Today, September 30, is the 125th anniversary of the death and birth into eternal life of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, whom Pope St. Pius X called “the greatest saint of modern times.”
We mark her feast day each year on October 1, because the day of her transitus is also the day of St. Jerome’s death in 420, and he had a nearly 1,500-year head start to secure his fixed place on the Church’s liturgical calendar.
Both, however, are doctors of the Church: St. Jerome, the supremely well-educated classics scholar who used his enormous talents to translate the books of the Bible from their Greek and Hebrew originals into Latin; Therese, the precocious French Carmelite who never even attended high school, who died at 24, but whose teachings on spiritual childhood and “little way of trust and love” made the Christian pursuit of holiness practical for people of every age and state of life.
October 2022 marks the 25th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s declaring her a doctor of the Church. On that occasion, he noted that even though she was becoming the youngest of all (now 37) doctors of the Church, “her ardent spiritual journey shows such maturity and the insights of faith in her writings are so vast and profound that they deserve a place among the great spiritual masters.”
John Paul singled out how she identified that her vocation, and every vocation, was to be “love in the heart of the Church,” a truth she grasped and exemplified. The “disarming simplicity” of her “little way,” he underlined, helps us to perceive the essential “secret of all life,” which is the love of God believed in, received, lived, reciprocated and shared with others.
That open secret of the Christian life as a communion of love had, for her, its root and fruit in the awesome gift of what Jesus Himself called, in his apparitions to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the “Sacrament of Love,” His Eucharistic presence. As the Church in the United States enters more deeply into its three-year Eucharistic Revival, it’s fitting to focus on what St. Therese teaches about how to relate to Jesus in the Eucharist so that through participation in his Eucharistic self-giving, He can make us, like her, love in the very heart of the Mystical Body.
St. Therese’s Eucharistic love began very young, in the Eucharistic piety of her parents, Saints Louis and Zelie Martin, who were daily Mass-goers and frequent recipients of Holy Communion at a time in which, because of residue of the Jansenist heresy in France that excessively focused on human sinfulness and unworthiness to receive Communion, most Catholics, including daily Mass attendees and cloistered religious, received but a few times a year. The Martins would bring little Therese along with them to Mass each morning and her father would take her on afternoon walks, which would always climax in a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in some church or chapel.
She rejoiced to participate in Eucharistic processions and delighted to be able to throw rose petals before Jesus’ path. She would make 15-minute visits to the Blessed Sacrament on her own during recess at school and eagerly took part in Benediction.
Children at the time were able to make their Holy Communion only in the year in which they were 10 on January 1. Because St. Therese was born on January 2, so she needed to wait until she was 11. But after years of spiritual communions and intense longing, her day finally came on May 8, 1884.
She called it “the most wonderful day of my life, … that first kiss of Jesus in my heart — it was truly a kiss of love. I knew that I was loved and said, ‘I love you, and I give myself to you forever.’” When she wept with joy, some of her fellow First Communicants asked her if she was crying because her mom, having died seven years before, wasn’t present. “As if the absence of my mother could make me unhappy on the day of my First Communion!,” she later exclaimed with amazement. Thereafter, she would go to Mass daily and receive Holy Communion, like her father, even five days a week.
It was a brutal shock to her after she entered Carmel at 15 that the superior, influenced by Jansenism, would only allow the nuns to receive on a few set days a year. Therese considered it the hardest cross of her time in religious life. She prayed through St. Joseph for a change and in late 1890, Pope Leo XIII took such authority away from religious superiors and gave it to confessors; her confessor, however, intimidated by the superior, kept Holy Communion infrequent. The only respite came during the influence pandemic of 1891-92, when the confessor gave Therese “the unspeakable consolation of receiving Holy Communion every day,” a privilege lost once the pandemic abated and the superior was out of the infirmary.
For Therese, the question wasn’t simply one of human desire, but of divine.
“It is not to remain in a golden ciborium that [Jesus] comes to us each day from Heaven,” she declared. “It’s to find another Heaven, infinitely dearer to Him than the first: the Heaven of our soul, made to His image, the living temple of the adorable Trinity!”
As a 16-year-old, she wrote to her 19-year-old cousin, Marie Guerin, who because of scrupulosity was refraining from receiving Jesus regularly: “Dear little sister, receive Communion often, very often. … Jesus hasn’t placed this attraction in your soul for nothing! … It is impossible that a heart that rests only at the sight of the Tabernacle offends Jesus to the point of not being able to receive Him; what offends Him and what wounds His Heart is the lack of confidence!”
For her, Holy Communion was something for which there was no price too high to pay. In the throes of the tuberculosis that would end her life, she would still go down to the chapel, and forsake medication that was deemed to break the Eucharistic fast, on the days on which the nuns were permitted to receive. “There is not suffering too great to gain one Communion!,” she stated.
Therese left us a guide as to how she would prepare for Holy Communion. “I picture my soul as a piece of land and beg the Blessed Virgin to remove from it any rubbish that would prevent it from being free; then I ask her to set up a huge tent worthy of Heaven, adorning it with her own jewelry; finally, I invite all the angels and saints to come and conduct a magnificent concert there. It seems to me that when Jesus descends into my heart, He is content to find Himself so well received and I, too, am content.”
The year before she died, she wrote a beautiful poem entitled “My Wishes Before the Tabernacle,” in which she compared herself to the tabernacle key, the sanctuary lamp, the altar stone, the corporal, the monstrance, the paten for the host, the chalice, and the grapes and wheat that are the raw materials for the Eucharistic sacrifice.
The poem witnesses to the depth of her Eucharistic faith but also to her prayerful familiarity with these objects as Church history’s most famous sacristan.
She begged for faith like the tabernacle key, to open the place where the God of love resides and for the grace to burn like the sanctuary lamp to draw many souls to Christ’s Eucharistic love.
She asked for her soul to be a fitting place, like the altar stone and the Bethlehem stable, for Christ to rest, and for her heart to be like a beautiful corporal to receive him purely.
She petitioned to be like a priest’s paten to hold Him, like a monstrance to reveal Him, and like a chalice where His saving blood might flow anew.
She entreated to be a ripe grape crushed each day to unite her sufferings to Christ’s blood, and a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying so that she might be transformed into her Eucharistic spouse and with Him bear much fruit.
As we celebrate the quasquincentennial of St. Therese’s birth into eternal life, we ask her intercession to live the Eucharistic lessons she teaches us, so that receiving the food of everlasting life with love like hers, we might come to experience alongside her the joy of the eternal banquet.
Father Landry is Interim Executive Editor. firstname.lastname@example.org.