With the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI during the preparations for St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s 150th birthday, I cannot help but reflect on the spiritual connections shared between one of my favorite popes and my favorite saint, who both had their own weaknesses and flaws.
After all, Benedict decreed the beatification of Thérèse’s holy parents, Louis and Zélie Martin (19 October 2008 in Lisieux), and shared her missionary spirit in making Jesus known and loved. Though Thérèse never left the cloister and Benedict spent most of his life reading and writing as an academic, they managed to reach the “existential frontiers” of the longings of the human heart for meaning and purpose.
On 6 April 2011, then Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the life and teachings of Thérèse, the last Saint in his series of catecheses on the Lives of the Saints. He encouraged listeners to rediscover St. Thérèse’s autobiography The Story of a Soul, which he called “a marvellous story of Love, told with such authenticity, simplicity, and freshness that the reader cannot but be fascinated by it!”
What Benedict XVI said of Thérèse’s love story, we can also say of his: “[T]his Love has a Face, it has a Name, it is Jesus! The Saint speaks continuously of Jesus.” The majority of Benedict’s numerous published works can be summed up as follows: Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Today, 150 years after Thérèse’s birth, her life and doctrine of the “Little Way” continues to bring a spirit of youthful exuberance that lifts up the hearts of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
I recall with awe and reverence listening to a non-Christian and self-identified “pagan” classmate reflect on her experience of reading Thérèse for the first time. This classmate described feeling moved and drawn to the possibility of God in a way she had never experienced before. Thérèse’s simple and childlike faith was disarming because it revealed the disarming face of Jesus who came to us as a child so that we would never be afraid to approach him.
Though Benedict died at the age of 95, and though he was one of the most intellectually gifted and brilliant minds of our times, he was no less simple and childlike in his faith, hope, and love. In fact, those who disagreed with him have nevertheless attested that the Church’s “Rottweiler” or “German Shepherd” turned out to be quiet, gracious, and holy.
Finally, Thérèse’s holy death probably prepared Benedict for his own death.
Benedict wrote: “Thérèse died on the evening of 30 September 1897, saying the simple words, ‘My God, I love you!’, looking at the Crucifix she held tightly in her hands.”
On the morning of 31 December 2022, Benedict XVI’s last words were: “Lord, I love you.”
As we celebrate Thérèse’s birth and pray for Benedict’s eternal rest in the Lord, we ask for the grace to profess our love for Jesus, plainly and simply, in our words and deeds until we breathe our last.
Quang D. Tran, S.J.
Father Tran is a Jesuit priest of the Central Southern Province. He is originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, and is currently a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Boston College. Last year he guided our St. Elizabeth of the Trinity and St. John of the Cross novenas.
We always refer to the website of the Archives of the Carmel of Lisieux for the vast majority of our quotes concerning Saint Thérèse, Saint Zélie, and Saint Louis Martin, but if you would like to purchase any of the English translations that appear on the Archives website, please visit the website of our Discalced Carmelite friars at ICS Publications.
Featured image: A lighted Paschal Candle stands before a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, framed by racks of lighted votive candles to its right and left. The pope’s image was exposed for the veneration of the faithful in Westminster Cathedral, London after his death was announced on 31 December 2022. Image credit: © Mazur/cbcew.org.uk via Flickr (Some rights reserved)