In a recent web exclusive column published in First Things magazine’s online edition, scholar and author George Weigel recounted a conversation with Pope Benedict XVI in September 1997. At that moment, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Weigel recalls that he asked Ratzinger this point-blank question: “Why is Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church?” We are grateful to First Things for their permission to publish excerpts of Benedict’s magisterial reply and encourage our readers to visit First Things and read the entire article.
We have had distinct forms of Doctors of the Church, even before Anthony of Padua. […] We have Teresa of Avila with her mystical experiences and her interpretations of the presence of God in mystical experience. We have Catherine of Siena with an experiential theology. And now we have Thérèse of Lisieux, who [created] in a different…way a theology of experience.
It is important […] in this time, with its extremely action-oriented approach, to teach that to be a saint is not necessarily a matter of great actions, but of letting the Lord work in us.
This is also interesting for the ecumenical dialogue. Luther’s doctrine of justification was provoked by his difficulty in understanding himself justified and redeemed through the complex structures of the medieval Church. Grace did not arrive in his soul and we have to understand the explosion of ‘sola fide’ in this context: that he discovered finally that he had only to give fiducia, confidence, to the Lord, to give myself into the hands of the Lord—and I am redeemed. I think in a very Catholic way this returned in Thérèse of Lisieux: You don’t have to make great things. I am poor, spiritually and materially; and to give myself into the hands of Jesus is sufficient. […]
The other concept is that from the cloister, far from the world, one can do much for the world. Communion with Christ is presence to Christians all over the world. Everybody can be “efficient” for the universal Church in this day. […] [W]e have to discover that “efficiency” begins with communion with the Lord. This idea, that the heart of the Church is present in all the parts of the body, is a good correction to a merely pragmatic Church, an “efficient” Church in the external sense. It’s a rediscovery of the roots of all Christian action.
She also had a new idea of heaven, of the relationship between eternity and time. To be present on earth and to do good on earth is my heaven. We have a new relationship between eternity and time: heaven is not absent from earth, but a new and stronger presence. Eternity is present in time, and living for eternity is living in and for the time at hand. […]
This dialectic of presence and absence is a very great doctrine. The subtlety of Thérèse is also wonderful in dealing with some of the demands for new Marian dogmas. She wrote, “Don’t always speak about the privileges of Mary, speak about her as being as we are.” […]
Pope Benedict XVI
20 September 1997
As recounted by George Weigel in “Letters From Rome #1“
Weigel G 2023, ‘Letters from Rome: #1’, First Things, 3 January, viewed 3 January 2023, <https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2023/01/letters-from-rome-1 >.
Featured image: Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful in Saint Peter’s Square on the occasion of the Beatification of Pope John Paul II on 1 May 2011 in Vatican City, Rome. Photo credit: Jeffrey Bruno via Flickr (Some rights reserved)
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