COVER STORY


Resplendent Simplicity


Thérèse was a young woman with insight into the things of God and, in her simple witness to them, she was fascinating.
Here, Giulio Andreotti interviews Cardinal Anastasio Alberto Ballestrero, the Carmelite Archbishop Emeritus of Turin

     In the conscience of the people, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus attracts the prayers of simple people, prayers with shades of roses, youth, very early death. Could the proclamation of her as a Doctor of the Church ever detract from the devotion of ordinary folk?
     ANASTASIO ALBERTO BALLESTRERO: Certainly not, if by ordinary folk we mean people of steadfast faith, but without culture choked with pride and without erudite doctrine. Thérèse is a magnificent testimony to the ordinary people's own intuitions: a simple person with insight into the things of God who fascinates with her simple way of setting them out, not so much the fruit of learning but through the resplendent witness of her life.

Cardinal Anastasio Alberto Ballestrero

     The Church's proclamation of Saint Thérèse as Doctor by the Pope came to most people as a surprise, but several years ago Jean Guitton had predicted it in a book that made quite an impression. In it, he set her alongside Joan of Arc and Saint Catherine of Siena. I believe you know the book. Is Guitton's judgement on the right track?
     BALLESTRERO: I know the book and the comparison of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to Saint Catherine of Siena is very much to the point. Catherine of Siena and Thérèse of Lisieux are extraordinarily like Theresa of Avila. I believe that in the Church we are fully highlighting the feminine genius for insight into truth, for knowledge of Christ, for love of the Church.
     Would it be fair to compare Saint Thérèse of Lisieux with Saint Anthony of Padua in terms of the people's way of thinking? His lilies are better known than his thinking as a Doctor.
     BALLESTRERO: In the Church's way of proclaiming Doctors, there has rightly been a positive shift both in ecclesial and canonical criteria. The proclamation of Saint Anthony of Padua as Doctor brought a profound change in the Church's practice. The popularity of sainted Doctors is a new feature that poses problems for theologians but at the same time illustrates the fruitfulness of the Spirit in those creatures who open themselves up to the Spirit's influence and offer themselves to the Spirit's Love.
     Only on rare occasions is she called Thérèse of the Holy Face as well as of the Child Jesus. Why this first epithet and why are most people unaware of it?
     BALLESTRERO: I don't think there's any particular reason. I have, however, noticed that saints' names may often be simplified through time. Today, we are more apt to say Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux rather than Teresa of Jesus, Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Thérèse of the Holy Face. As a young girl, Thérèse was extremely devoted to the childhood of Jesus, she was very devoted to the Holy Face, the tortured face of her Lord. In my view we should pay more attention to these appellations of grace rather than to geography and history for they influenced the spirituality of these Doctors a great deal.

The Lisieux Carmelite Convent community united on the Feast of the Good Shepherd, April 28 1895

     Saint Thérèse was proclaimed patron of the missions by Pius XI. What connection do you see between that and the proclamation now made by John Paul II?
     BALLESTRERO: Saint Pius X called Thérèse of Lisieux 'the greatest saint of modern times'. Pope Pius XI proclaimed her the 'star of Our Pontificate' and universal patron of the missions. Ordinary people pay little attention to these details, but just as they bring out the Church's vocation which then gradually explodes into a miracle of grace and fruitfulness, they also give us a grasp on how the whole missionary ardor of the Church is born of the contemplation of Christ rather than of evangelization by human effort. The link is there. I would say that in the course of 100 years, the young Thérèse's message became universal for the missions primarily, but also for the whole Church community which is called upon to think and reflect that Christ in his Church is the only salvation.
     Do you think there was any particular significance in the fact that the announcement of Thérèse's Doctorate was made in Paris at a quite remarkable gathering of young people?
     BALLESTRERO: I certainly do. I think that the Holy Father intended the announcement in Paris to be a direct offering to young Thérèse's home country and an example, anticipated, to all those young people so that they might think of their youth as a season of holiness, consummate and glorified like that of young Thérèse's.
     One is struck by Saint Thérèse's love for her father and by the way she addresses him as her king. Do you also find that moving?

Thérèse became a saint within a community of people. It was not in books of moral theology or human sociology that she developed her sense of fellow feeling but in living together, sharing faith, sharing prayer, sharing silence, sharing sisterly affection and mutual tolerance

     BALLESTRERO: I must confess that I wasn't particularly struck by that part of her life. Indeed, I find it normal that a young girl who has the good fortune to have a father like Thérèse's should feel profoundly close to him and show it. And in any case one of the characteristics of the saint's family life was the intensity of family feeling.
     Is there anything new today in the Carmelite message with respect to tradition? Did Vatican II and the Synod on the consecrated life make a difference there?
     BALLESTRERO: The proclamation of the young saint as a Doctor reinforces the Carmelite vocation within the Church. It is no accident that Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Jesus were spiritual teachers not through books but through the life they lived in the consecration of their Carmelite brothers and sisters. May God grant that the Carmelites be the first to benefit from it in terms of a renewal of their fidelity and fruitfulness.
     The cloistered life is not much appreciated nowadays by people with their appetite for activism. Do you agree?
     BALLESTRERO: I must say that there is little understanding of the strict cloistered life. But that is the very reason why I think the Doctorate is a sign of the times and a reminder from God. This life has a meaning, this cloistered life belongs to the heart of the Church. And I hope that the Doctorate will give fresh impetus to vocations for the strictly consecrated life of the traditional sort.

Thérèse of Lisieux

     Among the sacrifices made by the saint, don't you think there must also have been that of having to put up with the small discomforts of living with nuns of different temperaments, some of whom might have been a little put out by the large representation of the Martin sisters and by the youngest of them, admitted by special privilege?
     BALLESTRERO: Saint Thérèse became a saint within a community of people. It was not from books of moral theology or human sociology that she developed her sense of fellow feeling but in living together, sharing faith, sharing prayer, sharing silence, sharing sisterly affection and mutual tolerance. I think this very evident feature of young Thérèse's spiritual experience is also providential today for families who are often in difficulty precisely because they lack this Christian virtue, one so in keeping with the Gospel and so linked to the charity Christ commanded us to have.
     Don't you think there is something extraordinary in the proclamation of the contemplative Thérèse at a time when we are still stunned by the death of Mother Theresa of Calcutta who was so extremely active? Might we say that the young Thérèse optimam partem elegit or should we marvel at the stupendous variety of saints?
     BALLESTRERO: I see no clash between the contemplative Thérèse and the extremely active Mother Theresa. I know for certain that Mother Theresa loved little Thérèse and she recognized in the Carmelite life a part of her heart. Perhaps some day the unpublished story of the relationship between Mother Theresa and the Carmelites will be told. All I hope is that this Doctorate will help people understand that there is no apostleship as fruitful as the contemplative life - little Thérèse, patron of the missions, the little Thérèse who wrote to missionaries, the little Thérèse who lived the sufferings of the Church with sincere love and who offered herself in the act of consecration to merciful Love so that the Church might live, so that Christ might be loved, so that sinners might be saved, so that the consecrated men and women might become saints. And I think that when, on October 19, the Pope declared her a Doctor it was not just the Carmelites who rejoiced but the whole Church, the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven.