One of the decisive moments in the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux was when she realized that priests could sin. As a fourteen-year-old girl, Thérèse had a great desire to enter the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux where several of her sisters were already nuns. The local bishop, despite her pleadings, was cautious about allowing such a young girl to enter religious life. Nevertheless, he encouraged her to take part in a pilgrimage to Rome to strengthen her vocation.
Near the end of her life, Thérèse reflected on the importance of this pilgrimage: “Ah! what a trip that was!” she wrote in the memoir that was later published as The Story of a Soul . “It taught me more than long years of studies; it showed me the vanity of everything that happens and that everything is affliction of spirit under the sun.” The trip also gave her a new sense of the continuity of the Church: “I trod the same soil as did the holy apostles, the soil bedewed with the blood of martyrs. And my soul grew through contact with holy things.”
Mission: Pray for Priests
The most important result of this trip, however, was the clarity that it gave St. Thérèse about the purpose of her vocation. Despite her desire to become a Carmelite, before the trip to Rome Thérèse did not understand why St. Teresa had established a special mission for Carmelites nuns to pray for priests. “Having never lived close to [priests], I was not able to understand the principle 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.” She now came to understand the humanity of priests: “I lived in the company of many saintly priests for a month and I learned that, though their dignity raises them above the angels, they are nevertheless weak and fragile men.”
St. Thérèse did not despair upon discovering this aspect of the priesthood, but rather began to understand the importance of praying for priests. If even holy priests “show in their conduct their extreme need for prayers,” she wrote, “what is to be said of those who are tepid?” As Thérèse eventually came to understand the vocation of her community, “the sole purpose of our prayers and sacrifices is to be the apostle of the apostles.”
Becoming Other Christs
Ordination to the priesthood, although it bestows a special grace of the Holy Spirit that configures the priest to Christ, does not remove the human defects that a man possess before ordination. When exercising ministry in the Church, a priest acts in the power and place of the person of Christ himself, and his personal unworthiness or even sinfulness does not prevent Christ from acting in the sacraments. Nevertheless, as the Catechism forthrightly admits, “in many other acts the minister leaves human traces that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel and consequently can harm the apostolic fruitfulness of the Church” (CCC 1550).
“I understood my vocation in Italy and that’s not going too far in search of such useful knowledge,” St. Thérèse wrote. Thanks to the revelations of recent years, one no longer needs to travel to Italy to perceive the human weaknesses of priests. Our response to this, however, should not be cynicism or despair, but, like St. Thérèse, we should develop a renewed awareness of the need to pray for priests. In this Year of the Priest, we should commit ourselves to praying for priests, seminarians, and the men whom God is calling to His service.
Note: the quotations of St. Thérèse are taken from Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Third Edition , translated by John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington: ICS Publications, 1996).