Pope Benedict XV's Speech
about the Way of Spiritual Childhood
of Sister Therese of the Child Jesus, August 14, 1921

Photo Credit: "La Croix," August 17, 1921, courtesy of the National Library of France

Allocution By His Holiness Pope Benedict XV
on the occasion of the Promulgation
of the Decree Concerning the virtues
of the Venerable Therese de L’Enfant Jesus
August 14, 1921

 

      Less than a month ago, in proclaiming in this very hall the heroic character of the virtues of the Venerable Pierre Fournet, We remarked that France seemed desirous of adding to her titles the new and enviable one of “Mother of Saints.”

 

Po[e Benedict XV. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Sister Therese's Heroic Virtue

      The echo of Our words has scarcely died away, and already We are called upon to proclaim the beauty of another flower, which also flourished on French soil, and we are forced to recognize as heroic the virtues of Sister Teresa of the Child Jesus, a professed Religious of the Carmel of Lisieux. We are glad that the present Decree confirms Our recent utterance.  We rejoice on account of the honor, which will thereby accrue to Catholic France, and the justifiable satisfaction which will be experienced in the Diocese, which is the fortunate possessor of the garden in which this lovely flower budded, unfolded its petals, and finally reached the full perfection of its development.

Spiritual Childhood: The Secret of Sanctity for All the Faithful

      To these causes for joy, which spring from the good-will We bear towards the nation of Clovis and St. Louis, is added moreover another of a particularly pleasing nature, inspired by the special character of the predominant virtue of Sister Teresa of the Child Jesus.

      Even those but slightly acquainted with the life of “little Therese,” will unite their voices to those of the great chorus which acclaims this life as the type of all the virtues of spiritual childhood.  There lies the secret of sanctity, not only for the French, but for all the Faithful scattered over the whole world.  We have, therefore, every reason to hope that the example of the new French heroine will be the means of swelling the ranks of perfect Christians not only in her own country, but wherever the children of the Catholic Church are to be found.

      That this result may be achieved, it is necessary to understand clearly all that is implied by the term “spiritual childhood.” It seems fitting that the Decree, which to-day exalts one whose heroic perfection was the fruit of those very virtues which are the outcome of spiritual childhood, should propose to itself as its object, the significance of all that the term “spiritual childhood” is intended to convey.  Thus, all will appreciate the excellent reason why Our joy is not limited to that shared with France.  Thus, also, all will be better able to realize that there is a call to the Faithful of every nation, no matter what may be their age, sex, or state of life, to enter whole-heartedly into the “little way” which led Soeur Therese to the summit of heroic virtue.

The Qualities of Spiritual Childhood

      The harmony which exists between body and mind renders it possible for the former to furnish a basis for the explanation of the characteristics of spiritual childhood.  Observe a child as yet uncertain of its steps, and without the use of speech. If pursued by another child of its own age, or threatened by a stronger child, or terrified by the unexpected sigh of some animal, whither does it run for safety? Where does it seek a refuge?  On its mother’s breast.  Shielded in her arms and clasped to her bosom, all its fears vanish, and with a deep sigh it faces, not only fearlessly but even daringly, the object of its former terror and distress, as though it would say:” Now I am sure of help.  I fling myself with confidence into my mother’s arms, not only to be safeguarded from all enemy attacks, but to be there, where I can gather strength.”  In the same way spiritual childhood is the result of trust in God and complete abandonment to Him.

      It will not be out of place to enumerate the qualities of this spiritual childhood, both as regards what it omits and what it includes.  It knows nothing of self-pride, or the thought of being able to attain by purely natural means a supernatural end, or those spurious notions of self-reliance in the hour of danger and temptation.  On the other hand, it presupposes a lively faith in the existence of God, a practical homage to His Power and Mercy, a confident recourse to the Providence of Him who alone can give us grace to avoid evil and seek good.  Thus, whether regarded from the negative or the positive point of view, the qualities which comprise spiritual childhood, evoke our admiration, and enable us to realize why Our Lord Jesus Christ pointed to it as a necessary condition for obtaining eternal life.

The Counsel of Jesus: "Become as little children"

      One day Our Lord beckoned from the crowd a little child and, showing him to His disciples, said: “Amen, I say unto you, unless you be converted and become as little children you shall not enter into the kingdom of Heaven.”1 How eloquent a lesson against the error and ambition of those who look upon the kingdom of Heaven as an earthly empire, in which they may seek the first places or soar to the highest dignities!  “Who, think you,” said the Master, “ is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?”  Then, in order to impress more deeply upon their minds the fact that pre-eminence in the kingdom of Heaven will be the prerogative of those who are children in spirit, He continued: “Whosoever, therefore, shall humble himself as this little child, he will be greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.”2  On another occasion some mothers brought to Him their little ones that He might lay His hands on them, and, upon their being repulsed by His disciples, Jesus exclaimed indignantly: “Suffer the little ones to come unto Me, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”  And He repeated: “Amen, I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall not enter into it.”3

      It is of great importance to note the force of the language used by Our Divine Lord. The Son of God was not content with merely stating that the kingdom of Heaven was for children- “For of such is the kingdom of Heaven”- or that whosoever should become as a little child would be greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.  He went so far as to exclude from His kingdom those who did not become as little children.  Now, when a master adopts various methods to inculcate the same lesson, does he not thereby seek to emphasize its value in his sight?  If Jesus Christ used so many devices to drive home this lesson to His disciples, it is because He wishes, by one means or another, to ensure their thorough understanding of it.  From this we must conclude it was the Divine Master’s express desire that His disciples should see that the way of spiritual childhood is the path which could lead them to eternal life.

      In face of this insistent and forcible teaching of Our Lord, there would surely not be a soul that could hesitate to enter this way of confidence and self-surrender--all the more so, to repeat Our own words, because Our Divine Lord, not only in a general manner, but also by a concrete example, declared this way of life to be absolutely essential, even in the case of those who have lost the innocence of their childhood. There are some who try to persuade themselves that the way of trust and abandonment to God is the exclusive privilege of those souls whose baptismal robe has remained unsullied by sin.  They are unable to reconcile the idea of spiritual childhood with the loss of their innocence. But do not the words of the Divine Master: “Unless ye be converted and become as little children,” indicate the necessity of a change, and, consequently, the effort to effect that change?  “ Unless ye be converted”–suggests a transformation which the disciples of Jesus had to undergo in order to become children once again; and who should become a child again, if not he who is no longer one?  “Unless ye become as little children” – indicates the need for exertion, for it is obvious that a man must work to become that which he has never been, or, which he has ceased to be.  Since it is impossible for a man never to have been a child, the words “unless you become as children”--carry with them the obligation to labor to regain the lost qualities of childhood.  It would be absurd to dream of the possibility of resuming either the outward appearance or the feebleness of he state of infancy, but it is not unreasonable to discern, in the words of the Gospel, a counsel given to those who have attained maturity to return to the virtues associated with spiritual childhood.

Sister Therese as An Example of the Virtues of Spiritual Childhood

      In the course of centuries, fresh force was given to this teaching by the example of those who attained the perfection of Christian heroism through practicing these very virtues.  Mother Church has ever been ready to bring these examples before the eyes of her children, in order that they may be better known, and the command of the Divine Master more universally obeyed.  To-day, again, she has but the same end in view when she proclaims the heroic degree of the virtues of Soeur Therese de l’Enfant Jesus.

The Childhood of Sister Therese

      Although it did not fall to the lot of this Venerable Servant of God to spend long years in His service, or to undertake for Him enterprises of great moment, yet in less than twenty-five years she became rich in merits.  One of a Religious Order in which the glory of Doctor may be the portion of the weaker sex,4 she was not set apart to pursue any learned studies; nevertheless, her knowledge was such as to enable her to point out to others the true path to salvation.  But where did she reap this copious harvest?  Where did she gather such an abundance of ripe fruit?  In the garden of spiritual childhood.  Whence was derived this vast treasure of knowledge?  From the secrets which God reveals to little ones.

      The daughter of Louis Stanislaus Martin was born at Alencon, on January 2, 1873.  Though she may have shown at first the thoughtlessness and merry vivacity common to very young children, yet trustworthy witnesses affirm that the loss she suffered, when four years of age, in the death of her mother, produced in her a seriousness and maturity of mind far in advance of her years.  Might it not have been the will of Almighty God to effect in her this sudden transformation, this early determination to adorn her soul with qualities of spiritual childhood, in order that she might in her own person serve as an illustration of the Divine precept: “unless ye be converted…unless ye become as children…”

      Certain it is that, from this time, Therese, both in her words and deeds, furnished proof of an extraordinary maturity of judgment.  Worthy of special admiration, moreover, is the readiness with which she ascribed to God all beauty visible in His creatures; and the manner in which she looked to Him alone for help to overcome all the defects she deplored both in her own soul and in that of her neighbor.  With what spontaneity did she throw herself into the arms of Almighty God, above all in the hour of suffering and distress!  How vividly she brings before our minds the eagerness of a child hastening to the shelter of its mother’s arms when it feels its own weakness!  Therese’s recourse to prayer was so frequent, her abandonment to God so thorough, that she was able to identify her life on earth with that of the Blessed in Heaven.

      She loved her parents with a most pure love; but she would have feared to pray that their lives might be prolonged, lest she might delay their enjoyment of the happiness of the next world--to her immeasurably above any that this world had to offer.

Therese Showed Heroic Virtue In Her Attempt to Enter Carmel

      From all this it would be easy to conclude that with each passing year the virtues of spiritual childhood should take deeper root in the soul of little Therese.  But the reality far surpassed all expectation, as is clearly proved by her conduct at the most critical period of her life.  Her father, a true model of Christian parents, had resigned himself to the loss of the loving ministrations of his youngest daughter, and had even shown the noble pride he felt that all his family should be consecrated to the service of God in the religious state.  But Therese’s maternal uncle thought otherwise.  Moreover, the Bishop of the Diocese, and the ecclesiastical Superior of the Carmel of Lisieux, were not at all disposed to allow her to fulfill the vow made in her childhood of burying herself in Carmel at fifteen years of age.  In vain, however, did they look for any complaint from the lips of Therese, either against her uncle, who declared that he would not sanction her entry into Carmel till she had reached the age of seventeen; or against the opposition of the Superior, who postponed it till she should have attained her twenty-first year.  Oh!  How the little dove must have mourned in its impatience to hide itself in the sacred retreat of Carmel! But God alone heard her sighs.  Fearing, indeed, that this opposition might even be from Him, she did not venture to gainsay her parents and superiors, who interpreted this silence as a sign of her acquiescence--a marked proof of her confident trust in God.

      There was no change in the attitude of Therese, even after the failure of her direct and courageous appeal to the Pope.  What a useless journey it seemed!  What disapproval and, probably, even humiliations were hers!  Would all these trials have the effect of shaking her resolution, and of making her place the advice of man before what she believed to be the will of God?  But heroic virtue supposes constancy and perseverance.  The more she had to endure from the opposition of man, the more she multiplied her acts of confidence in God, and her protestations of abandonment to Him, thus preparing herself to climb to the summit of Christian perfection by the exercise of those virtues characteristic of spiritual childhood.  God did not spare her trials, and she embraced them as the means of detaching herself more and more from the affection of creatures, and of uniting herself more closely to the Spouse of her soul.

      When at last the Bishop of the diocese yielded to her repeated entreaties, the fulfillment of her vow was still deferred by the Mother Prioress, who delayed her entry into Carmel for four months.  Therese could have acted upon the advice given her by Pope Leo XIII, who told her to “do whatever her Superior should enjoin in the matter,” for among her superiors she placed foremost her Bishop.  However, this assiduity in seeking to gain her object, though quite lawful in itself, might nevertheless have given rise to the belief that Therese relied upon human means; her confidence in God might have seemed diminished, her abandonment less complete.  She preferred to remain silent under this new disappointment, and continued to maintain her peace of mind in the firm belief that God rewards in His own time those who trust Him.

Practicing the Virtues of Spiritual Childhood in Carmel: Sister Therese of the Child Jesus

      On April 9, 1888, Therese received her reward.  Through the designs of Providence she was placed under the patronage of the Child Jesus, who thus showed His pleasure at the manner in which she had already striven to honor the virtues of His Infancy.  Let us add, moreover, that this new title served as a fresh incentive to the holy Carmelite to abandon herself more entirely to God.  She pictured to herself the ever-docile Child of Bethlehem in the arms of His most holy Mother, ready to let Himself be borne from Bethlehem to Egypt, and from Egypt to Nazareth.  Therese, in her turn, placed herself in the arms of the holy rule of Carmel, allowing herself to be guided in everything by religious obedience.  With the eyes of her soul, she saw the Divine Worker of Nazareth always fulfilling tasks allotted to Him by His adopted father, always submissive to those who stood to Him in the place of His Heavenly Father.  In imitation of His example, Therese diligently carried out the orders of her Prioress and Novice Mistress, and this she did perfectly, without complaint or remark of any nature, as though possessing no will of her own.  So brightly did there shine in this young Carmelite the virtues of the Infant Savior that, if by a dispensation of Providence the title: “of the Child Jesus,” had not fallen to her lot, her Sisters in religion would have bestowed it upon her.  When one day the Infant Savior appeared to her holy Mother of Avila, and on asking her name received from the saintly Reformer the reply: “I am called Terese of Jesus,” she merited to hear this answer: “ And I am Jesus of Teresa.”  In like manner Soeur Therese of Lisieux could declare:  “I am called Teresa of the Child Jesus because the Child Jesus is the Master and Model of Therese.”

      The general esteem in which she was held by the Community caused the holy Carmelite to be chosen to help the Novice Mistress, and this in spite of her youth and the short time, which had elapsed since her profession.  Surely this was the work of God, who, knowing how brief was to be her existence in this world, willed that in a short time she should accomplish great things.  Indeed, she made use of this office to grow in virtue, and, far from being a source of distraction to her, it served but to perfect her in her way of spiritual childhood.  In spite of the different characters with which she was thus brought in contact, there was never the slightest alteration in the sweet tranquility of her manner, nor did the multiplicity of the demands made upon her ever bring to her lips one word of impatience. In all her doubts she had recourse to the Child Jesus, and from that same Child who, in the workshop of Nazareth, “increased in wisdom and in age,5” she never failed to receive the solution to her difficulties.

      Soeur Therese persevered faithfully in what she styled her “little way” during the nine and a half years of her religious life.  We see, therefore, no need to emphasize further her characteristic virtue, nor to explain how, by the practice of this virtue, she reached the summit of Christian perfection.

Story of a Soul Was Vital to tbe Mission of Sister Therese

      We will not pain you, dearly beloved Sons, by explaining to you that her sanctity was in no way overshadowed by the predictions made upon her deathbed, or by her advice to spread everywhere the Story of a Soul6--that picture of the interior life of “petite Therese.”  Most humble throughout her lifetime, she could not, at that supreme moment, give expression to any sentiment apparently contrary to humility unless acting directly under Divine inspiration. Man’s intelligence is too limited to understand the motives of the Almighty when He inspires the utterance of any of His creatures.  One could, however, without temerity, read into such instances the timely purpose of extending beyond its usual confines the efficacy of good example.  Moreover, in the case of Soeur Therese, it is right to recognize a special design of God to exalt the merits of the doctrine of spiritual childhood.  In the holy Scriptures we read that by the mouths of children glory is often give to God:  “By the mouths of babes and sucklings, Thou hast perfected praise.”  In some cases there is even added the power of circumventing the wiles of the enemy: “that Thou mayest destroy the enemy and the avenger.”7 How, then, can we help but believe that Sister Teresa of the Child Jesus, by the exercise of the virtues characteristic of spiritual childhood, has been destined by God to take her place among those who render to God this perfect homage? A glance at the times in which she lived almost enables us to assert also that it was indeed her mission--“that the enemy and avenger might be destroyed.”  But without the worldwide circulation of Story of a Soul it would not have been possible for this mission to have been fulfilled.

Recognition of Therese's Heroic Virtue

      And now, far from bringing forward any objection, easily refutable, against the sanctity of Teresa of the Child Jesus, let us recognize the fact that this sanctity was the result of heroic virtues, attained by persevering and practical love for the grace of spiritual childhood.

Importance of Imitating Sister Therese at the Present Time

      To the theoretical recognition of this truth should be added the firm resolution to imitate the new heroine. Duplicity and crafty stratagem are only too characteristic of the day.  It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that piety toward God, and charity toward one’s neighbor, should so have waned.  May all this soon be changed!  To the deceits, the fraud, the hypocrisy of the world, may there be opposed the sincerity of a child.  With this sincerity, under the guidance of the Carmelite of Lisieux, may there be also cultivated the habit of always walking in the presence of God, and the resolution to let oneself be guided by the hands of His divine Providence.

Graces Obtained through the Intercession of Sister Therese, Especially During World War I

      Soeur Therese, shortly before her death, promised to “spend her Heaven in doing good upon earth.”  We know that she has kept her word, for the favors obtained through her intercession are innumerable.  We, Ourselves, particularly during the dark days of the recent war, were the recipient of numerous letters from French soldiers and officers, who attributed to Sister Teresa of the Child Jesus their preservation from imminent danger of death.  These letters were the more sincere inasmuch as they frequently told of a “change of life,” a pledge of gratitude towards their Heavenly Benefactress.  But it is surely inconceivable that the charity of Therese will not still continue to lavish favors on those who have at heart the desire to imitate her as closely as possible.

Pope Benedict's Desire to Unveil the Secret of Sister Therese's Sanctity to All

      It is our special desire that the secret of the sanctity of the Venerable Therese may be disclosed to all Our children.  And, in order that it may produce in one and all the same admirable results as in Therese, We invoke the blessing of God not only on all her present, but on every member of the Christian Family.

      May the first fruits of this blessing fall upon Catholic France, proud as she well may be today of the new heroine to whom she gave birth!

      May a special blessing also rest upon the fortunate diocese of Bayeux and Lisieux, as, by means of the name of Therese, it sees its fame spread abroad throughout the world!  We ask her to obtain that there may be spared to it for many a year the worthy Bishop, who incites his clergy to holiness, and has the joy of seeing Christian virtue flourish among the laity.

      But where should the roses promised by Therese fall more abundantly than on the privileged Carmel in which she realized the most burning desires of her heart?  May Heaven’s riches blessings be showered upon it, in order that it may ever be a fair garden whence choicest flowers of sanctity will spring.

      Finally, may the consolations of the Divine blessing never be wanting to those who, in Rome, and elsewhere, are instrumental in promoting the Cause of the Beatification of the Carmelite of Lisieux!  The more the knowledge of this new heroine is spread abroad, the greater will be the number of her imitators giving glory to God by the practice of the virtues of spiritual childhood.

Footnotes:

  1. Matt. 18:3.
  2. Matt. 18:4.
  3. Mark 10:14, 15
  4. Here, as early as 1921, Pope Benedict XV referred to the possibility that St. Teresa of Avila, thegreat reformer of Carmel, might be made a Doctor of the Church.  The doctorate was conferred uponj St. Teresa of Avila, together with St. Catherine of Siena, by Pope Blessed Paul VI in 1970. They were the first two women Doctors of the Church.  Pope John Paul II named St. Therese of Lisieux the third woman Doctor of the Church in 1997.  (Editor's note by Saint Therese of Lisieux: A Gateway for the publication online of this speech in 2016). 
  5. Luke 2:52
  6. Title of the French edition of her autobiography; in English, Story of a Soul

 Note:  This English translation appeared as an appendix to: Soeur Thérèse of Lisieux: the little flower of Jesus - A new and complete translation of l'Histoire d'une Ame, with an account of some favors attributed to the intercession of Soeur Therese.  Edited by T. N. Taylor, priest of the Archdiocese of Glasglow and witness before the Tribunal of Beatification.  London: Burnes, Oates, and Washburne, 1922, pp. 437-448.  Click the title above to view the whole volume online thanks to Hathitrust Digial Library. 

The illustrations and subtitles have been added for publication at Saint Therese of LIsieux: A Gateway.