St. Therese of Lisieux
Giuseppe Samà s.j.
On the 19th of October 1997, St.Peter’s square, Rome, was the glorious venue of sunny celebrations, the scene of an astounding religious event. Thousands of people from all over the world had gathered there, waiting in deep silence to listen to the authoritative words of His Holiness Pope John Paul II.
This is what the Pope said in his homily during Holy Mass: "Of the 33 doctors thus far proclaimed by the Church during the course of centuries, she is the youngest: yet, the teaching authority of the Church proclaims her an expert in sapiential theology [a term coined by the Pope] drawing from the font of love – an authentic "agape" of God an man."
Let us recall here briefly, some historical data. Already in 1932, the Jesuit Gustave Desbuquois, in a clearcut precise argumentation, had seen in St.Therese of Lisieux (canonized in 1925) an eventual Doctor of the Church – a suggestion readily accepted by many bishops and theologians during a Theresian Congress.
The report of Fr. Desbuquois s.j. was forwarded to Pope Pius XI, but time was not yet ripe to have a woman declared Doctor of the Church. It was only in 1970 that Pope Paul VI got over this hurdle by proclaiming St. Catherine of Siena and St. Theresa of Avila Doctors of the Church.
"The Science of Divine Love"
At this stage we should not gloss over some nagging doubts which have arisen here and there in the minds of many of the faithful and of theologians. Actually, what valid reasons could justify the conferring of the title "Doctor of the Church" on a Saint like Therese of Lisieux? In other words, does this rare and prestigious title suit the simplicity of the "Little Flower"?
In his apostolic letter "Divini Amoris Scientia" (D.A.S.= The Science of Divine Love), promulgated on October 19th 1997, during the liturgical celebrations accompanying the conferring of the title "Doctor of the Church" – Pope John Paul II singled out from the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux those unmistakable points revealing the most relevant aspescts of her eminent doctrine and justifying the confering of the title Doctor of the Church.
The Theresian writings, it is true, do not offer a compact systematic set of doctrines professionally expressed as a theological whole: they reveal , however, a peculiar sapiential charism with which the young Carmelite feels herself endowed by the Lord Jesus, Whom she calls the Doctor of all Doctors. (Manuscript A, 83) and from whom she learns the Gospel Truth, especially the "science of Divine Love".
On September the 8th 1896, Therese wrote "I feel within me the vocation of being a priest, an apostle, a doctor, a martyr… inspite of my littleness to enlighten the soul as the prophets and the Doctors have done" (Manuscript B, 2–3).
Reflecting on chapters 12 and 13 of the letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she has the intuition that "Love includes all other vocations… then in an excess of overflowing joy, I exclaimed 'Jesus, my love, I have finally found my vocation… in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be LOVE'" (Manuscript B, 3).
in March 1896
At the school of Jesus, under the spiritual guidance of Fr.Almire Pichon s.j., the young Carmelite assimilates the the science of Divine Love, "which is a gift granted to the little ones and to the humble that they may know and proclaim God’s secrets, hidden from the wise and the learned" (DAS, 1).
In her reflections, enlightened by deep attachment to Holy Scriptures (there are over a thousand Bible quotations in her writings), Therese of Lisieux leads the basic truths of faith to the discovery of the Merciful Love, to the contemplation of the Heart of God, who is more tender than a mother (Manuscript A v 80).
Texts from Isaias, from the Gospels and from the writings of St. Paul, illumined the spiritual journey of Therese with this thrilling message : "God is love; every man is loved by God with a love glowing with maternal tenderness." To God’s paternal, maternal love, must correspond on our part a child’s love, impregnated with trust and boundless self-abandonment to Him, because "love can be repaid only with love" (Manuscript B, 4).
Thus, freed of old fears of the prevailing Jansenism of the time and following the path leading to the Mercyful Love, made visible in the Heart of the Son Jesus, Therese intends to show this path in all her three autobiographical writings, later on published together under the title "The Story of a Soul" and in the other writings.
It is the way of spiritual childhood "which anybody can walk because all are called to holiness" (DAS 6). But it is not an easy way: it does not encourage inertia or passivity; on the contrary, it is a growth in faith, a strengthening of the evangelical virtues, an inner dynamism, which becomes action and witnessing.
A message valid for all times
All the Popes, from St. Pius X to John Paul II, have not only acknowledged the holiness of the Carmelite of Lisieux, but have also stressed her doctrine, eminent and yet accessible, which on certain points has anticipated some important intuitions of the Second Vatican Council, such as the rediscovery of the Word of God, the renewal of Ecclesiology and of Mariology.
It is very significant what John Paul II writes: "The influence of this Theresian message has been felt by men and women whose holiness and heroic virtues have been acknowledged by the Church, by Church pastors and theologians, by religious, priests, ecclesial movemnts, by men and women of all times. To all, Therese proclaims her personal experience that the Gospel of which she has become the witness and "the apostle of the apostle", is to be taken literally, with the greatest possible realism, because it is universally valid in time and space. (DAS 10).
St. Therese’s total coherance between doctrine and praxis, the Gospel and the life, explains vastly the ever enduring impact on the men and women of our time marked by the sad phenomenon of secularization and of religious indifference.
To so many young people especially, who seem to have lost the sense of life, the Holy Spirit nowadays makes a gift of this young Carmelite as a witness of a courageous and challenged faith, as a representative attractive both to believers and non believers.
It is to the latter especially that Therese feels very close, because, as she herself assures us, she has taken her place at the "sinners’ table" (Manuscript C, 6) having experienced the silence of God, the dark night of faith, the feeling of the utter uselessness of all things, an awful trial she endured during the last 18 months of her life, during which she learnt what it means to believe and to remain faithful "to the God of hope, who fills us with all joy and peace in our faith" (Rom. 15,13).
"the re-evaluation of the woman’s role"
While the Church is called upon today to face the formidable task of the new evangelization, Therese who lived "in the heart of the Church", reminds us of those irreplaceable means which are to be used and without which everything would turn out to be just sterile activism.
In her writings she upholds the primacy of Christ, of Whom she wants to make a living existential experience, interiorized in prayer, to love Him and to make Him loved "to the point of madness" in order to imitate Him at every step and allow herself to be led by Him in the immense mystery of love, which is the very life of the Blessed Trinity.
A few months before her death the Saint wrote: "Your love , o Jesus, has grown in me so much that it has become an abyss of which I am unable to fathom the depth" (manuscript C, 35). Therese with all her being plunged in this bottomless abyss where the Holy Spirit helped her to discover the secret of bearing witness to the point of heroism, the Gospel of love in the communitarian context of the Carmel "The more I am united to Jesus, the more I love my Sisters" (manuscript C, 12).
Another factor which makes relevant the timeliness of the Theresian message is the re-evaluation of the woman’s role in life. Woman is called upon to be "a sign of God’s tenderness to man" (Vita Consecrata 57): the Saint of Lisieux shows the Church and modern society what the woman’s role should be.
Stressing the three characteristics of the personalitiy of Therese, the Pope writes in the above mentioned letter as follows: "Here is a woman who has drawn closer to the Gospel and has been able to discover its hidden riches with that concretenes and deep sapiential resonance, characteristic of her sex… Besides, Therese is a contemplative; hers is a hidden life, endowed with a mysterious fecundity for the spread of the Gospel, filling the Church and the whole world with the sweet odour of Christ.
Therese, finally, is a woman who has achieved holiness already in her young age: she can illumine the parth of the youth of today, called up to bear witness to the Gospel to the new generations.
"Therese is the teacher of our times, thirsty of living relevant words, of heroic credible witnesses. That is why she is loved and accepted by all the brothers and sisters belonging to other Christian communities and even by those who are not Christians" (DAS 11).
Indeed, the Little Therese – whom Pius XI on February 11th 1923 called "God’s word to the world of today" - continues to cause astonishement. Let the hearts of all the faithful in union with the Holy Father, burst out in a spontaneous Magnificat, a hymn of thanksgiving to the Lord for "the wisdom He has given to St. Therese of the Child Jesus, for all the love He has showerd on her and which continues to illumine and warm the hearts, urging them on to holiness." (Pope John Paul II, in the homily he preached on the 19th of October 1997).