Pope Benedict XVI has been giving catechesis on the saints in his Wednesday audiences. Today, April 6, 2011, he mentioned a particular favorite of mine, the French Carmelite nun, Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.
ST. THERESE OF LISIEUX
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to talk to you about St. Therese of Lisieux, Teresa of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, who lived in this world for only twenty-four years at the end of the nineteenth century, leading a very simple and hidden life, but who, after her death and the publication of her writings, became one of the best-known and loved saints. The “Little Teresa” has never ceased helping the most simple souls, the little ones, the poor and the suffering who pray to her, but has also illuminated the whole Church with her profound spiritual doctrine, so much that the Venerable Pope John Paul II, in 1997, gave her the title of Doctor of the Church, adding to her title as Patroness of the Missions, which was given to her by Pius XI in 1939.
My beloved Predecessor defined her as an ‘expert in scientia amoris’. This science, which sees the whole truth of the faith shining in love, Therese expressed mainly in her account of her life, published one year after her death under the title of ‘The Story of a Soul’. This book immediately had enormous success, was translated into many languages and spread throughout the whole world. I would like to invite you to rediscover this great-little treasure, this luminous commentary on the Gospel fully lived! The Story of a Soul, in fact, is a marvellous story of love, recounted with such an authenticity, simplicity and freshness that the reader cannot but remain fascinated! But what is this Love which filled the entire life of Therese, from infancy until death? Dear friends, this Love has a Face, it has a Name, which is Jesus! The saint speaks continuously of Jesus. I would like to retrace the great moments of her life, to enter into the heart of her doctrine.
Therese was born in 1873 in Alencon, France. She was the youngest of the children of Louis and Zelie Martin, exemplary souses and parents, who were beatified together on October 19 of 2008. They had nine children, but four died at a young age. The five daughters remained, and all became religious sisters. Therese, at four years old, was wounded profoundly by the death of her mother. Her father, with the daughters, moved to Lisieux, where the whole life of the Saint took place. Therese later suffered from a serious nervous disorder from which she recovered, thanks to a divine grace which she later described as “the smile of the Virgin”. Her first communion was an intense experience, and she placed the Eucharistic Jesus at the center of her existence.
The “Grace of Christmas” of 1886 marked a great change, called by her a “complete conversion”. At this moment she was healed completely from her childish hypersensitivity and began to walk the path of greatness. At the age of 14, Therese grew ever closer, with great faith, to Jesus Crucified, and took to heart the case of a criminal, apparently lost, condemned to death and impenitent. “I wish at all cost to keep him from falling into Hell,” wrote the Saint, with the certainty that her prayer would place him in contact with the redeeming Blood of Jesus. This was her first and fundamental experience of spiritual motherhood: “I had so much faith in the Infinite Mercy of Jesus,” she wrote. With Mary most Holy, the young Therese loved, believed, and hoped with the “heart of a mother”.
In November of 1887, Therese made a pilgrimage to Rome with her father and her sister Celine. For her, the trip culminated in the Audience with Pope Leo XIII, whom she asked for permission to enter the Carmel of Lisieux, at just fifteen years of age. Her desire was realized a year later: she became a Carmelite, “to save souls and pray for priests”. At the same time, however, her father began to suffer from a painful and humiliating mental illness, which led Therese to the contemplation of the Holy Face of Christ in his Passion. Hence her name in religion, Sister Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face – expresses the program of her life, in communion with the central Mysteries of the Incarnation and Redemption. Her religions profession, on the feast of the Nativity of Mary, September 8, 1890, was for her a true spiritual marriage in the “littleness” of the Gospel, characterized by the symbol of flowers: “What beautiful feast, the Nativity of Mary, on which become the spouse of Jesus!” she wrote, “it was the little Blessed Virgin, one day old, who was presenting the little flower to her little Jesus”. For Therese, to be a religious meant to be spouse of Jesus and mother of souls. The same day, the Saint wrote a prayer which indicated the direction of her life: she asked from Jesus the gift of infinite love, to be the smallest, and above all she asked for the salvation of all men: “That no soul be condemned today”. Of great importance was her Offering to Merciful Love, done on the feast of the Most Holy Trinity in 1895: an offering which Therese immediately shared with her sister, being then vice-mistress of the novices.
Ten years after the “Grace of Christmas”, in 1896, began the “Grace of Easter”, which opened the last period of the life of Therese, the beginning of her passion in profound union with the Passion of Jesus. There was a physical passion, with the sickness that brought about her death in the midst of great suffering, but above all there was the passion of her soul, with her very painful trial of faith. With Mary near the Cross of Jesus, Therese lived the most heroic faith, as a light in midst of the shadows that invade the soul. The Carmelite was conscious of living this great trial for the salvation of all the atheists in the modern world, whom she called “brothers”. She lived fraternal love even more intensely: for the sisters in the community, for two missionaries as spiritual brothers, for priests and for all men, especially those most lost. She truly became a “universal sister”! Her loving and smiling charity is the expression of profound joy, which reveals its secret, “Jesus, my joy is to love You”. In the context of suffering, living the greatest love in the smallest things of daily life, the Saint brought to fulfilment her vocation of becoming love at the heart of the Church.
She died in the afternoon of 30 September, 1897, uttering the simple words, “My God, I love You!”, looking at a crucifix which she clutched in her hands. These last words are the key to all her doctrine, to her interpretation of the Gospel. The act of love, expressed in her final breath, was like the continued breathing of the soul, like the beating of her heart. The little words, “Jesus, I love You” are at the center of all her writings. The act of love of Jesus immerses us in the Holy Trinity. She writes: “Oh, you know, Divine Jesus, how I love you / The Spirit of Love inflames me with his fire / and in loving you I attract the Father”.
Dear friends, with St. Therese of the Child Jesus, we should repeat to the Lord every day that we want to live in love for Him and for others, to learn at the school of the saints how to love in a way that is complete and authentic. Therese is one of the “little ones” of the Gospel who allow themselves to be guided by God into the depths of His mystery. She is a guide for all, especially for those among the People of God who have the ministry of theologian. With humility and charity, faith and hope, Therese continually entered the heart of the Sacred Scriptures which contain the Mystery of Christ. This reading of the Bible, enriched by the science of love, is not opposed to the academic science. The ‘science of the saints’, to which she refers on the final page of ‘The Story of a Soul’, is the highest form of science. “All the saints understood this and especially those who filled the world with the light of the Gospel teachings. Was it not in prayer that St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. John of the Cross, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis, St. Dominic, and so many other Friends of God have drawn out this divine science which delights the greatest geniuses?”
Inseparable from the Gospel, the Eucharist is for Therese the sacrament of Divine Love where he lowers himself to the extreme in order to lift us up to Himself. In her last letter, on an image which represented the Child Jesus in the consecrated host, the Saint writes these simple words: “I cannot fear a God who made himself so small for me! I love Him! In fact, He is nothing but Love and Mercy!”
In the Gospel, Therese discovers above all the Mercy of Jesus, to the point of affirming “To me He has given his infinite Mercy, through which I contemplate and adore the other divine perfections!…Now everything seems to me to radiate love, Justice itself (and maybe even more than any other perfection) seems clothed in love.” This is how she expresses herself in the last line of the Story of a Soul, “As soon as I glance at the Gospel, I breath the perfumes of the life of Jesus, and I know right where to run…Not to the first place, but to the last…Yes, I feel it; even if I had on my conscience all the sins that could be committed, I would run, my heart broken with sorrow, and throw myself into the arms of Jesus, because I know how much he loves the prodigal son who returns to Him”.
“Trust and Love” are therefore the end point of her account of her life, two words that, like beacons, illuminated her saintly path, in order to guide others along the same ‘little way of trust and love’, of spiritual childhood. Her trust is like that of a child, entrusting herself to the hands of God, and inseparable from the strong, radical commitment to the true love that is the full giving of oneself, as the Saint said while contemplating Mary: “To love is to give everything, to give yourself”. In this way Therese shows to all of us that the Christian life consists in living completely the grace of Baptism in the total gift of self to the Love of the Father, to live as Christ, in the fire of the Holy Spirit, living His love for others. Thank you.
(translated from the Italian original)