Pope: Thérèse of Lisieux teaches us love and trust in God’s mercy

“It is confidence and nothing but confidence that must lead us to love.”

It was these words, written in September 1896 by Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, which inspired the title of Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation, published today.

Words, he affirms, that “sum up the genius of her spirituality and would suffice to justify the fact that she has been named a Doctor of the Church” (2).

The saint’s legacy as “spiritual treasure”

Francis explains his decision to publish the Exhortation on 15th October, and not on a date linked to the life of the Saint.

The reason, he says, is that he wants the message to “transcend those celebrations and be taken up as part of the spiritual treasury of the Church” (4). The date of the publication falls on the memory of St Teresa of Ávila to mark St Thérèse as the “mature fruit” of the spirituality of the great Spanish saint.

Recognition from the Popes

Pope Francis retraces the steps by which the Popes came to recognise the extraordinary value of Thérèse’s spiritual witness.

Beginning with Pope Leo XIII, who allowed her to enter the convent at the age of 15, he moves on to Pius XI, who proclaimed her a saint in 1925 and in 1927 patron saint of missions. From there, he considers Saint John Paul II, who declared her a Doctor of the Church in 1997. “Finally,” recalls Francis, “in 2015, I had the joy of canonizing her parents, Louis and Zelie, during the Synod on the Family.  More recently, I devoted one of my weekly General Audience talks to her” (6).

A missionary soul’s love for Jesus

In her cell, the Saint from Lisieux wrote: “Jesus is my one love” (8). Analysing her spiritual experience, the Pope observes that her encounter with Jesus “summoned her to the mission”, so much so that she did not conceive “her consecration to God apart from the pursuit of the good of her brothers and sisters.”.

She had entered Carmel, in fact, “to save souls” (9). Teresina expressed her missionary spirit in this way: “I feel that the more the fire of love burns within my heart (…) the more also the souls who will approach me (poor little piece of iron, useless if I withdraw from the divine furnace), the more these souls will run swiftly in the odour of the ointments of their Beloved, for a soul that is burning with love cannot remain inactive” (12).

The way of trust and love

Pope Francis then goes to the heart of Thérèse’s spirituality, that ‘little way’ also known as the way of spiritual childhood.

The saint wrote: “the elevator which must raise me to heaven is your arms, O Jesus!  And for this, I had no need to grow up, but rather I had to remain little and become this more and more” (16).

What counts for her is God’s action, grace, not personal merit, because it is the Lord who sanctifies. The Pope writes: “It is most fitting, then, that we should place heartfelt trust not in ourselves but in the infinite mercy of a God who loves us unconditionally and has already given us everything in the Cross of Jesus Christ. For this reason, Therese never uses the expression – common enough in her day – “I will become a saint.” (20).

Abandonment into the hands of a Father

In our lives, where, says Francis, we are often “assailed by fears, the desire for human security, the need to have everything under control ” (23), the trust and therefore the abandonment in God that Therese promotes “sets us free from obsessive calculations, constant worry about the future and fears that take away our peace.”

“If we are in the hands of a Father who loves us without limits,” she continues, ” this will be the case come what may; we will be able to move beyond whatever may happen to us and, in one way or another, his plan of love and fullness will come to fulfilment in our lives” (24).

The ”trial against the faith” and trust in mercy

The spiritual life of the young Carmelite was not without trials and struggles.

In the last period of her life, in particular, she experienced the great “trial against the faith” (25). At that time atheism was greatly on the rise, and she “felt herself a sister to atheists” (26), often praying for them.

She believed in God’s infinite mercy and in Jesus’ ultimate victory over evil: her trust obtained the grace of conversion on the gallows of a multiple murderer.

Everything in God is love, even Justice. “This is one of the loftiest insights of Thérèse,” says the Pope, “one of her major contributions to the entire People of God.  In an extraordinary way, she probed the depths of divine mercy, and drew from them the light of her limitless hope.” (27).

The greatest charity in the greatest simplicity

St Therese wants to “gladden” the Lord, she wants to match Jesus’ love. “She possessed complete certainty that Jesus loved her and knew her personally at the time of his Passion,” writes Pope Francis, “he contemplated the love of Jesus for all humanity and for each individual, as if he or she were the only one in the world ” (33).

He goes on to say: “Thérèse practised charity in littleness, in the simplest things of daily life, and she did so in the company of the Virgin Mary, from whom she learned that “to love is to give everything. It’s to give oneself” (36).

Love in the heart of the Church

From St Teresa of Ávila, we read in the Exhortation, Thérèse inherited ” a great love for the Church and was able to plumb the depths of this mystery ” (38).

She writes in Story of a Soul: ” I understood that the Church had a Heart, and that this Heart was burning with love.  I understood it was love alone that made the Church’s members act “. And then: “Yes, I have found my place in the Church: in the Heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!” (39).

Pope Francis comments: “This heart was not that of a triumphalistic Church, but of a loving, humble and merciful Church ” (40).

He adds: “This discovery of the heart of the Church is also a great source of light for us today.  It preserves us from being scandalized by the limitations and weaknesses of the ecclesiastical institution with its shadows and sins, and enables us to enter into the Church’s “heart burning with love”, which burst into flame at Pentecost thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (41).

Total gift

The interior trials experienced by St Thérèse, which at times pushed her to the point of asking herself “if heaven really existed” (42), led the saint to “to pass from a fervent desire for heaven to a constant, burning desire for the good of all ” (43), and to the resolution to continue her mission even after death.

“In this way,” we read in the Exhortation,” she arrived at her ultimate personal synthesis of the Gospel, one that began with complete trust and ended in total abandonment for the sake of others.” (44).

“It is trust,” writes the Pope, “that brings us to love and thus sets us free from fear.  It is trust that helps us to stop looking to ourselves and enables us to put into God’s hands what he alone can accomplish. Doing so provides us with an immense source of love and energy for seeking the good of our brothers and sisters.” (45).

In the end, only love counts

In the last chapter, the Pontiff explains that this Apostolic Exhortation is an opportunity to recall Evangelii gaudium’s message that in a missionary Church preaching “has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary ” (47).

“In the end,” the Pope writes, “only love counts” (48). For Francis “the specific contribution that Thérèse offers us as a saint and a Doctor of the Church … consists in leading us to what is central, essential and indispensable.” (49).

The Pope turns to theologians, moralists, and scholars of spirituality, and says: ” we need constantly to appropriate this insight of Thérèse and to draw from it consequences both theoretical and practical, doctrinal and pastoral, personal and communal.  We need boldness and interior freedom to do so.” (50).

The relevance of the “little way”

Bringing the Exhortation to an end, the Pope recalls the main aspects of Thérèse’s “little way” and their relevance.

In a time marked by focus on one’s own interests, individualism and obsession with power, she shows us the beauty of making life a gift, indicates the value of simplicity and littleness and the absolute primacy of love, overcoming “a legalistic or moralistic mindset that would fill the Christian life with rules and regulations, and cause the joy of the Gospel to grow cold.” (52).

The Exhortation closes with a short prayer in which, among other things, the Pope prays: “Help us to be, like yourself, ever confident in God’s immense love for us, so that we may imitate each day your “little way” of holiness.” (53).