St. Thérèse and the Priesthood
By Fr. Wolfgang Seitz, ORC
Rarely has anyone been more profoundly devoted to the ordained priesthood than St. Thérèse of the Infant Jesus. Rarely has a soul dedicated one’s life more fervently to the sanctification and salvation of priests through prayer and penance. Carefully reading and pondering her writings, one gets the impression that Divine Providence had destined her above all to be an “apostle of the apostles”, as she fittingly called herself. Pope Pius XI confirmed her conviction by declaring her Patron of Missionaries in 1927, only two years after her canonization. The same Pope had already assigned her in 1926 as the patroness of the Pontifical Society of St. Peter the Apostle, which still today is dedicated to the formation of clergy. Her ardent love and fervor for priests is a great inspiration for all who are committed to pray for priests.
1. Thirst for Souls – Her mission in the Church began at the age of fourteen when, at the end of a Sunday Mass, a picture of Our Lord on the Cross had slipped half out of her prayer book, showing one divine hand pierced and bleeding. The sight of Our Lord’s bleeding hand caused her great sorrow. She wrote, “My heart was torn with grief to see that Precious Blood had fallen to the ground, and no one was caring to treasure It as It fell.” It was a decisive moment in her life. Deeply marked by this “waste” of divine grace, she resolved to spend the rest of her life in spirit at the foot of the Cross, [to] receive the Divine Dew of Salvation and pour it forth upon souls. “From that day the cry of my dying Savior—’I thirst!’—sounded incessantly in my heart, and kindled therein a burning zeal hitherto unknown to me. My one desire was to give my Beloved to drink; I felt myself consumed with thirst for souls, and I longed at any cost to snatch sinners from the everlasting flames of hell.” (Story of a Soul, chapter V; hereafter Story). Soon thereafter, while offering the merits of Our Lord with all the strength of her being for the salvation of the soul of the notorious criminal, Pranzini, she asked God for a sign, a confirmation that this desire came truly from God. Her request was marvelously granted; just moments before his execution Pranzini seized the crucifix offered him by a priest and kissed it three times.
2. “Apostle of the Apostles” – Up to this point the thought of praying for priests never came to Thérèse’s mind, because the souls of priests “seemed pure as crystal” to her. Her view changed when she participated in 1887 in a pilgrimage to Rome—about 75 of the pilgrims were priests. Living side by side with so many priests for a month it struck her deeply, that “even though the sublime dignity of Priesthood raises them higher than the Angels, they are still but weak and imperfect men.” Thus, she realized that even the good and holy priests whom Christ calls “salt of the earth” are in need of much prayer. And if “holy” priests need much prayer, “what must we think of the lukewarm? Has not Our Lord said: ‘If the salt loses its savor with what can it be salted?'” (Matt 5:13)” (Story,VI).
Only very intense prayer and sacrifice on behalf of them can convert tepid priests back to their first love for Christ. Priests who are called to serve the people of God and must thereby also deal with many other affairs, such as administration, participating in social events and the like, remain immersed in the world. They never lose their human frailty, but remain subject to all kinds of temptations and trials.
The Little Flower understood now clearly as never before that the main purpose of the reformed Carmelites was “to preserve the salt of the earth.” Addressing Mother Superior she writes, “We offer our prayers and sacrifices for the apostles of the Lord; we ourselves ought to be their apostles, while they, by word and example, are preaching the Gospel to our brethren. Have we not a glorious mission to fulfill?” (Story, V).
After entering Carmel, her desire to pray and offer herself for the salvation of souls, especially priests, was at a steady increase, which made her share it with others. In 1889, at the age of sixteen, she wrote to her sister Céline several letters to win her for this mission:
“…Let us be apostles … let us save especially the souls of priests; these souls should be more transparent than crystal … Alas, there are many bad priests, priests who are not holy enough. … Let us pray, let us suffer for them, and, on the last day, Jesus will be grateful. We shall give Him souls! Céline, do you understand the cry of my soul? (Letters, 94). Ah! Céline, I feel that Jesus is asking both of us to quench His thirst by giving Him souls, the souls of priests especially. I feel that Jesus wills that I say this to you, for our mission is to forget ourselves and to reduce ourselves to nothing. … We are so insignificant … and yet Jesus wills that the salvation of souls depends on the sacrifices of our love. He is begging souls from us!” (LT 96).
On the eve of New Year’s 1889, she wrote, “Céline, if you wish, let us convert souls; this year, we must form many priests who love Jesus! And who handle Him with the same tenderness with which Mary handled Him in His cradle!” (LT 101).
At the eve of her final profession on September 8, 1890, she made her mission part of her religious commitment: “In the solemn examination before my profession I declared—as was customary—the reason of my entry into the Carmel: ‘I have come to save souls, and especially to pray for Priests.”” (Story, VII). In spite of her young age, she was not naïve or sentimental but was fully aware of the price to be paid, stating, “One cannot attain the end without adopting the means, and Our Lord made me understand that it was by the Cross He would give me souls” (Story, VII).
In 1891 she wrote to Céline about Hyacinth Loyson, a former provincial of Carmelites who apostatized from the church which caused great scandal throughout France. For her he was “more culpable than any other sinner ever was who was converted” (LT 129). But she also was convinced that “confidence works miracles,” and that “it is not our merits but those of our Spouse that we offer to our Father who is in Heaven.” Besides, she kept great respect in spite of his sinfulness; while the public called him “renegade monk,” she called him “our brother, a son of the Blessed Virgin” (LT 129). While St. Thérèse had already prayed for him most of her religious life, on August 19, 1897, the feast of St. Hyacinth, she offered her last Holy Communion for his salvation. It is known that Loyson converted in 1912, fourteen years later, on his deathbed.
3. Priestly Heart – She herself had an immense desire to be a missionary priest. Though she could not actually become a priest, she had nevertheless a “priestly” heart: “I feel the vocation of a Priest! With what love, my Jesus, would I bear You in my hands, when my words brought You down from Heaven! With what love would I give You to souls! … I would travel to every land to preach Your name. … One mission alone would not satisfy my longings. I would spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth, even to the most distant isles. I would be a missionary, not for a few years only, but, were it possible, from the beginning of the world until the consummation of time” (Story, XI).
It was clear that she could not be ordained a priest. Driven by her seemingly endless desire to work for the Church, she finally found her even more sublime vocation which embraces and nurtures all other vocations in the Church: “In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be LOVE!” She considered her vocation “higher than that of the spoken word [being a missionary].” She wrote to her sister Céline: “It is for us by prayer to train workers [priests] who will spread the glad tidings of the Gospel and who will save countless souls—the souls to whom we shall be the spiritual Mothers. What, then, have we to envy in the Priests of the Lord?” (LT 135).
4. Spiritual Adoption of Priests – Since childhood Thérèse had the longing to have a “priest brother” (Story, XI). Her physical brothers had all passed away in young age and thus she regretted being deprived of the joy of “seeing them at the Altar.” But God, Who answers the fervent desires of a pure soul, went even beyond her dream and gave her two priest brothers: Fr. Belliere and Fr. Roulland, missionary priests, who had turned to the Carmelite convent asking for prayers. Mother Superior chose St. Thérèse as their spiritual mother. Thus began a new chapter in her ecclesial mission which filled her with overwhelming joy and gratitude. Affectionately she wrote to Fr. Belliere, “My gratitude is not less great than yours to Our Lord, who has given me a little brother whom He destines to become His priest and His apostle. …It is only when you get to Heaven that you’ll know how dear you are to me” (LT 220).
For Thérèse the two adoptees were her “brothers,” for whom she felt responsible and who now occupied an important place in her life. “Fully aware of my obligations, I set to work, and strove to redouble my fervor. … Undoubtedly, it is by prayer and sacrifice that we can help our missionaries” (Soul, XI). To Fr. Roulland she wrote that she believed that God wanted her and created her for the sake of being his sister” (LT 193). To be assigned as “sister” to her brother priests was not simply a coincidence or her own choice. Rather, it was the will of God from all eternity, that she, by her prayers and sacrifices, would, so to say, “pump” life and grace into the lives and mission of priests. As St Augustine states, “Everything good that is done in the Church, even by the Pontiffs, is done by the secret action of prayerful souls spread throughout the world.” At the end of her short life, she assured her “brothers,” that she would not forget them,
“I shall be more useful to you in heaven than on earth. …I will thank the Lord for giving me the means of helping you more effectively in your apostolic works. I really count on not remaining inactive in Heaven. My desire is to work still for the Church and for souls. … Are not the angels continually occupied with us without their ever ceasing to see the divine Face? … Why would Jesus not allow me to imitate them?” (LT 254).
Conclusion – If the Church would ever declare a saint to be the Patron of Spiritual Motherhood for Priests, after Our Lady no one would more fittingly deserve this title than St. Thérèse of the Infant Jesus. In Heaven we have a model and most powerful collaborator in our vocation to be spiritual mothers, sisters or brothers in the Crusade for Priests. As she promised, in Heaven she is even more actively working for the sanctification of priests as she was while living on earth. She most certainly desires to unite all her efforts from heaven to ours for the good of the priesthood. Let us often invoke her and follow her example, so that—in the love of Jesus Christ and His Mother—may we grow ever more in our sublime vocation of being “apostles of the apostles” for the salvation of souls. St. Thérèse, help us and pray for us!