Wednesday 17 May – The Saints speak to the Priests
CONFERENCE by Fr Antonio Maria Sicari, OCD
SAINT TERESA OF THE CHILD JESUS
AND THE PRIESTHOOD
It was a Sunday in July 1887.
Teresa Martin, an adolescent, shut her prayer book at the end of Mass, and suddenly she saw an image of Crucified Jesus on the margin: it was only the nailed hand of Jesus, and the drops of wine seemed to fall into emptiness…
Later on she told how much sorrow she had experienced in that moment, «at the thought that blood had fallen on the ground and nobody had paid any attention about collecting it…», and that was when she promised to spend her life at the foot of the Cross to collect the precious blood of Christ and give it to souls.
Thus began the ecclesial mission of Theresa of Lisieux.
However, there is a very interesting note, which she added to this episode: « Even the cry of Jesus on the Cross continuously echoed in my heart: «I am thirsty!» These words aroused in me a very strong burning never experienced before…I wanted to give my Lover to drink and I myself felt devoured by the thirst of souls. These were not yet the souls of priests who drew my attention, but the ones of great sinners – I was burning with the wish to pull them away from those eternal flames…» (Ms A. 45v).
When Theresa was about fourteen years of age, she thought of the great sinners, and implored for the salvation of a well-known criminal who was about to be hung.
She was not even thinking of priests at that time, because she was absolutely convinced of their holiness.
We know that as a child she simply identified them with Jesus.
Writing about her first confession, she said:
«Beloved Mother, how careful you were in preparing me by saying that I was telling my sins not to a man, but to the good Lord. I was really convinced of this. Hence I said my confession with a strong spirit of faith and even asked you whether I should say to Don Ducellier that I loved him with all my heart since I was talking to the good Lord through his person…» (Ms A 16v).
But when she took part in the pilgrimage to Rome organised by the dioceses of Coutances and Bayeux (one hundred and ninety-five pilgrims of whom seventy-three priests), her apostolic anxieties began to turn in particular towards priests.
She explained that change by simply saying the following:
«Praying for sinners fascinated me, but praying for the souls of priests, whom I thought were purer than crystal, seemed strange to me! Ah! I understood my vocation in Italy: it was not going too far to have such useful knowledge… I lived with many holy priests for one month and understood that, if their sublime dignity lifts them above the angels, this does not mean that they are not weak and fragile. If holy priests, whom Jesus calls in His Gospel «Salt of the Earth» show by their behaviour great need for prayer, then what must one say about the ones who are lukewarm? Did Jesus not also say: «If the salt lost its taste, what could one use to make it salty?» Oh Mother! How beautiful is the vocation to preserve that salt destined for souls! This is the vocation of Carmel, because the only purpose of our prayers and our sacrifices is to be an apostle of the apostles, to pray for them whilst they evangelise souls by words and above all by example…» (Ms A 56r).
Hence something deeply struck her during the pilgrimage: if even the most «holy» priests did not hide their weakness and fragility, and «showed by their behaviour to have great need of prayer»…Then what happened to the «lukewarm» people who spoilt «the salt destined for souls»?
The question did not scandalise that young maiden who was going to Rome to ask Pope Leo XIII the grace to be able to enter the Carmelites at eighteen years of age. On the contrary: she threw a dazzling light on her vocation which so many people considered too immature.
«Not having ever lived intimately [with priests]» – explained St. Theresa – «I could not understand the main purpose of the reform of the Carmelites».
However, during that journey towards the centre of Christianity, those priests who so clearly needed prayer and contemplation made Theresa feel she was called to become «an apostle of the apostles».
She was not yet fifteen years of age.
And she was not yet seventeen when, from the Carmelites, she wrote greetings for 1889 to her sister with these words: «Celine, in this new year we must create many priests («que nous fassions beaucoup de prêtres…»)who know how to love Jesus» (LT 101).
Hence at the right time she did not hesitate: «What I came to do at the Carmelites, I declared this at the foot of Jesus the Holy Host, at the examination which preceded my profession: «I came to save souls, and above all to pray for priests»…» (Ms A 69).
It is not worth investigating out of curiosity into what Theresa understood about the «spiritual need» of priests. We know that during the journey there were some young priests who were paying too much attention to the two Martin sisters (they were the youngest in the group), but also in this there was that intimate protection which Theresa herself summarised in the well known aphorism: «Everything is pure for the pure» (cfr. Ms A 57r).
However we have some more information about this in letters written during that period.
She wrote to her sister in 1889: «Oh, my Celine, we are living for the souls, we are apostles, let us save above all the souls of Priests. These souls should be more transparent than crystal. Alas, how many unworthy priests there are, how many priests who are not holy enough! We pray, we suffer for them and, on the last day, Jesus will be grateful…» (LT 94).
In October of that same year, she added:
«There is only Jesus who exists; the rest does not exist. Therefore, let’s love Him passionately, let’s save souls for Him, and in particular souls of priests…» (LT 96).
It was a period when Theresa, in the cloisters, suffered for the illness of her father who was confined to a home. He often got lost in his hallucinations. His darkened face resembled more and more the Holy Face of Christ dimmed by humiliation and tears.
Theresa wished to dry both faces like Veronica, and with the same tenderness.
By her suffering and prayer she wished to bring «souls» to Christ – souls who quenched Him by giving Him love and suffering with Him and for Him.
And in particular she was convinced that Jesus was expecting love above all from His priests.
When Theresa spoke of «unworthy» priests, of priests who were «not holy enough», she was not thinking of a moral casuistry or blameworthy behaviour which she happened to hear about, if not the following one: the fact that they have forgotten the exclusive love promised by their consecration, and that their purity was not the one owed to the Holy Eucharist which they held in their hands.
In a letter written the month following her religious profession, she enthusiastically spoke of her own virginal consecration: «I think that the heart of my Bride only belongs to me as mine only belongs to Him». For this very reason she could not keep quiet at the thought of certain souls of priests that avoided this exclusive union. Hence she insisted:
«Beloved Celine, I always have the same thing to tell you. Let’s pray for priests! Each day shows how rare are the friends of Jesus...I think what costs Him most is the ingratitude, above all of seeing those souls who consecrated themselves to Him give to others their heart which belongs to Him in such an absolute way…(LT 122).
And not only does betrayal give Him sorrow, but already that rare gentleness when dealing with Christ which in priests is a sign of coldness of heart.
A recurrent formulae in the writings by Theresa is the following one: there is a need for priests «who know how to love Jesus, who touch Him with the same delicacy with which Mary used to touch Him in the cot!» (LT 101).
Her grief and prayer get deeper and deeper. Then when they told her that sometimes a priest’s love for Jesus the Holy Eucharist seemed «to be getting old» together with worn-out Christians in a forgotten Church.
This is what happened when on 17th July 1890 she received this very sad letter from her sister Celine:
«The other day we entered by chance a very poor small church (…). I could not hold back my tears. Can you imagine?: a Tabernacle without curtains, a real black hole, perhaps a place full of cobwebs, and a ciborium which was so poor that it looked like copper covered with a piece of dirty material which no longer had the shape of a veil for the Holy Eucharist. And there was only one host in the ciborium. Alas, they do not need any more things like those in that parish. There was not even one communion a year outside the time of Easter. In these parts of the countryside there are rough priests who keep the church closed all day. Besides they are old and have no resources…».
The next day whilst her sister was concerned about buying a new pyx and at the Carmelites they were preparing an embroidered veil, Theresa answered by quoting long passages taken from the Carmelites of the suffering Servant of Jahve, on the hidden beauty of the humiliated Face of Jesus who expects to be recognised and loved. She exhorted her sister by saying:
«Let’s have a small Tabernacle in our heart, where Jesus can take shelter. Then He will be consoled and will forget what we cannot forget: the ingratitude of the souls who abandon Him in a deserted tabernacle! (…). Celine, let’s pray for priests, ah, let’s pray for them! May our life be consecrated to them: every day Jesus makes me feel that He wishes this from us both» (LT 108).
However, Theresa did not only pray for priests. She also wanted somebody as a «brother» and asked God for this grace on the day of her profession. That day she was convinced about having obtained this although she thought she would have known this only in Heaven .
To have a «priest brother» had always been the dream of Theresa who, in this, had inherited the unsatisfied wish of the whole Martin family. Then one day the Prioress asked her to spiritually look after two of them who had turned to the Carmelites asking for help and support.
Hence began for Theresa a new chapter in her spiritual experience (she called it: «the story of my brothers who now occupy such an important place in my life» – Ms C33r), documented by some 17 letters, full of tenderness and strength, which she sent to these «spiritual brothers» sharing with them the secrets of her soul and of her doctrine.
It was a rare experience for a Carmelite, but she lived this in total obedience and with the awareness of having a mission to be carried out which had been decided upon in Heaven. She was not afraid to write to one of them. He wanted me and I have been created to be your sister (LT 193).
If until then she had always prayed for priests, now she could closely and visibly join her prayer to their apostolate commencing by asking «the two brothers» to practise this on her:
She once wrote to Father Roulland: «Will you promise me, my brother, to continue to say every morning at the Holy Altar: «My God, enflame my Carmelite sister with your love!»…? Whatever I ask Jesus for myself, I also ask for you. Whenever I offer my weak love to the Beloved One, I allow myself also to offer yours…After this life where we have shed tears together, we will meet again carrying sheaves in our hands» (LT 201).
She made the same request to Father Belliere:
«If you take consolation in the thought that a sister is constantly praying for you, my gratitude is not less great than yours towards our Lord who has given me a young brother, whom he has destined to become his Priest and Apostle…Really it is only when you get to heaven that you know how dear you are to me (…). I would be very happy if you could agree to say this daily prayer: «Merciful Father, in the name of our Sweet Jesus, of the Virgin Mary and of all the Saints, I ask you to enflame this sister with your Spirit of Love and to bestow on her the grace to make you greatly loved…» (LT 220).
On her part, she already had composed a while ago this prayer which she used to say in order to support him in his vocational difficulties:
«Oh My Jesus, thank you for fulfilling one of my greatest desires: the one of having a brother priest and apostle! I feel very unworthy of this favour. However since you granted your poor small bride the grace to work especially to sanctify a soul destined to the priesthood, I offer with joy all the prayers and sacrifices I have for this soul. Oh my God, I ask you not to look at what I am, but at what I should and would like to be, that is a religious wholly enflamed by your love. You know Lord: my only ambition is to make you known and loved. And now my wish will come true. I can only pray and suffer, but the soul to whom you have joined me by sweet bonds of love will go to fight in the planes to conquer hearts for you, and I, on Mount Carmel, I will beg you to give him the victory. Divine Jesus, listen to the prayer I am turning to you for he who wishes to be your missionary: protect him in the midst of dangers in the world; make him feel more and more the nothingness and vanity of fleeting things and happiness in knowing how to despise them for your love. Your sublime apostolate is already exerted over those who surround him: may he be an apostle, worthy of your Sacred Heart. Oh Mary, sweet Queen of Carmel, I entrust to you the soul of this future priest, of whom I am the unworthy young sister. Teach him from now with how much love you touched the Divine Child Jesus and how you wrapped him in swaddling clothes so that he one day might go up the Holy Altar and carry the King of Heaven in his hands. I ask you again to always protect him in the shade of your virginal mantle until the happy moment when, on leaving this valley of tears, he will be able to contemplate your splendour and enjoy the fruit of his glorious apostolate for the whole of eternity! (Pr No.8).
What she secretly asked for in prayer she later put in her letters which she sent to her «two brothers».
What she was mainly concerned about was to convey to them the deep meaning of that experience of communion which was given to them.
To Father Roulland, who was about to leave as a missionary, she wrote: «Whilst I will be crossing the sea with you, you will remain next to me, safely hidden in our poor cell» (LT 193).
And there was a careful sentence, which she would repeat:
«Let us work together for the salvation of souls! We just have the last day of this life to save them and thus offer the Lord the proof of our love» (LT 213).
«What we are asking him for is to work for his glory, to love him and make him be loved (LT 220).
She knew that this communion will never be broken and she insisted on this theme with surprising certainty:
To Reverend Belliere she said that their bond is such to be able to even overcome death (which was now close): «If Jesus will fulfil my presentiments, I promise him his little sister will remain up there. Our union instead of being broken will then become more intimate: there will no longer be cloistered life, there will no longer be bars and my soul will be able to fly with you in distant missions. Our roles will be the same: you will have the apostolic weapons, and I will have prayer and love…» (LT 220).
«I wish to tell you, dear young brother, thousands of things which I have only understood now which are at the door of Eternity. However, I am not going to die, I will be entering life, and the things I cannot tell you now down here, I will make you understand them from above in Heaven» (LT 244).
«[From Heaven] I will be very close to you, I will be able to see everything which is necessary for you and will never leave God in peace until He does what I wish» (LT 253).
«I count on not being inactive in Heaven (…). What draws me towards Heaven is the call of the Lord and the hope to finally get Him to be loved as I so much wished, as well as the thought that I can make him loved by a multitude of souls.
Knowing she will have to leave them on this earth in a short while, she tried to convey them her essential doctrine with short judgements and impetuous references:
«We cannot do anything without the beloved will of God, neither for Jesus, nor for souls» (LT 201) – were the words wrote to Father Roulland who began to encounter the first difficulties with his superiors.
«It is much more by persecutions and suffering than by brilliant preaching that He wants to confirm his reign over souls» (LT 226).
«Dear young brother, at the time of appearing before God, I understand more than ever that there is only one thing which is necessary: to work just for him and to do nothing either for oneself or for creatures» (LT 244) – she explained to Father Belliere.
«You cannot be half a saint. You are either a full one or not at all» (LT 252).
Above all she was eager to convey her doctrine on the whole secret to them:
«I will teach you, dear little brother, about my soul, how you should navigate on the stormy sea in the world with the abundance and love of a child who knows that his Father loves him tenderly» (LT 258).
«Is his only treasure not Jesus? Since he is in heaven, it is there where his heart should live. And I am going to simply tell you, dear little brother, I think it will be easier to live with Jesus when I will be close to Him forever…Your place is in the arms of Jesus…It is forbidden to you to go to Heaven a different way to the one of your poor little sister» (LT 261).
Meanwhile Theresa quickly tended towards interior reunification of all her experiences: prayer (and the concern) for priests had almost structured her soul in a priestly way, invaded by «desires» which are more and more overwhelming and «infinite».
She wrote: «I feel in me the vocation of a Priest: with how much love, oh Jesus, I would carry you in my hands when, at my voice, you came down from Heaven. With how much love I would give you to souls!…» (Ms B 2v), and she dreamt of being an Apostle who went throughout the world planting everywhere the glorious Cross.
In brief: she was about to reach that «heart of the Church» where to carry out the all-encompassing vocation of «being love», «of being everything» (cfr. Ms B 2v).
It was not until the end of her life that she reached the highest penetration on this earth between contemplative vocation and apostolic vocation.
She looked upon her «missionary brothers» with the same eyes of Jesus, and she almost put herself instead of Him. She rewrote again in the feminine the priest’s prayer of the Divine teacher, addressing herself to the heavenly Father for having protected on earth «those missionary brothers» («Those whom You had given me») and all those whom he wants with Him in Heaven: «so that the world knows how much I loved You, as You loved me» (cfr. Ms C 34v).
Persuasion was overwhelming:
«I was spiritually united to the apostles whom Jesus gave me as brothers: everything which belongs to me, belongs to each one of them» (Ms C 31v).
Consequently, her contemplative existence, offered to the priests, no longer needed to be offered intentionally.
Theresa did no even need to make explicit or detail certain prayer intentions for them.
The last words which she wrote in pencil in her poor copy-book when she was dying were the following: «Jesus gave me a simple means to fulfil my mission…He made me understand this word from the Book of Songs: «Draw me, we rush to the scent of your perfumes». Oh Jesus, it is not even necessary to say: «Drawing me, draw the souls whom I love». This simple word: «Draw me» is enough. Lord, I understand it, when a soul let’s itself be charmed by the inebriating smell of its perfume; this could not happen alone. All souls whom she loves were drawn along behind her: this happened freely without fatigue. It is a natural consequence of her attraction towards you. Like a stream which abruptly pours out into the ocean drags behind it whatever it has encountered along its way, so, oh my Jesus, does the soul which immerges into the ocean without shores of your love attracts along with it all the treasures it possesses… Lord, you know, I have no other treasures if not souls which you wished to join to mine. As regards these treasures, you entrusted them to me. That is why I dare turn into mine the words which you addressed to the Heavenly Father on the last evening I saw you again on our earth…» (Ms C 34r).
In this way little Theresa of Lisieux – as a true Doctor, of the Church – proclaimed conclusive words on the difficult problem of the relationship between contemplation and action in Christian experience.
In the month of August, the last one in her life – in the midst of extreme suffering in body and spirit – she tried to «Draw» towards her even the famous unfrocked preacher Giacinto Loyson, former Provincial of the Carmelites, who travelled across France proclaiming his rebellion against the Church.
Theresa made note of this with great sorrow: «How little loved is the good Lord…» (UC 7.8.1).
For that «renegade monk» – as the newspapers call him, but Theresa called him «our brother, a son of the Blessed Virgin» – she offered her last Communion (19th August 1897) and she fainted during the celebration.
Then she sent Don Belliere the last picture she painted with the following wording: «I cannot fear a God who made himself so small for me!…I love Him…He is only love and mercy» , and on the back as a will she wrote this dedication: «The last recollection of a soul who is your sister soul».
These were the last words by Theresa to comfort a young priest, who was greatly in love but not yet sure of his love for his God. They anticipate the words which she pronounced at the end of her agony.
She offered them to all priests so that they may learn to only trust in that God «Who is all love and mercy» and that they may commit themselves with joy to proclaim Him to the world.