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from issue no. 05 - 2003

The Popes and Little Teresa of the Child Jesus

All the popes of the twentieth century have been fascinated by the simple faith of the saint of Lisieux. Based on the absolute necessity of grace

by Giovanni Ricciardi

A picture of Saint Teresa of Lisieux

A picture of Saint Teresa of Lisieux

On 20 November 1887, when she was 15 years old, Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus met Pope Leo XIII during a pilgrimage organized by the diocese of Lisieux and pleaded with naïve daring for his permission to enter the Carmel convent earlier than the prescribed age. The Pope answered her in lapidary fashion: «Good. You will enter if God wants it». The old Pope could not then have imagined that the life of this girl would have marked the papacies of his successors to such an extent. All the popes of the twentieth century were touched, in one way or in another, by the “passage” of Teresa. First of all, Pius XI, who beatified her in 1923 and canonized her two years later, then nominating her patron saint of the missions in 1927. Teresa’s story is particularly interwoven with that of Pope Montini, who was baptised on the very day of the death of the Little Sister of Lisieux. But the first intuition of Teresa’s extraordinary nature was undoubtedly that of Pius X (1903-1914), the centenary of whose election occurs on 4 August.
Pius X: «The greatest
saint of modern times»
Only ten years had passed since Teresa’s death when Pius X received the gift of the French edition of Histoire d’une âme and, three years later, in 1910, the Italian translation of the saint’s autobiography. A translation that was, already then, in its second edition. Pius X had no hesitations about Teresa and for that reason speeded up the introduction of the cause for her beatification, which took place in 1914 and was one of the last acts of his papacy. But, already some years before, on meeting a missionary bishop who had given him a portrait of Teresa, the Pope remarked: «This is the greatest saint of the modern times». A judgement that might appear hazardous, not least because Teresa did not have then, and does not have still today, admirers only. The simplicity of her spiritual doctrine, all hinging simply on the absolute necessity of grace, made more than a few churchmen turn up their noses. In a climate of Jansenism-imbued Catholicism, a spirituality hinging entirely on trust and on docile abandonment to the mercy of God, seemed to challenge the rigor of a spiritual discipline centered on renunciation and on the sacrifice of self. The echo of this “suspicion” of Teresa’s teaching came to the ears of the Pope. On one occasion he answered one of her detractors with decision: «Her extreme simplicity is the most extraordinary thing in this soul and worthy of attention. Go back to your theology».
Among other things, Pius X was greatly impressed by a letter Teresa had written on 30 May 1889 to her cousin Marie Guérin who, for scruple’s sake, was abstaining from communion: «Jesus is there in the tabernacle just for you, for you alone, and burns with desire to enter your heart […] Communicate often, very often. That’s the only remedy if you want to get better». Excessive scruples in approaching the Eucharist was then a widespread attitude and Teresa’s reply seemed to the Pope encouragement to combat the attitude. And it is possible that the two decrees of Pius X, Sacra Tridentina Synodus on frequent communion, and Quam singulari on children’s communion, were influenced by the reading of Teresa’s writings.

Benedict XV: «Against the presumption of achieving a supernatural end by human means»
Pius X did not have the time to follow the progress of the cause for beatification. His successor, Benedict XV (1914-1922), gave further urging. On 14 August 1921 he proclaimed the Decree on the heroic virtues of little Teresa and, for the first time, a pope used the expression “spiritual childhood” in reference to the “doctrine” of the saint of Lisieux: «Spiritual childhood», said the Pope «is formed by trust in God and by blind abandonment into his hands […]. It is not difficult to identify the merits of this spiritual childhood both in what it excludes as in what it supposes. It excludes in fact the proud feeling of self; it excludes the presumption of achieving a supernatural end by human means; it excludes the fallacy of sufficing to oneself in the hour of danger and temptation. And, on the other hand, it supposes living faith in the existence of God; supposes practical homage to his power and mercy; it supposes trusting recourse to the providence of Him from whom we can obtain grace both to avoid every evil and achieve every good. […] We hope that the secret of the sanctity of Sister Teresa of the Child Jesus remains hidden to no one».
Pius XI

Pius XI

Pius XI: «The star
of my papacy»
More than any other pope, Pius XI (1922-1939) had, even before his election to the throne of Peter, a deep and lasting devotion to Teresa. While he was still apostolic nuncio to Warsaw, he always kept on his table the History of a soul, and he continued to do the same after he became archbishop of Milan. During his papacy Teresa was elevated, with great rapidity, to the honor of the altars. Beatified on 29 April 1923, canonized on 17 May 1925 in the course of the Holy Year, on 14 December 1297 she was proclaimed, together with Saint Francis Xavier, universal patron of the Catholic missions. Both her beatification and her canonization were the first of the papacy of Achille Ratti. And already on 11 February of 1923, in the speech made on the occasion of the approbation of the miracles necessary for beatification, he remarked: «Miracle of virtue in this great soul, to make us repeat in the words of the divine Poet: a “thing come from heaven to earth to display miracles” […]. Little Teresa has made Herself a word of God […]. Little Teresa of the Child Jesus wants to tell us that there is an easy way of sharing in all the greatest and most heroic works of apostolic zeal, through prayer». To the French pilgrims who had hastened to Rome for Teresa’s beatification, he said: «Here you are in the light of this Star – as We like to call her – whom the hand of God willed to make shine at the start of Our papacy, augury and promise of protection, of which We are enjoying the happy experience».
Pope Ratti later attributed special protection in crucial moments of his papacy to Teresa’s intercession. In 1927, during one of the harshest moments of the persecution against the Catholic Church in Mexico, he entrusted the country to Teresa’s protection: «When religious practice is re-established in Mexico,» he wrote to the bishops, «I desire that Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus be recognised as the mediatrix of religious peace in your country». He turned to her to implore the solution of the tough quarrel between the Holy See and the Fascist government in 1931 that brought Catholic Action to within a step of being suppressed in Italy: «My little Saint, see to it that for the feast of Our Lady everything is set straight». Differences were resolved on 15 August of that same year. Already at the end of the 1925 Holy Year, Pope Ratti had sent to Lisieux, under a photograph of himself, an eloquent expression: «Per intercessionem S. Theresiae ab Infante Iesu protrectricis nostrae singularis benedicat vos omnipotens et misericors Deus». And in 1937, to the end of the long sickness which had stricken him in the closing years of his papacy, he publicly thanked her «who has so effectively and so obviously come to the aid of the Supreme Pontiff and still seems willing to help him: Saint Teresa of Lisieux». He was unable to crown his desire of going in person to Lisieux in the last months of his life. On the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War the papacy passed into the hands of Pius XII (1939-1958), who knew well and esteemed the little saint.

Pius XII: «Let only the spiritual poverty of a sinning creature have effect with God»
«Daughter of an admirable Christian, Teresa learned at her father’s knee the treasures of indulgence and compassion that are concealed in the heart of the Lord! […] God is the Father whose arms are constantly outstretched to his children. Why not respond to this gesture? Why not cry out without cease to Him our immense anguish? We must heed Teresa’s words when she invites, both the most wretched and the most perfect, to let only radical weakness and the spiritual poverty of a sinning creature have effect with God». So Pope Pacelli, in a broadcast on 11 July 1954, on the occasion of the consecration of the Basilica of Lisieux, expressed the heart of the “path of spiritual childhood” indicated by Teresa. All his life he kept up a correspondence with the Carmel convent in Lisieux. The correspondence began in 1929, at the time when he was apostolic nuncio in Berlin, when he sent a letter of thanks to Lisieux on receiving the first German edition of the History of a soul. He was then several times instructed by Pius XI to visit Teresa’s Carmel convent to preside at certain special functions on his behalf. When he went to Buenos Aires in 1934 as papal legate to the International Eucharistic Congress, he took with him a relic of Teresa to whom he had entrusted his mission. Throughout his papacy he kept in contact by letter with Sister Agnes and Sister Celine, Teresa’s sisters, who still lived in the Carmel convent of Lisieux.

John XXIII: «Little Teresa takes us to the shore»


«Saint Teresa the Great (Teresa of Avila, ed), I love very much… but the Little one: she takes us to the shore…. One must preach her so very necessary doctrine». So John XXIII (1958-1963) said to a priest who had offered him a collection of portraits of Little Teresa. Angelo Roncalli went five times to Lisieux, mainly in the period of his nunciature in Paris, but also while he was still apostolic delegate in Bulgaria. As pope he dwelt at length on Teresa during the general audience of 16 October 1960. On that occasion he said: «Teresa of Lisieux was great for having known how to co-operate, in humility, in simplicity, in constant abnegation, in the enterprise and in the work of grace for the good of innumerable faithful”. On this point the Holy Father, wanting to give a suitable simile, was fond of remembering what he had often been in the way of observing in the port of Constantinople. “Large freighters arrived there which, however, given the shallows, couldn’t approach the docks. So alongside every large ship there was a boat which proceeded to the wharfs and which at first sight might have seemed superfluous, whereas it was vital since it performed the task of offloading the cargo to the shore».

Paul VI: «I was born to the Church on the day in which the Saint was born to heaven»
During an ad limina visit of the Bishop of Sées, the diocese in which Teresa was born, Pope Montini (1963-1978) said: «I was born to the Church on the day on which the Saint was born to heaven. That tells you just how special the links tying me to her are. My mother acquainted me with Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus whom she loved. I’ve read the Histoire d’une âme several times, the first time in my youth». Already in 1938 he was writing to the nuns of the Carmel convent of Lisieux saying he had been following «for a long time and with the liveliest interest the development of the Carmel convent of Lisieux». And added that he had «great devotion to Saint Teresa, a little relic of whom I keep on my work table».
These references should be enough to indicate the deep bond between Paul VI and Little Teresa. Several times as pope he spoke about the figure and doctrine of the saint of Lisieux. In 1973, on the centenary of the saint’s birth, he wrote a letter to Monsignor Badré, then Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, condensing into a few pages his thinking on Teresa. Realism and humility are the two concepts most expressly stressed by Pope Montini in regard to Teresa: «Teresa of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Countenance teaches us not to count on ourselves, whether it is a matter of virtue or limitedness, but on the merciful love of Christ, that is larger than our heart and associates us with the offering of his passion to the dynamism of his life». According to Paul VI the life of Teresa, who accepted the human and cultural limits of the cloister, teaches us that «realistic insertion into the Christian community, where one is called to live the present instant, seems to us a most highly desirable grace for our time». Teresa lived her personal path of sanctity in a milieu full of limits. Nevertheless «she did not wait, in order to begin to act, for an ideal way of life, for more perfect surroundings of co-existence, let us say rather that she contributed to changing them from within. Humility is the space of love. Her quest for the Absolute and the transcendence of her charity enabled her to overcome the obstacles, or rather to transfigure her limits».
Paul VI had already stressed the theme of humility in Teresa in an audience given on 29 December 1971: «Humility all the more required when the creature is something, because everything depends on God, and because the comparison between our every measure and the Infinite obliges us to bow our heads». This humility was not, however, cut off in Teresa from a “childhood full of trust and of abandonment”».
In a speech given on 16 February 1964, in the parish of Saint Pius X, the Pope clearly brought out how much Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus had practised and taught about the trust we must have in God’s bounty, abandoning ourselves completely to his merciful providence: «A very well-know modern writer ends one of his books with the statement: all is grace. But from whom does the phrase come? Not from the writer mentioned, because he too borrowed it — and says so — from another source. It is from Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus. She set it down on a page of her diary: “Tout est grâce”. Everything can resolve itself in grace. And even there the Carmelite saint did nothing but echo the splendid words of Saint Paul: “Diligentibus Deum omnia cooperantur in bonum”. All our life can resolve itself in good, if we love the Lord. And it is what the Supreme Pastor wishes to those who listen to him».

John Paul I: “With the greatest simplicity and homing in
on the essential”
Pope Luciani did not have the time, in the thirty-three days of his papacy, to talk of Teresa. He did so, however, on two important occasions while he was Patriarch of Venice: on 10 October 1973 he gave a conference for the centenary of Teresa’s birth, and particularly in the “letter” to the saint in the volume Illustrissimi. In it Albino Luciani says that he read the History of a soul for the first time when he was seventeen: «It was a stroke of lightning for me», he wrote. And he reveals the help received from Teresa when, as a young priest, he fell sick of tuberculosis and had to be taken to the sanatorium. «I was ashamed of feeling a bit frightened», Luciani recalled: «Teresa at twenty-three, till then healthy and full of vitality – I told myself – was inundated with joy and hope when she first felt the first haemorrhage in her mouth. And not only that, when the attack slackened, she got permission to carry through her fast on a diet of dry bread and water, and you’re tempted to start trembling? You’re a priest, pull yourself together, don’t be an idiot». In the 1973 conference, the future John Paul I stressed the depth of Teresa’s teaching: «She, being of acute intelligence and special gifts, saw very clearly into the things of God and she also expressed herself very clearly, that is with the greatest simplicity and homing in on the essential». Without seeking for experiences other than what the Christianity of her time had to offer her. As Father Mario Caprioli writes, she did not seek extraordinary experiences: «Confession at six years old, preparation for first communion in the family, pilgrimage – which were highly instructive for Teresa – the convent, that is religious life with vows, the rule, austerity» (M. Caprioli, The Popes of the XX century and Teresa of Lisieux, p. 349). «Today,» Luciani commented, «with the pretext of renewal, there is sometimes a tendency to empty all these things of their value. Teresa would not be in agreement, in my view.»

John Paul II:
Teresa of the Child Jesus Doctor of the Universal Church
In proclaiming Teresa of Lisieux Doctor of the Universal Church in 1997, the third woman to obtain the title after Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, John Paul II in fact took up the legacy of his predecessors.
The relevance of the action can be expressed in the words that Don Luigi Giussani addressed to the Pope in Saint Peter’s Square during the gathering of Church movements on 30 May 1998: «In answer to the despairing cry of Pastor Brandt in Ibsen’s play of that name (“Answer me, O God, in the hour death swallows me up: is not then the whole of a man’s will enough to achieve a single portion of salvation?”) comes the humble positiveness of Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus who wrote: “When I am charitable it is Jesus only who acts in me».

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