St. Thérèse of Lisieux: A guide to understand, appreciate the holy priesthood

What should we be doing in regard to the priesthood, were we to follow in the footsteps of St. Thérèse?

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The General Instruction of the Roman Missal gives the homilist for Holy Thursday unique counsel on Holy Thursday; it delineates the themes he should offer the faithful: Christ’s sacrificial and servant love; the meaning of the Sacred Priesthood; the centrality of the Eucharist in the Christian life. The connections are clear: Christ’s love for His Church, manifested in washing the feet of His disciples, caused Him to leave us the Sacrament of His love, which in turn required a means to perpetuate His saving love and presence. Simply put: There can be no Church without the Eucharist and no Eucharist without the priesthood. This evening, let us take St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a doctor of the Church, as a guide to understand and appreciate the holy priesthood, which is so much under fire these days.

The priesthood of Jesus Christ, in which every Christian priest shares, is the source of holiness in the Church and the impetus for all evangelization. Through the ministry of the priest, Christ’s lay faithful are nourished with the Word of Life and the Bread of Life; their sanctification makes possible the sanctification of the world. The Little Flower understood this in a most profound manner. And so, on the eve of her solemn profession, she declared: “I came [to the Carmel] to save souls and, most of all, to pray for priests.” Why? Because the people cannot be holy without holy priests. A Sicilian proverb puts it in a very homey but effective metaphor: “Fish rots from the head.” In other words, the priest sets the tone and provides the ambiance in which the work of salvation occurs – or does not.

While many aspects of the life of St. Thérèse are well known, how she came to have a particular place in her heart for priests is not so well known. The first part of the story comes, interestingly enough, from the lips of Pope Paul VI who was, coincidentally [maybe better, providentially?] baptized in 1897 on the very day our saint died. At any rate, the Holy Father recounts the following: “On pilgrimage to Rome, she had encountered some mediocre priests; instead of criticizing them and retreating to the periphery, she resolved to place herself at the very heart of things, in love alone.” In his inimitable style, so given to understatement, Paul VI speaks of these priests as “mediocre,” while we learn elsewhere that the Little Flower saw them as quite scandalous. Be that as it may, the episode shows that God can indeed write straight with crooked lines, for it launched her on a life-long work of prayer and sacrifice on behalf of the clergy.

The second part of the story comes from Thérèse herself. As a child, she had always prayed to be given a brother who would become a priest; God never gave her parents a son who survived infancy. On the feast of St. Teresa of Àvila in 1895, the Mother Prioress took Thérèse to one side and shared with her a letter she had just received from a seminarian [Maurice Bellière] who indicated he was writing her under the inspiration of St. Teresa; his request was that he be given a Sister who would be committed to prayer for his salvation and the divine blessing on his work. The 21-year-old future priest was ordained a White Father and sent to what is now Malawi. Their correspondence included eleven important letters written by the Little Flower, before he returned to France in 1907, to die at Bon Sauveur Hospital in Caen.

Her second clerical “pen pal,” if you will, was a Father Adolphe Roulland of the Paris Foreign Missions who had celebrated his First Mass at the Lisieux Carmel and had talked with Thérèse’s sister at that time. He was missioned to China, there beginning his correspondence with our Carmelite lover of priests. Thérèse wrote him six letters before his death in 1934.

I think it would be worthwhile to quote in some detail from one of the prayers the young nun wrote for her seminarian charge:

O my Jesus! I thank you for fulfilling one of my dearest wishes, that of having a brother priest and apostle. . . . I feel very unworthy of this favor but, as you deign to give your poor little spouse the grace to work specially for the sanctification of a soul destined for the priesthood, I gladly offer you, for that soul, all the prayers and sacrifices of which I am capable; I ask you, O my God, to look not at what I am, but what I should and want to be, a nun wholly consumed by the fire of your love.

You know, Lord, that my sole ambition is to make you known and loved; and now my wish will be fulfilled. I can only pray and suffer, but the soul with which you deign to unite me through the sweet bonds of charity will go down onto the plain as a warrior to win hearts for you, and I, on the Mount of Carmel, will implore you to give him victory.

Divine Jesus, hear my prayer for the one who wishes to become your missionary, keep him safe amidst the dangers of the world, make him feel increasingly the emptiness and vanity of passing things and the happiness of disdaining them for love of you. Let his sublime apostolate already work on those around him, let him be an apostle worthy of your Sacred Heart.

O Mary, Sweet Queen of Carmel, to your care I entrust the soul of this future priest, whose unworthy little sister I am. Deign to show him the love with which you touched the Holy Infant Jesus and dressed Him in swaddling clothes, so that he may one day ascend the sacred altar and bear the King of Heaven in his hands.

I also beseech you to keep him within the shadow of your Virgin’s cloak, until the happy day when, leaving this vale of tears behind, he beholds your splendor and enjoys, for all eternity, the fruits of his glorious apostolate.

Isn’t that marvelous? Who could not be moved by the tenderness, the love, the appreciation she shows for the priestly vocation in general and for the young Maurice in particular?

But where does this leave us? What should we be doing in regard to the priesthood, were we to follow in the footsteps of St. Thérèse? Allow me to offer a few suggestions which have, in my opinion, special relevance for the Church in the place and time in which Providence has placed us.

First, we must renew our commitment to the Church’s teaching on the uniqueness of the priesthood and its centrality in the life of the Church. Reflection on the priesthood is as old as the Church herself. Sometimes these meditations are unrealistic and maudlin; sometimes they are highly theological but leave us cold because they lack the poetry and beauty which belong to the human contemplation of the divine.

Permit me to share with you a sampling of texts which come close to doing the job. Cardinal Suhard of Paris once asserted: “The priesthood is not. . . something. It is someone: Christ.” St. Francis of Assisi [never a priest but a permanent deacon, remember] said: “If I saw an angel of light and a drunken priest, I would bend my knee first to the priest and then to the angel.” St. John Vianney, patron of parish priests, declared from experience: “After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts.” He went on to say: “The priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in Heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die, not of fear, but of love.” Following up on that same notion, the French spiritual writer Père Gatry said something we really need to ponder in our time: “If people could realize what the priesthood is, there would be too many priests.” Where does the priesthood find its great dignity? In the simple but awesome recognition of St. Vincent Ferrer: “The Blessed Virgin opened Heaven only once; the priest does so at every Mass.”

The reverence and respect of the Catholic faithful for their clergy is directed, then, not toward the man himself but toward Christ Who is the Priest of the new eternal covenant and toward the priesthood any man derives from Him and shares with Him.

An anecdote from history may demonstrate our very reasonable approach to all this. One day, during Pope Pius VII’s imprisonment by Napoleon, the Pope and Emperor were again drawn into what had become a daily round of confrontations. The Pope said something which made the little dictator more angry than usual, causing him to rise to his full five feet, point his finger in the Holy Father’s face and scream, “If you don’t behave yourself, I will destroy both you and your Church!” Which caused the Pope simply to smile, condescendingly, and for his Secretary of State to say: “Silly little man, my clergy and I haven’t destroyed this Church for nineteen centuries, and you think you can do it single-handedly?” Realism. And even the Modernist heretic Alfred Loisy understood something of this when he sarcastically mused: “They tell me that every Sunday in Paris over ten thousand sermons are preached. And the people still believe!” Realism again, even if jaundiced.

Why can such assessments be made? Indeed, why must they be made? Because of a fundamental theological truth. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium emphasized a point frequently neglected or forgotten in regard to the celebration of the sacraments, namely, that it is Christ Who is active in the administration and reception of each sacrament, which is an action of Christ and an extension of His paschal mystery offered to the believer in the here and now. It is not the priest, not the individual, and not even the Church which is the focus of our attention but Jesus Himself. Priest, individual and Church draw their meaning from Christ and are instruments and/or beneficiaries of His redemptive sacrifice – an important reminder in this era of personality cults.

Now, with the theology in place, we must move on to attitudinal and action-oriented items. Therefore, pray for priests. Take some time every day to lift up in prayer the priests who introduced you to the Christian life: the priest who baptized you, the priest who heard your first confession, the priest who gave you your First Holy Communion, the bishop who confirmed you, the priest who witnessed your marriage or received your vows, the priest who may have anointed you in a serious illness.

Allow me to share with you a personal anecdote that might help illustrate the attitude I’m proposing. Some years ago, eight of my seminary classmates and I went for a Christmastide dinner to Asti’s in Manhattan; it was a lovely place, regrettably now closed.

After a delightful meal and wonderful entertainment by the singing waiters, we asked for our check and were told that it had been “taken care of.” When we inquired of the who, the why and the how, we were told the benefactor wished to remain anonymous. Finally, the maitre d’ prevailed on our host to allow himself to be identified. Some of us went over to the table to thank him personally. I said, “I hope you know what you got yourself in for, with nine very hungry and thirsty priests tonight!” The man, on holiday with his wife, son and father from the Midwest, smiled and said: “Father, no matter what it costs, we’ve gotten off cheap tonight. Everything I am, Father, is what the Church has made me – two decades of Catholic education, including a law degree from Notre Dame University, and great priests and nuns. In fact, I just said to my son, ‘You see those young priests [none of us had any gray hair yet!], they could have been anything and done anything, but they gave it all up, so that you, your mother, your grandfather and I could have Christ in the sacraments.’ Merry Christmas, Fathers.”

I recount the episode, not to extol the possibilities of clerical rank and privilege, but to demonstrate the kind of love one man had for the sacred priesthood, the kind of love the Little Flower surely had, the kind of love every Catholic worthy of the name should have. This sentiment is appropriate, not because priests are angels [we are not, as we ourselves know all too well], but because in God’s mysterious plan, priests can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Even priests need the ministry of other priests.

Another practical resolution flowing from our appreciation of the priesthood is developing an important stance toward priests: affirming good priests and challenging the lukewarm or even the few who are, objectively speaking, bad. When a priest celebrates the Sacred Liturgy properly, with devotion and according to the mind of the Church; when he preaches an effective homily, particularly dealing with an unpopular topic; when he teaches consistently and effectively what the Church teaches; when his life-style is a mirror-image of what he preaches and teaches, always looking and acting like a priest; see it as your personal privilege and obligation to let him that know you notice these things, that you appreciate them, that you thank our Heavenly Father for allowing him to be so clear a sign of His divine Son’s holy priesthood. On the other hand, when priests fail to be the type of men Christ and His Church desire and deserve, do not be afraid to speak to them, charitably but firmly, of their responsibilities and your legitimate needs, indeed, your rights. St. Catherine of Siena never hesitated to speak thus to the Sovereign Pontiff himself – all the while referring to him constantly as “my dear sweet Christ on earth.”

Next, seek to strengthen priestly identity. Never find yourself in the position of being what I call a “clerical ‘wanna-be.'” That is, one of those individuals who smugly looks at a priest and says, “I could do that better than he!” Or, equally, someone who endeavors to take over priestly roles in an effort to satisfy some deep-seated personal need to be a priest or to have what is perceived to be the prestige or power of the ordained ministry.

This may well be an opportune moment to address an issue which has gotten considerable play in certain quarters at times, and that is Thérèse’s supposed desire to be a priest. Of course, the point of the assertion is to bring to the side of proponents of women’s ordination a great saint and perhaps even a doctor of the Church. Sweeping such concerns under a carpet does no good for anyone in the Church; so let’s take a look at it, head-on.

As our little saint got sicker and sicker and closer to death, she was confronted by a variety of temptations and difficulties. She experienced terrible spiritual dryness and was tormented by doubts, as well as by questions about the meaning and effectiveness of her whole, short life. On her bed of pain, she cries out:

I feel as if I were called to be a fighter, a priest, an apostle, a doctor, a martyr; as if I could never satisfy the needs of my nature without performing, for your sake, every kind of heroic action at once. I feel as if I’d got the courage to be a Crusader, a Pontifical Zouave, dying on the battlefield in defense of the Church. And at the same time, I want to be a priest; how lovingly I’d carry you in my hands when you came down from Heaven at my call; how lovingly I’d bestow you upon men’s souls!

But then she continues: “And yet, with all this desire to be a priest, I’ve nothing but admiration and envy for the humility of St. Francis; I’d willingly imitate him in refusing the honor of the priesthood.” And then she agonizes: “Dear Jesus, how am I to reconcile these conflicting ambitions, how am I to give substance to the dreams of one insignificant soul?”

Yet, in the midst of these trials which almost brought her to despair, the Little Flower was given the grace, not simply to see and accept God’s holy Will, but also to discover a most basic truth about the nature of life in the Church. Let’s give her the occasion to explain in detail:

I was still being tormented by this question of unfilled longings, and it was a distraction in my prayer, when I decided to consult St. Paul’s epistles in the hopes of getting an answer. It was the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of First Corinthians that claimed my attention. The first of these told me that we can’t all of us be apostles, all of us be prophets, all of us doctors, and so on; the Church is composed of members which differ in their use. It was a clear enough answer, but it didn’t satisfy my aspirations, didn’t set my heart at rest. The Magdalen, by stooping now and again into the empty tomb, was at last rewarded for her search; and I, by sinking down into the depths of my own nothingness, rose high enough to find what I wanted! Reading on to the end of the chapter, I met this comforting phrase: “Prize the best gifts of Heaven. Meanwhile, I can shew you a way which is better than any other.”

She went on:

What was [that gift]? The Apostle goes on to explain that all the gifts of Heaven, even the most perfect of them, without love, are absolutely nothing; charity is the best way of all, because it leads straight to God. Now I was at peace; when St. Paul was talking about the different members of the Mystical Body of Christ I couldn’t recognize myself in any of them; or rather, I could recognize myself in all of them. But charity – that was the key to my vocation. If the Church was composed of different members, it couldn’t lack the noblest of all; it must have a heart, and a heart burning with love. And I realized that this love was the true motive force which enabled the other members of the Church to act; if it ceased to function the Apostles would forget to preach the gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. Love, in fact, is the vocation which includes all others; it’s a universe of its own, comprising all time and space – it’s eternal. Beside myself with joy, I cried out: “Jesus, my Love! I’ve found my vocation, and my vocation is love.” I had discovered where it is that I belong in the Church, the niche God has appointed for me. To be nothing else than love, deep down in the heart of Mother Church; that’s to be everything at once – my dream wasn’t a dream after all.

She had come to an understanding of Paul’s doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, in which there is a wondrous diversity of roles and ministries, as the Second Vatican Council had phrased it. She would be a strong supporter of Pope John Paul II’s vision of clearly defined roles within the Church, never moving toward what he dubbed “the clericalization of the laity or the laicization of the clergy.”

Still another area of genuine need is work on behalf of vocations to the priesthood. Praying and performing works of penance are obviously critically important, and nothing can take their place. But I would like to propose something else as well – creating a climate in which priestly vocations can be discerned, fostered and appreciated. Some years ago, my late mother was standing in line at the supermarket; the woman behind her recognized her and asked, “Didn’t your son go to St. Joe’s High School?” When my mother acknowledged that, the lady went on to ask how many priests had taught there in my time. Upon hearing that a tiny parish high school of 180 students had had five full-time priests, she expressed disgust that the same school of over 700 students today had not a single full-time priest. My mother smiled and said, “Maybe one of your four boys will become a priest and eventually be assigned to St. Joe’s.” “God forbid,” came the swift response; “I want my sons to have a real life.” To which, my mother responded, “So, it’s fine for my only child to become a priest, and it’s important to have priests teaching your children, but you don’t want any of yours to make the sacrifice?” I think you see what I mean. Vocation recruitment is the responsibility of everyone in the Church, with all cooperating according to their specific abilities and states in life. When that is an ecclesial fact of life, our problem will not be a vocations shortage, but a vocations surplus.

Finally, love your priests, and let them know it. It disturbs me greatly to find a growing anti-clericalism among some folks, many of whom we might label as “conservatives.” Having been frequently identified as a “conservative” myself, I feel a bit free to comment here. I know some of you have been awfully disappointed in recent years when some of us priests have let so many of you down, either through sinful actions, bad example, lack of charity or liturgical shenanigans. Following John Paul II’s example in Dominicæ Cenæ, I would like to apologize for anything you have suffered, anything that has scandalized you, anything that has made your own attainment of holiness more arduous. But love has the incredible capacity to change men’s minds and hearts.

Aim for that. St. Thérèse comprehended this completely when she declared, “love can only be repaid by love.” Never get drawn into an attitude toward the priesthood which flies in the face of our most deeply held theological and spiritual principles. Anti-clericalism is just a form of anti-Catholicism. If anything, make a conscious effort to love your priests and to let others know that you do so. Greet priests on street when you see them, as you would Christ. Remember them on their name-days and anniversaries. This would gladden the heart of our young nun who had such an over-powering love for every alter Christus.

This evening, we have been nourishing ourselves on the heavenly doctrine of the Little Flower, trying to assimilate her thoughts on the priesthood. The greatest tribute we could pay her would be to put her teachings into practice. Along such lines, permit me one final suggestion.

St. Thérèse not only prayed for the sanctification of priests herself, but exhorted her novices to make it the principal object of their prayers, too. Indeed, the Little Flower offered her very last Communion for a priest who had abandoned his holy vocation. As we progress in the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, would you consider making the sanctification of every priest the intention of your Holy Communion this night? That would truly put you in the spirit of our little saint and be a proper honor to her holy memory.

For more than a quarter of a century, Pope John Paul II sent a letter to the priests of the world as his personal gift to us each Holy Thursday; how wonderful it was to have a Pope who, we priests knew, loved us as sons and brothers. I wish to conclude these reflections with a most poignant passage from his letter of 1980; I trust the Little Flower will not be upset if I give the last word to the Pope, rather than to her [after all, it was he who named her a doctor of the Church!]. For those whose hearts have grown cold and ungrateful, for those who take for granted or even have little esteem for either the priesthood or the Eucharist, listen to these words of John Paul II:

Think of the places where people anxiously await a priest, and where for many years, feeling the lack of such a priest, they do not cease to hope for his presence.

And sometimes it happens that they meet in an abandoned shrine, and place on the altar a stole which they still keep, and recite all the prayers of the Eucharistic Liturgy; and then, at the moment that corresponds to the trans-substantiation a deep silence comes down upon them, a silence sometimes broken by a sob. . . so ardently do they desire to hear the words that only the lips of a priest can efficaciously utter.

May Christ the eternal High Priest give each of us a mind and a heart to appreciate the depths of His sacrificial love for us, a love so intense that on the night before He died, He instituted two great sacraments – the priesthood in view of the Eucharist – thus enabling Him to remain with us, the members of His holy Church, until He comes again in glory.

(Editor’s note: This was substantially the homily delivered by Fr. Stravinskas at the Carmel of Morristown, New Jersey, for Holy Thursday, April 5, 2007.)


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 107 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

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