Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The story of two souls: Francis of Assisi and Therese of Lisieux

“St Therese unites simplicity with love, to do with love and for love the small tasks of each day, to make gestures of tenderness. Tenderness. How we forget this virtue!”

The world’s media made much of the fact that when Pope Francis boarded the plane to Brazil and World Youth Day, he carried his own briefcase. It contained a well-read, somewhat dog-eared copy of a life of St Therese of Lisieux, to whom he has long had a special devotion.

The people of Buenos Aires are very familiar with the ‘special relationship’ between their former Cardinal Bergoglio and the 24 year-old Carmelite nun who died on 30 September 1897. Modelling his life on her ‘Little Way’, he also hung a picture of St Therese in his private apartment. During his impromptu press conference on the return flight to Rome, the Pope explained: “When I have a problem, I entrust it to her.  I don’t ask her to resolve it, but to take it into her hands and help me; almost always, I receive a rose as a sign.” He then described an occasion when, having made an important decision about a difficult question, he consigned the results to the care of St Therese.  Not long afterwards, an unknown woman arrived at the cathedral and presented him with three white roses, something he interpreted as a sign that the saint was ‘on the job’.

As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio’s visits to Rome always included a daily early morning visit to the Franciscan church close to the Vatican. There, before the statue of St Therese, he would pray and place his day under her guidance. “Do not be afraid to depend solely on the tenderness of God as St Therese of Lisieux did, who, for this reason, is a beloved daughter of the Blessed Mother and a great missionary saint”, he recently declared.

Therese entered the Lisieux Carmel in 1888, at the age of 15. When she died nine years later, her association with the missions was such that, in 1926, Pope Pius XI declared her to be the Patroness of the Indigenous Clergy and of the Society of St Peter the Apostle (SPA). The following year, he made her Patroness of the Missions, “equal to St. Francis Xavier, with all the rights and privileges that went with this title.”

When Therese was 9 years old, she joined the Holy Childhood (Mission Together) on 12 January 1882. How much of her concern for the Church’s missions and missionaries arose from her membership of the Society which, today, still cherishes its motto of ‘children helping children’? How was it that a young nun, who, in one sense, achieved nothing remarkable, could also represent a milestone in the history of the Church?

Pope Francis suggested an answer: “St Therese writes, ‘Charity gave me the key to my vocation. I understood that if the Church had a body, composed of different members, it wouldn't lack the most necessary, the most noble of all of them. I understood that the Church had a heart and that heart was beating with love.’"

Love is vital in today’s secular and frequently violent society: “Love is getting closer to others, listening to others, discovering the presence of God in others, to have sympathy, that is, to have sincere feelings towards others. Therese did this her entire life without drawing attention [to herself]. For this reason, she could exclaim, ‘Jesus, my love! At the end I have found my vocation. My vocation is love.’"

St Francis of Assisi and St Therese shared a common passion for simplicity and littleness in their relationship with God and those around them. These same two qualities characterise the pontificate of Pope Francis.  “Simplicity is a gift St Therese cultivated during her life and considered fundamental to her spiritual legacy. Simplicity has a delightful aspect to it. It has to do with going unnoticed, making oneself little in the eyes of others, not wanting to take pride in oneself, not wanting to draw attention [to oneself]. The essence, the heart of simplicity is to know one's littleness before God.”

It is that consciousness of his ‘littleness’ before God which gives the Jesuit Pope the freedom to be himself before the world. He does not put on an act when he kisses babies, embraces the disabled, cracks a joke or speaks of God in words which are so simple and heartfelt that nobody doubts his sincerity. With Pope Francis, ‘what you see is what you get’. His authenticity before the world merely expresses his openness, simplicity and honesty before God.

“Simple souls do not need to use complicated ways in life: they show themselves as they are, and this is their charm and their virtue. The simple soul has one concern: to please God. God is the priority in the life of the simple soul… The simple soul is like a child in the hands of God” – and therein lies the crux of the matter. Pope Francis, in search of an ever simpler and humbler relationship with God is also simple and humble in his relationship with others. He cannot be complicated and entangled in bureaucratic clutter because it would merely distract him from all that is truly important, namely the overwhelming drive to ‘find God in all things’.

Within the space of a few months, the Jesuit who is inspired by St Ignatius Loyola, St Francis of Assisi and St Therese of Lisieux, has truly shown himself to be the ‘man for others’ which is the goal of every Jesuit. In their own unique ways, the three saints were all missionaries and so Pope Francis is also called to be ‘the Pope of mission’. “People today certainly need words, but most of all they need us to bear witness to the mercy and tenderness of the Lord, which warms the heart, rekindles hope, and attracts people towards the good.”

Yet the vocation to be missionary in outlook and lifestyle is not pursued in isolation. At his WYD Mass for the young people assembled on Copacabana Beach, the Pope proclaimed the message he had already taught through his actions. "Evangelizing means bearing personal witness to the love of God: it is overcoming our selfishness. It is serving by bending down to wash the feet of our brethren, as Jesus did."

As he told a gathering of seminarians and religious novices: "Jesus is not an isolated missionary, does not want to fulfil his mission alone... he immediately forms a community of disciples, which is a missionary community. The purpose is not to socialize, to spend time together. No, the purpose is to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and this is urgent! There is no time to waste in small talk, no need to wait for the consent of all – there is need only of going out and proclaiming."

Pope Francis beautifully expressed his life and mission in saying, “We have in our hands a way to become humble, to show ourselves needful before God and put our needs in his hands - just like Therese - and this makes us better brothers [and sisters] towards others.”

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