Monday, September 21, 2009

St Therese and the Priesthood

It is so highly appropriate for us in the UK that the relics of St Therese should be visiting here during the year dedicated to prayer for priests. St Therese had a great veneration for priests and she prayed for them.

We read in her autobiography (all quotations from Story of a Soul 3rd edition translated by John Clarke OCD, ICS Publications, Washington DC, 1996)that in the examination preceding her Profession, she declared at the feet of Jesus-Victim what she had come to Carmel for:
I came to save souls and especially to pray for priests.
In her Story of a Soul we read about her experience of priests when she visited Rome. It was not altogether edifying but it moved her to prayer.
Having never lived close to them (priests), I was not able to understand the principal aim of the Reform of Carmel. To pray for sinners attracted me, but to pray for the souls of priests whom I believed to be as pure as crystal seemed puzzling to me.

I understood my vocation in Italy... I lived in the company of many saintly priests for a month and I learned that, though their dignity raises them above the angels, they are nevertheless weak and fragile men. If holy priests, whom Jesus in His Gospel calls the "salt of the earth", show in their conduct their extreme need for prayers, what is to be said of those who are tepid? Didn't Jesus say too: "If the salt loses its savour, wherewith will it be salted?"

How beautiful is the vocation ... which has as its aim the preservation of the salt destined for souls! This is Carmel's vocation since the sole purpose of our prayers and sacrifices is to be the apostle of the apostles. We are to pray for them while they are preaching to souls through their words and especially their example.
St Therese also speaks of a desire
which appeared totally unrealisable to me, that of having a brother as a priest. I often thought that had my little brothers [who had died in early childhood] not flown away to heaven, I would have had the happiness of seeing them mount the altar.
On the feast of St Teresa of Avila in 1895, Mother Agnes of Jesus read to Therese a letter from a young seminarian.
He was asking for a Sister who would devote herself especially to the salvation of his soul and aid him through her prayers and sacrifies when he was a missionary so that he could save many souls. He promised to remember the one who would become his sister at the Holy Sacrifice each day after he was ordained. Mother Agnes of Jesus told me she wanted me to become the sister of this future missionary.
St Therese says she found it impossible to describe her joy at acquiring this new little brother.

In May 1896, she was called again and asked to "take charge of the spiritual interests of a missionary who is to be ordained and leave very soon." Afraid that she could not pray as well for two priests as for one, she recalled that "the zeal of a Carmelite embraces the whole world" and accepted the honour of having two brothers.
I hope with the grace of God to be useful to more than two missionaries and I could not forget to pray for all without casting aside simple priests whose mission at times is as difficult to carry out as that of apostles preaching to the infidels.
So her heart expanded to pray for all priests, "missionary" and "simple", in addition to her two "brothers".

What of her well-known desire to be a priest?

In last weekend's Tablet letters section, a correspondent, Katharine Salmon, writes:
What sustained Therese was her absolute confidence in the love of God, and this confidence was reflected in the certainty that God had called her to Carmel, and to the ordained priesthood, something she could not live out in earthly life, but would in heaven. It seems surprising that since Thérèse was declared Doctor of the Church in 1997, only one of her biographers, Claude Langlois, has linked her vocation to love and her vocation to priesthood. In this year of the priest, it may be helpful for those reflecting on the renewal of ordained ministry to look anew at the priesthood Thérèse speaks about – a priesthood where there is room for women and men in all states of life. She has been known as the patron saint of women’s ordination for several decades. On the occasion of her relics’ visit to Britain, let those who believe in a renewed ordained priesthood for women and men ask Thérèse for a shower of heavenly roses.
The appropriation of St Therese for the cause of the ordination of women is not news to me but it is not justified. It is an exageration to suggest that the certainty of a vocation to the priesthood is what sustained Therese. It was love that sustained her, and she found all the "vocations" she felt summed up in love, to be love at the heart of the Church.

This is what St Therese writes about her feelings of vocation to the priesthood:
To be Your Spouse, to be a Carmelite, and by my union with You to be the Mother of souls, should not this suffice me? And yet it is not so. No doubt, these three privileges sum up my true vocation: Carmelite, Spouse, Mother, and yet I feel within me other vocations. I feel the vocation of the WARRIOR, THE PRIEST, THE APOSTLE, THE DOCTOR, THE MARTYR. Finally, I feel the need and the desire of carrying out the most heroic deeds for You, O Jesus. I feel within my soul the courage of the Crusader, the Papal Guard, and I would want to die on the field of battle in defence of the Church.

I feel in me the vocation of the PRIEST. With what love, O Jesus, I would carry You in my hands when, at my voice, You would come down from heaven. And with what love would I give You to souls! But alas! while desiring to be a Priest, I admire and envy the humiliy of St Francis of Assisi and I feel the vocation of imitating him in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood.
St Therese's use of the word "vocation" is one of analogy and expresses desire rather than an objective calling from God. She is very clear that her true vocation is to be a Carmelite, a Spouse, a Mother. All the other "vocations" are things that she desires but is certain that are not the will of God for her. Her heart is huge and has great desires, as every Christian heart should. But we cannot all be head, hands, feet, ear, mouth as St Paul reminds us. And St Therese finally says that her vocation, as regards the priesthood, is that of St Franics: to refuse it.

In this year of the Priesthood, in addition to praying to St Therese for all priests, "missionary" and "simple", we could ask her to intercede for all women, particularly those who are confused about the reasons why they cannot be priests, that they also may find their true vocations in love at the heart of the Church. This indeed would be "a shower of heavenly roses" as Katherine Salmon hopes will be granted through St Therese's prayers.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said re: St. Therese's true vocation to the Carmel. This world wide tour is so wonderful simply because she had wanted to be a missionary, and has ended up by being one in the most extraordinary way.

    I highly recommend pilgrims to take along a bit of extra cash, if available. At one of the events I attended frr her, there was a vendor with many hard-to-find books re: Therese. I was able to get several.

    There is also a book re: her correspondence between her and her priest-"brothers." Very edifying into this aspect of the saint.

    There is a two volume set of her general correspondence (vol 1 link is here for your UK readers. (there is also a vol. t)

    And this book is well worth a look.


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