Catherine and Theresa speak to the priests
Nearly half a millennium (500 year) separates the death of Catherine Benincasa of Siena (1380), from the birth of Theresa Martin of Lisieux (1873). They are divided by two countries, two languages, and two cultures. They are also distinguished by two different experiences of God and different forms of ecclesial life.
Nevertheless they are united, almost identified here, because of a common, essential characteristic: their burning love for Jesus and their sincere passion for the priests of Christ.
One fine morning, says her first biographer, Raimondo da Capua, Catherine, still a girl, while going to the church of San Domenico, clearly saw above the temple the image of the Lord Jesus. It was a radical experience, the beginning of an unquenchable relationship with Him. The culmination was the mystical wedding and the sign of the stigmata in her body. Tirelessly, in her words and writings, Catherine comes back to Jesus. There is hardly a letter that does not begin with the words "Sweet Jesus, Jesus love", or "in the name of Jesus Christ who was crucified for us", with a moving evocation of the blood shed, of the Saviour’s humanity and martyred body. It is a constant reference, profoundly theological and not just emotional or sentimental.
As for Theresa, those who read the various texts, above all the autobiographical manuscripts, notice the dominating presence of the persona of Jesus from her early years. The reference is to the Child Jesus to whom Theresa wants to be pleasant, like a ball in his little hands, and who wants to resemble Him in his virtues of smallness and humility. She later referred to her master, Lord and king. In a crucial moment of her life, faced with the long, serious illness of her father and her own illness and interior darkness, it is Holy Face of Jesus, bleeding and distorted like a worm on the ground, that impresses the young Carmelite. The consecration as victim of merciful love is the culminating point.
As a result of this fundamental love for Christ, the two mystics encounter one another in a strong and profound love for the priests of Christ.
Those who study the history of the Church know just which and just how many challenges faced the life and ministry of priests in the 14th century. The situation of the clergy, above all moral and spiritual, was not the last of the preoccupations of the Church. In her zeal for the "Ship of Christ", it is not surprising that Catherine turned her thoughts to the priests. It is not surprising that many of the latter became "Catherinites", seeking in the circle of her disciples to reform their lives, perseverance or spiritual support. I have observed that out of the hundred of Catherine’s letters, many are written to a priests, to inculcate the dignity of the priesthood. But of this dignity is in the "Dialogue" written by Catherine with more profundity, in the long chapter entitled "The Mystical Body of the Church" and the priestly ministry.
She does not provide "modern" arguments, with precise and well defined schemes; she writes as a woman with mystical inspiration, abounding in theological and spiritual doctrine, where ideas and concepts overlap and are repeated tirelessly in order to make her thoughts clear In a simple homily we can only mention a few of Catherine’s ideas.
For her, the priesthood has its own dignity, or better yet, an unmistakable excellence. "The ministers are very specially loved by me – as God the Father says – my anointed ones, and they have not buried the treasure I have placed in their hands" (p. 344). This excellence derives from the ministry they give. A ministry as a Bridge: for Catherine, Jesus is by definition the Bridge linking them to the Father; the priest facilitates access to this Bridge, and, when faithful, becomes a bridge himself, although in a subordinate way.
- Their service is also to the Mystical Body (Catherine often refers to the Mystical Body of the Clergy).
- Ministry of the Sun: Jesus is the Sun closely united with the Sun that is God; the priest leads all men to this Sun while himself becoming a reflection of this Sole when he lives in coherence with his priesthood; in this context the priestly service is to the Person of Jesus but is in a special way to the Eucharistic Sun.
- Ministry to the most precious Blood shed on the cross in the Passion, the high price of redemption;
- Ministry to grace and the dispensation of the infinite mercy with which God takes care of man.
- Ministry to the truth present in the Scriptures and dispensed daily by means of the Church, through the ministers of Jesus.
- Finally, ministry to Providence, understood in the broadest and most profound sense expressed by Catherine, in other words of the Father’s loving and salvific plan to save man, despite his sins, by the merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this multiple ministry, Catherine sees the eminent greatness of the priesthood. Its concrete fidelity and coherence are the way of giving value to the priesthood. Catherine repeats that the faithful priests "given to you out of love", "as the effect of love and the hunger of souls", "are true gardeners who with care and holy love remove the thorns of mortal sin and plant the fragrant plant of charity" (p. 333). The unfaithful reduce themselves to a "miserable" condition.
Theresa Martin, the humble and clairvoyant Carmelite from Lisieux, observed the fine and luminous figures of priests whom God placed on her path during her short lifetime. This made her suffer all the more when around her she saw less suitable or less faithful priests. During the pilgrimage that brought her to Rome in 1887 – as she tells in her autobiographical manuscript – she had a unique experience, the very close contact with priests. She tells how she suffered in seeing priests, who were not deviated or sinners, but just tedious and a little frivolous. She wrote in L'Histoire d'une âme: "I discovered my vocation [that of praying for priests] in Italy". This is one of the reasons why, on the register of her entry to Carmel, some months later, she wrote: "I have become a Carmelite to pray and to make sacrifices for the priests and their sanctification". She did so throughout her years as a Carmelite. In the last year of her life, Providence entrusted to her prayers and spiritual concern two priests whom she considered as brothers, two missionaries, Fr. Roulland and Fr. Bellière.
This experience, given great importance in L’Histoire d'une âme, consoled her for not having had a brother who was a priest. Up to the eve of her death in 1897 she sent 17 letters (six to Fr. Roulland and eleven to Fr. Bellière, whom Theresa had only known as a seminarian). God willed that one of these "brother priests", Fr. Roulland, was a successful priest, happy in the priesthood, coherent with his vocation, while the other, Fr. Bellière, was a restless seminarian and after Theresa’s death, a priest in crisis, very unhappy in carrying out his ministry (this already emerged in Theresa’s first letter). Theresa tried to show the grandeur of the vocation and the ideal to Fr. Roulland, before and a few months after his ordination, and to Bellière while he prepared for the priesthood.
The text where Theresa best shows her ideas on the priesthood is in the letter to Sister Marie du Sacré-Coeur (Ms C), in which she explains the reasons for the priestly vocation:
"With that love, oh Jesus, I will bear to you with my hands so that when I call you will descend from Heaven. With that love I will give you to souls." But she adds: "I admire and envy the humility of Saint-Francis (...) in refusing the sublime dignity of the Priesthood." We can certainly think that she found the two poles of the dignity of the priesthood: celebrating the Eucharist and saving souls.
In her letters we can immediately find two dimensions: celebrating the Eucharist, as being the privilege and the centre of the vocation to the priesthood, and unlimited devotion to saving souls. I know that many of our contemporaries find the latter expression outdated and reject it, but it appears in the Vatican II texts (Dei Verbum, Christus Dominus 31, 32, 34, 35) and the Code of Canon Law states that salus animarum must always be the suprema lex in the Church (can. 1752).
She confesses to Fr. Roulland that she feels: "quite unworthy to be associated specially with one of missionaries of our Adorable Jesus", but "happy to work with you for the salvation of souls." And she adds: "This is the reason why I became a Carmelite" (Letter 189, 23.06.1896). She calls this the "links of the apostolate" formed "for all eternity". She writes with conviction: "We shall continue our apostolate together [even beyond death]" (Letter 193, 30.07.1896).
She expresses the wish to Fr. Roulland that "an abundant harvest of souls will be reaped and offered by you to the Lord" (Letter 201). She writes to Bellière: "By suffering you save souls. Let us work together for the salvation of souls" (Letter 221, 26.12.1896).
And in other correspondence she writes: «United in Him [in Christ] our souls may save many others" (Bellière, Letter 220, 24.03.1897).
When she was dying she wrote to Bellière (letter 226, 09.05.1897) that "the divine Heart is made sadder by a thousand small faults of His friends", the priests, "than by sins, though serious, committed by worldly persons." In the same letter she invites her correspondent not to become sad in the contemplation of his faults but to go outwards in confidence and love. This is her advice addressed to all priests. In her very last letter to Bellière, she wishes that God "may give us the grace to love and to save souls for Him."
In such different but equally dramatic periods for the Church, in two periods of the history of the Church, two great saints, Catherine and Theresa, knew how to speak to priests to incite them to live up to their vocation. On the Jubilee of the Clergy we heed their voice. We discover the freshness and relevance of their message. We thank the Lord who has opened this spring to quench our thirst.