St Thérèse of Lisieux ‘is more alive than ever in the pilgrim Church, in the heart of God’s people,’ Pope Francis writes in a new apostolic exhortation honouring the life and spirituality of the young Carmelite saint (§53). In the newly released document, titled C’est la confiance (or ‘It is confidence’), the pope says that through Thérèse we can learn that confidence in the divine mercy ‘leads us to the Love that grants everything’ (§2).
Released on Sunday 15 October, the feast day of St Teresa of Avila, the apostolic exhortation depicts the ‘Little Flower’ as the ‘mature fruit’ of the reform the great Spanish mystic began in the 16th century.
The ‘genius’ of St Thérèse was in her path of spiritual childhood; in how she, with trusting confidence, surrendered herself to Christ. ‘It is confidence that sustains us daily and will enable us to stand before the Lord on the day when he calls us to himself,’ the pope writes (§3).
Pope Francis begins by reflecting on the missionary zeal of St Thérèse. Despite entering a convent at age 15 and dying of tuberculosis at 24 the young Carmelite has always been known as the patron saint of missions, since one of the reasons she entered Carmel was to ‘save souls’ and draw others to Jesus (§9).
It was Jesus himself who St Thérèse loved, and as she prayed to be drawn nearer to Jesus, she also prayed that other souls would be drawn closer too.
One of the longest quotations from St Thérèse comes early on in the exhortation, when Francis draws extensively on a passage that reads, in part:
Draw me, we shall run after you in the odour of your ointments. O Jesus! It is not even necessary to say: When drawing me, draw the souls whom I love! This simple statement, ‘Draw me’ suffices. I understand, Lord, that when a soul allows herself to be captivated by the odour of your ointments, she cannot run alone; all the souls whom she loves follow in her train (§10).
‘In the heart of Thérèse, the grace of baptism became this impetuous torrent flowing into the ocean of Christ’s love and dragging in its wake a multitude of brothers and sisters,’ Pope Francis says. ‘This is what happened, especially after her death. It was her promised “shower of roses”.’
These last words refer to the Little Flower’s desire to spend her time in heaven doing good on earth, drawing souls closer to Jesus.
St Thérèse reminds us that holiness is not primarily about human effort. She described herself as ‘little’, ‘incapable of being confident in herself, and yet firmly secure in the loving power of the Lord’s arms,’ Pope Francis writes (§16).
In Thérèse we see a prioritisation of grace in the spiritual life, the grace that saves and makes us saints. Focussing on the primacy of grace ‘is in no way opposed’ to the Catholic teaching on the human ability to ‘increase’ holiness through our cooperation with grace, the pope assures his readers (§18). It is instead a recognition, deeply Catholic, that God’s action and grace always come first.
With St Thérèse, Francis encourages a ‘daily abandonment’ to the Divine Mercy, since even when we can’t be sure of ourselves, we can be sure of God’s love and mercy for us.
‘The complete confidence that becomes an abandonment in Love sets us free from obsessive calculations, constant worry about the future and fears that take away our peace,’ he says. ‘If we are in the hands of a Father who loves us without limits … we will be able to move beyond whatever may happen to us and, in one way or another, his plan of love and fullness will come to fulfilment in our lives’ (§24).
What St Thérèse offers today is a spirituality that takes us straight to the heart of the Gospel and to ‘the freshness of the source’ (§46).
Her ‘genius consists in leading us to what is central, essential and indispensable,’ Pope Francis says (§49). Through her discovery that love was at the heart of the Church’s work, that love was what made sense of the Church’s myriad vocations, she discovered the foundation on which everything depends.
For this reason, Pope Francis refers to her as the ‘Doctor of synthesis’, because in her vision of love and of Jesus, everything else in the Church, including its other moral and theological teachings, falls into place.
In our own time, he says, taking up the call to missionary discipleship, we need someone who can take us straight to ‘the most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary’ part of the Christian message (§47).
Melbourne Catholic28 September 2022
Andrea Cano Botero27 September 2023