 1438).

Despite that, some consider fasting an outdated practice that people used to do before the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Even in Mother Seton’s day, there were a good number of Christians who were leaving it by the wayside. Remember, she was an Anglican. The Anglicans had hung onto some Catholic liturgical traditions after the Protestant revolution, including the celebration of Lent and Ash Wednesday. Now it so happened that at one point of their liturgy on Ash Wednesday, Anglicans would recite: “I turn to you in fasting, weeping, and mourning” (Joel 2:2). Elizabeth Ann would say she felt foolish for saying this because she had enjoyed a hearty breakfast before coming to Church and her sins were far from her mind. When she asked the Anglican minister Rev. John Henry Hobart about this, he brushed these concerns away saying that they were “old customs.”

This attitude was strongly contrasted to what Elizabeth saw during her time in Italy with the Filicchi family. She wrote to her sister-in-law Rebecca Seton that her good Catholic friend Mrs. Filicchi never ate during Lent until after 3 o’clock. When Mother Seton asked Mrs. Filicchi why she submitted to such a painful practice, she explained that her suffering, united to those of Jesus, served to make up for (expiate) her sins. Finishing her letter, our saint concluded – “I like that very much.” Attraction to corporeal penances is a universal trait of the saints and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is no exception.

An important step in Mother Seton’s conversion took place on Ash Wednesday in 1805 when she first entered the Catholic Church of St. Peter’s in New York City. May this Ash Wednesday be as pivotal a moment in our second conversion as that Ash Wednesday was for her. Let us be brave with our indispensable physical fasting this Lenten season that we might enjoy with true spiritual joy the celebration of Easter.

REV. TED TRINKO, IVE, is a Chaplain of the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.