Today, on the feast of the Sacred Heart in 2009, Pope Benedict XV inaugurates at Vespers the year of the priest. St. Therese of Lisieux is uniquely suited to accompany us this year as we pray for the renewal of the priesthood. My booklet "Praying for Priests with St. Therese of Lisieux," published by the Catholic Truth Society, tells the story of her apostolate of prayer for priests. She consecrated her life to priests, to be "the apostle of the apostles." Beginning by believing that priests were "purer than crystal," she was quickly disillusioned, but she reacted generously. She embraced the vocation of praying for the spiritual renewal and the mission of priests. And she was drawn to that vocation by understanding the human weakness and sinfulness of priests.
In the Martin family, priests were held in great esteem. Therese's sister Celine said "They seemed like gods to us." Louis Martin had such reverence for priests that, though he entertained his confessor at dinner formally once a year and gave dinners for the clergy when his daughters made their religious professions, he did not otherwise invite priests to his home, thinking the honor too great for him. The clergy respected this reserve so much that, when Pauline spent two years making an alb for a local priest and he came out to Les Buissonnets to thank her, he hesitated at the door and finally turned away without knocking. Therese, as a child, knew priests mostly at the altar and in the confessional. In her early teens, she was moved to pray for sinners like the assasin Pranzini, not for priests.
But just before she entered the Carmelite monastery, Therese made a pilgrimage to Rome sponsored by several French dioceses. Seventy-five of the pilgrims were priests. In "Story of a Soul" Therese writes that their company helped her to understand the vocation of Carmel:
"The scond experience I had relates to priests. Having never lived close to them, I was not able to understand the principal aim of the Reform of Carmel. To pray for sinners attracted me, but to pray for the souls of priests whom I believed to be as pure as crystal seemed puzzling to me!
I understood my vocation in Italy and that's not going too far in search of such useful knowledge.I lived in the company of many saintly priests for a month and I learned that, although their dignity raises them above the angels, they are nevertheless weak and fragile men. If holy priests, whom Jesus in His gospel calls "the salt of the earth," show in their conduct their extreme need for prayers, what is to be said of those who are tepid? Didn't Jesus say too: "If the salt loses its savor, wherewith will it be salted?"
How beautiful is the vocation, O Mother, which has as its aim the preservation of the salt destined for souls! This is Carmel's vocation since the sole purpose of our prayers and sacrifices is to be the apostle of the apostles. We are to pray for them while they are preaching to souls, through their words and especially through their example. I must stop here, for were I to continue I would never come to an end!" (Story of a Soul, tr. John Clarke, O.C.D. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1988, p. 122. Used with permission).
Therese consecrated herself more and more for priests, urging her novices to pray for them. Throughout the Year of the Priest I will write more about the priests Therese knew; about her apostolate of prayer for priests; about her special interest in the former Carmelite Hyacinthe Loyson, who had left the Church; and about her spiritual sisterhood with seminarian Maurice Belliere and missionary priest Adolphe Roulland. You can read more about Therese's mission to priests at this page. To begin the Year of the Priest I want to say that, if Therese lost her illusions about priests from seeing them eat too well or pray too little on a luxury pilgrimage, she still can accompany us as we face the much greater challenge of continuing to love Jesus and the Church in the face of the clergy sex abuse scandal, especially the most recent revelations of abuse by those representing the Church in Ireland. Therese never lost faith that the priesthood could be as Jesus envisioned it. And she prayed for priests not for their own sake, but for the sake of those God calls them to serve: "Our mission as Carmelites is to form evangelical workers who will save thousands of souls whose mothers we shall be."
For the Year of the Priest, let's pray that we may at once love our priest-brothers in their humanity and call them to fulfill their vocation. Let's take as our motto the words Therese wrote to her sister Celine on New Year's Eve 1889:
"Let us convert souls; this year, we must form many priests who love Jesus and who handle Him with the same tenderness with which Mary handled Him in His cradle."