Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has been calling us to return to the ideal of holiness, our vocation to become, as he says, “the saints next door.”
The universal call to holiness was the core teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and St. Pope John Paul II said the Church’s “urgent pastoral task” in the 21st century is to “re-propose … this high standard of ordinary Christian living.”
Francis has taken this urgent task to heart.
“Do not be afraid of holiness,” he has written. “It will take away none of your energy, vitality, or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self.”
In “C’est la confiance” (“It is confidence”), his new apostolic exhortation, the Holy Father invites us to reflect on the witness of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
It is an inspiring document, written like an ancient catena, like a beautiful “chain” of the saint’s most important spiritual insights.
As the Holy Father notes, Thérèse is an unlikely saint. She was an ordinary 19th-century French young woman who went from the comfort of her bourgeois home to a cloistered Carmelite convent at age 15, and died there of tuberculosis nine years later.
She was so ordinary in fact, that as she lay dying, one of her fellow Carmelites wondered aloud how the mother superior might find something to say in a eulogy: “This little sister, as likable as she is, has certainly done nothing worth the trouble of being recounted.”
But as Francis reminds us, Thérèse is one the world’s “best known and most beloved saints.”
By her “ordinariness,” Thérèse shows that holiness is within reach for all of us. We can all have a deep friendship with God and we can all live that friendship in simple ways in our everyday lives.
Thérèse teaches us that holiness does not consist of performing grand, heroic deeds in the world. Holiness means simply putting yourself in God’s hands, making Jesus the center of your life, and allowing him to work in you and through you.
Thérèse prayed, “O my God! Most Blessed Trinity, I desire to love you and make you loved … I desire to accomplish your will perfectly. … I desire, in a word, to be a saint.”
Thérèse wanted to be a saint, and she knew that with God’s grace she could be.
As Francis points out, this confidence in God’s love and mercy is the key to Thérèse’s spirituality, especially her “ ‘little way,’ the path of trust and love, also known as the way of spiritual childhood.”
Holiness begins when we come to know and believe in the love that God has for us.
When we realize that we are so precious to God that he sent his only Son to die for us on the cross, then our whole life becomes a response to that love.
Thérèse made her life an offering of love to God and we can, too. As she did, we can do every little thing for love — for the love of Jesus and to make him loved.
Holiness is not a retreat from the world. It is the opposite. As we grow in holiness our lives become more fruitful, more apostolic, more missionary.
When we set out to become saints, we cannot be satisfied to leave others behind. We know that we have found salvation in God’s love, and we cannot rest until every soul knows his saving love. In the end, Thérèse said, love alone is all that counts.
In one prayer, Thérèse imagines herself seated at a table with the Lord and many sinners. She begs his pardon for their sins and promises that she will never rise from this table, never stop praying for their souls, until Jesus calls her home to heaven.
“May all those who were not enlightened by the bright flame of faith one day see it shine,” she prayed.
So often we think of the Church in terms of actions, programs, ministries, and events. Thérèse reminds us of the power of our silent witness, our prayer and intercession. This is how the saints save souls and change the world.
Imagine how different the world could be if we would only love others as Jesus loves them, if we would only see others as he sees them — as souls loved by God, as children of one Father in heaven, as sinners like we are who are called to become saints.
Pray for me, and I will pray for you.
And let us ask holy Mary, Queen of All Saints, to help us to follow the little way of holiness and become saints — loving her Son and making him loved, and through our love, drawing others closer to God.