The Priestly Vocation of Therese of The Child Jesus
by Catharina Broome OP
Spirituality (1997), pp. 225-230
The author is a well known lecturer, writer and preacher based in Stockholm, Sweden
The vocation to the priesthood continued to preoccupy Thérèse. Over and over again, in different situations, she would return to this, more or less explicitly. She would enter into the role of the priest and rejoice at the opportunities she had to act in some way in this role. She said to her sister Agnes of Jesus: ‘How proud I was when I was hebdomadarian during the recitation of the Divine Office, reciting the prayers out loud in the centre of the choir! I was proud because I remembered that the priest said the same prayers during Mass, and I had the right, like him, to pray aloud before the Blessed Sacrament, giving the blessings and the absolutions, reading the gospel when I was first chantress.” (Aug 6, 1897)
But Thérèse was bolder than that. She was convinced that she, too, would have been a good preacher, in some ways even better than the priests she heard. On her sickbed she composed in her mind what she would say from the pulpit. On August 21 2897 , her sister wrote down these words of Thérèse: ‘How I would love to be a priest in order to preach about the Blessed Virgin! One sermon would be sufficient to say everything I think about the subject.’….‘I’d first make people understand how little ìs known by us about her life.’…’We shouldn’t say unlikely things or things we don’t know anything about! For example, that when she was very little, at the age of three, the Blessed Virgin went up to the Temple to offer herself to God, burning with love and extraordinary fervour. While perhaps she went there very simply out of obedience to her parents’(ibid p 161). There follows a long discourse on how Mary can only be admired from a distance when she is presented as so exalted and different from all others, whereas Thérèse would like to preach about Mary as a person who is very close to us. Thérèse had planned the whole sermon in detail.
In her thoughts on this issue she receives the inspiration to let herself be represented as a priest vicariously. In a letter to P Roulland dated November 1, 1896, she writes that she wants to tell him a secret: ‘On September 8, 1890, your vocation was saved by Mary, the Queen of Apostles and Martyrs. On the same day a little Carmelite [herself] became the Bride of the King of Heaven. She said goodbye to the world and her only goal was to save souls (…). Since she could not become a priest herself she asked Jesus, her divine Bridegroom, that a priest might, in her place receive God’s gifts of grace with the same longing and desire as she herself.’ It was not enough that Jesus answered her prayer – Thérèse was certain that he would. He also gave her the joy of having contact through letters with the priest who was ‘in her place’ and of being his spiritual director.
Thérèse’s desire to be a priest is clearly glimpsed in one of the plays she wrote and which was presented by the sisters on special occasions. The play was entitled Saint Stanislaus Kostka. It told the story of a Jesuit in the 16th century who, before he entered the Order, lived for a time in the house of a Lutheran. While he Stwas there he became ill and longed to receive holy communion, so he prayed to St. Barbara to whom he had a special devotion. St Barbara came, surrounded by angels, and gave him communion. In Thérèse’s play Stanislaus tells this to one of the brothers, Augusti, who expresses his astonishment over the fact that it was a woman saint and not one of the leading angels who gave him the sacrament. Stanislaus answers that in the Kingdom of God this is possible, ‘and perhaps St Barbara, when she lived on earth, had longed to share the high duties of the priest, and the Lord wanted to fulfil her desire.’ There is no doubt that the spiritually creative Thérèse thought of the possibility [hat she herself, after her death, might somehow return to earth as a priest. ‘In the Kingdom of God this is possible. Doctor of [he Church Thérèse does not see gender as an obstacle – on the contrary, ‘the Lord wanted to fulfil her desires.’
The most significant testimony to the fact that Therese of the Child Jesus priestly vocation was nor a symbolic one but was indeed very serious, is the confidence she shared with her sister Geneviève. Her sister does not give the exact date when Therese confided in her, but says, only that is was some time in 1897 her final year, when she was only 2.4 Years old. ‘Don’t you see that God is going to take me at an age when I would not have had the time to become a priest. If I had been able to become a priest, it would have .been in this month of June, at this ordination that I would have received holy orders. So in order that I may regret nothing, God is allowing me to be sick; I wouldn’t have been able to present myself for ordination, and I would have died before having exercised my ministry’ (ibid p 26o). Faced with the knowledge of her early death she finds comfort and meaning in the thought that it is related to her vocation to be a priest.
FOR GOD, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE
Thérèse knew that her dream was impossible. Of course she was aware that her sex was an obstacle but that was not how she her self saw it. She attributed it to her ‘littleness’ instead, and found a model in St Francis, who had also ‘abstained.’ At the same time she Found her own way of actualising it.
In all this there is an unavoidable contradiction which is worth noting, because there are many women today who are affected by it and who find themselves in the same contradictory situation. With the genius of a saint, Thérèse found a way of living with an impossible vocation. But it was not a question of resignation. Thérèse knew that she had the right to want this, knew even that her desire came from God. She could not deny it. She could have said, like her Lord, ‘I have the right to give it and I have the right to cake it back.’ Boldly she spoke of her priestly vocation, and that alone was a step forward.
A STEP TOWARDS WHAT?
We asked the question: What can the Holy Spirit mean by awakening in someone a vocation which is impossible to follow? The answer is found, as is so often the case, in the cross of Jesus. Catherine of Siena gave her life for the Church. She saw the approaching schism and was willing to suffer and die for the reformation of the Church. God accepted the sacrifice she made when she was only thirty three years old. She had not lived in vain. StNo one makes such a sacrifice in vain -it always has meaning.
Thérèse did nor think that she was the only woman who wanted to be a priest. At least, she imagined that St Barbara had had the same desire. And it is a fact that there have been and are women in the Catholic Church who have cherished the same longing. In our time it has been expressed as never before, and it compels us to try to understand why such a longing exists and if it has any significance
It is well known that there are women apostles. St Mary Magdalen, who received the title of apostola apostolorum is considered to be Apostle of Provence – even if historically speaking it is highly doubtful. Another example is St Nino, the woman who brought Christianity to Georgia. But here is not the place to dwell on this subject. Strictly speaking it has nothing to do with the role of the priest today. On the other hand it might just have something to do with the question of who are seen to be the heirs to the apostles, and what, in that case, is the tradition of the Church
There is a factor which is especially important for a Christian way of thinking, and chat factor is time. It was ‘in time’ that the Ford became flesh and made his dwelling among us. The Church lives in and with the times, in a certain society, a certain culture. Even Jesus Christ was a man of his times. In several religions time is totally without significance, but from the Christian perspective history itself has a meaning. When we talk about Tradition, we do not mean the handing down of a final product from generation to generation; on the contrary, tradition, according to the Christian way of thinking, is something dynamic. Salvation is described as a historical event, inscribed in time. Just as each one of us must ‘grow completely until we are ‘fully mature with the fullness of Christ himself ‘ (Eph 4:13,15), so must the entire Church, which is the Body of Christ, grow and build itself up (v 16), obedient to the Spirit who will lead us to the complete truth (Jn 16:13). In the encyclical Peace on Earth, John VIII urged the Church to ‘listen to the signs of the times in order to discern the voice of the Spirit in all that happens.
The Kingdom of God is coming to completion. It is as yet unfinished. There are still rifts between people, which God had not intended, but the seeds of unity have been sown and are continually baptisedgrowing. We all bear the, same responsibility for the Kingdom of God, just as all of us who have been baptised in Christ have been clothed in Christ (Gal 3:27). No calling is given in vain simply because it cannot be answered at once – we are moving forward and can speak openly of where we find ourselves now and what we believe we can discern of the future.
One of the most astonishing things that the twenty four year old Thérèse dares to say was this: ‘I will .Spend my heaven doing good on earth.’ She has kept her promise. Countless people have witnessed to the power of her intercession. Why should we not dare believe that her prayers for the Church are responsible for many of the remarkable developments, which have taken place and are still occurring in the Church in this century? Plus XI called her ‘the guiding star of my pontificate.’ In his, speech on the occasion of canonisation he said, ‘The Spirit of Truth taught her that which is hidden from the wise and the learned but has been revealed to the little ones.’ This may have been a prophetic utterance concerning things that Pius XI himself had no thoughts about
When John Paul 11 nominated Thérèse of the Child Jesus to be a Doctor of the Church, he wrote, perhaps just as prophetically: ‘We must not forget that the understanding of the substance of the faith develops in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.’ He referred to the Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbumwhich eemphasisesmphasises that this development is not only the work of Magisterium of the Church but occurs also through the cooperation of all the faithful, through their studies and meditation on the Word of God, and through their ‘inner understanding of the spiritual reality.’ (n. 8)
The title ‘Doctor of the Church’ presupposes familiarity with the Bible, theological knowledge and insight. Catherine, Teresa of Avila and Thérèse of the Child Jesus were all three theologians in that way. They were ‘self taught’ having a burning interest in the truths of their faith and with the deep insight which the Spirit gives. They had acquired knowledge through the channels that were open to them, and in contemplation they came ever closer to the truth. They have expressed themselves in a simple way, not like learned people, but for that very reason their teaching has become accessible to all.
Probably neither Paul V1 nor John Paul 11 had any idea that these three women to whom thy gave the title Doctor Ecclesiaehad a contribution to make to what is a burning issue in contemporoary theology. But the initiative comes ultimately from the Holy Spirit, and ‘the Spirit blows where it will’ – unexpectedly and surprisingly
Thérèse had an authentic vocation to the priesthood. The thought of it preoccupied her greatly to the end of her life. She could not fulfil it – she was too little and too weak and, in addition, so ill that she was to die young. But it is obvious that Thérèse avoids naming the real reason, and that is that she was a woman. She touches on it in the story of St Barbara, but only to show that for God there was no obstacle.
Since the vocation to the priesthood meant so much to Thérèse, and because she sought the answers to all her questions in the gospels, we can assume chat even in this question she carefully studied the Scriptures. There is no indication that Thérèse found that the Lord meant men to have a special position in the Church. On the contrary everything she wrote on this subject confirms her belief that it was perfectly possible for a woman to be a priest in principle, even if in practice it was impossible, and at the time still unthinkable. During her lifetime the matter never came up for discussion at all. That is why it is so remarkable that, with the confidence of trust, she dared to speak as she did about her vocation – so uncompromisingly and in such detail.
When, on the August 24, 1977 Pope John Paul announced to a gathering of world youth at the hippodrome in Longchamp near Paris his intention to give Thérèse the title of Doctor of the Church, he was greeted with applause that seemed never to end
On that occasion he said that Thérèse always carried the gospels with her, and that she ‘penetrated the message of the gospels with an unparalleled and sure discernment.’ Two months later, on October 29,1997, the ceremony was held in Rome. In his speech the Pope quoted a text from the second Vatican council document: ‘The Holy Spirit, who leads the Church into the full truth, rejuvenates her through the power of the gospels and helps her to understand the signs of the times in order to better fulfil God’s will’ (Gaudium et Spes, n 4). Thérèse had a special charisma, he said, which made her daring in her way of interpreting the gospels, so that she had flashes of spiritual enlightenment (de véritables éclairs de doctrine). She ‘immersed herself in meditation on the word of God with unparalleled faith and spontaneity’ and ‘discovered hidden treasures by taking into her heart words and works, not seldom with a supernatural boldness. The Pope declared finally that she was ‘a teacher for our time, ‘a woman who tackled the gospels and could find there hidden treasures with realism, with depth when it was a matter of practising that which she had found in the scriptures, and with brilliant womanly wisdom.’
In this way the Holy Father emphasised the importance of the new Doctor of the Church specifically as a woman, her boldness, her ‘unique unerring judgment’ and her ‘brilliant womanly wisdom.’ Thus it is impossible to gloss over the texts in which her boldness as a woman are of special importance and to a great boldness as a woman are of special importance and to a great extend a ‘sign of the times.’ The heart of Therese’s teaching is, as we all know, the ‘little way; it is also that, which the Pope first of all points out in his address. But that little way does not mean that there are not many vocations and many different ways of serving in the Church. ‘Thérèse had a special insight regarding the mystical body of Christ and the great variety of charismata,’ said the Pope. Because of her clarity of vision, this special gift of the Spirit which makes her the greatest prophet of our time, we can also dare to trust her deep conviction that even a women could be a priest, and that there is nothing in the Scriptures which gives men a special place in that matter. John Paul II has, with his words and deeds, guided by the Holy Spirit, confirmed that this woman was sent by God to assist us in interpreting the signs of the times and to come ‘closer to the will of God.’(concluded)
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