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Transcript of Talk on St. Therese of Lisieux

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Side One

The subject of our conference is the Catechist as Channel of Grace. First, a long introduction. The last person we would expect to suggest as a model for catechists is the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux. Her short life of 24 years, from 1873 to 1897 was spent with her family until her early teens. The rest of her life was in the cloistered Carmelite convent. Neither is exactly what we understand by catechesis, which means. teaching the Faith. Yet, what she wrote in her one book, her autobiography, tells us volumes on what is the principal task of a catechist.

A catechist is useless unless he or she is a channel of grace. After all, the purpose of catechesis is to change people's lives. Instruction of the mind is given as a means for inspiring the will. The will is a blind, mute and deaf faculty without the mind – helpless. But then, inspiring the will means to move the will. After all the commandments of the Decalogue and of Christianity are sifted, the single most fundamental inspiration of the will is to move the human will from selfish love of self to selfless love of God and the selfless love of others out of love for God. That's all, comma, that's all Christianity is finally about.

Viewed from this perspective, the Little Flower takes on I mentioned, we'd never associate with a young, cloistered Carmelite. It is not coincidental, but profoundly meaningful that the Church has appointed two patrons for the missions of evangelization and catechesis: St. Francis Xavier, needless to say a Jesuit, who in ten years in India instructed and baptized over 100,000 pagans; and surprisingly, the Little Flower.

My purpose in this conference, or lecture maybe, is to cover the following areas of an immense subject, the Catechist as Channel of grace, mainly these three areas: First, the teaching of St. Therese on the primacy of love; Second, the catechist as teacher of Christian love and third, the Catechist of channel of Christian love.

Part One: St. Therese on the Primacy of Love

First then, the teaching of St. Therese of Lisieux. In her Autobiography, St. Therese has this to say, and I am quoting from the Divine Office. In my Latin Office, I found exactly what I needed. I could have sat down and translated it, but I figured I don't have the time, so I asked one of the Assistant Pastors, "Do you have your English Breviary? Can I borrow it?" This is, then, a quotation from the English Liturgy of the Hours for her feast. It's a long quotation but I think worth hearing. Quote the Little Flower: "When I looked upon the Mystical Body of the Church, I recognized myself in none of the members which St. Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favorably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed, I knew that the Church had a Body composed of various members, but in this Body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and place. In one word, that love is everlasting.

Then, nearly ecstatic with the experience of supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling; my calling is love. Certainly, I have found my proper place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction."

It is not our purpose here to analyze this beautiful apostrophe of the Little Flower. There is only one basic thought that I wish to abstract from St. Therese's words and that is: Religious instruction without teaching love is meaningless; catechetics without teaching charity is useless; Christianity without charity is paganism. So much for part one; now part two: The Catechist as teacher of Christian love.

Part Two: The Catechist as Teacher of Christian Love

There is more than academic value in making very clear just what teachers of religion are to impart to those whom they teach. There are so many truths revealed by God that need to be learned and – note the difference between teaching and learning. I have taught for too many years not to know that not everything I have taught has been learned. And all the teaching – or shall I call it teachifying – in the world is useless unless what is taught has been learned. And the human teacher can provide only, well, the human voice which vibrates through the air and, provided the students are awake, they hear which does improve their lesson. To listen is to want to hear. Again, I have taught for too many years not to know, not everybody in class is listening. So from teaching to not just having the student listen, but to learn something more, better someone more than the human teacher must enter the educational process. St. Augustine has written a wonderful little book, which I recommend to all of you, called The Teacher. It is all about Jesus Christ as the Teacher in the mind and heart of every human being, provided that human being is willing to listen to His voice from within the soul. There are, then, so many things that God has revealed from the dawn of human history and then climaxing in Christ's thirty-some years visibly on earth, then another seventy or so years until the death of St. John the Apostle when; we believe, by the death of St. John the Apostle or Evangelist, divine revelation, which is necessary for the salvation and sanctification of the human race, has ceased. There is far more revealed than we find, say, in Sacred Scripture as the same St. John tells us. "I doubt," he says – and it's not really an hyperbole – “I doubt if all the books in the world could possibly express all that Jesus said and did during His visible stay on earth,” so that, we ask ourselves in this ocean of revealed truth, is there some one truth that is absolutely fundamental to all the rest, which synthesizes the whole of Christianity? And the answer is yes, and Christ Himself gives us the answer. He could have said anything at the Last Supper instead of what He did. "By this," Jesus declared, "by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

A disciple is one who has lived – discipolos in Greek or discipolus in Latin or disciple in English means one who has learned. So then, what is Christ telling us? It is the practice of Christian charity which is THE foundation for everything else. It is the purpose of all religious instruction. No matter what those you teach learn, unless they have learned how to love as Christ wants us to--you may have used a lot of syllables; they may have memorized many definitions, but they have not really learned the meaning of Christianity. Whatever else, then, a catechist teaches those under religious instruction, the heart of Christian catechesis is instruction in Christian charity.

At this point, given our non-catholic English vocabulary – I sometimes ask people, "what is the most Catholic language in the world; the one that most Catholics throughout the world speak?" And that is, Spanish. Then I ask them, "what is the most Protestant language in the world; what language the most Protestants throughout the world speak, and not just speak now, but have written most, most books, filled whole libraries with?" English!

English is a Protestant language; and having taught at six Protestant divinity schools, I love Protestants, but I surely know that Protestantism is not Catholicism. Given that footnote, it might be useful, if only for a few minutes to explain what we mean by Christian charity. The two words, charity and love, are not, for a Catholic, interchangeable. Christian charity is not merely love. Christian charity is supernatural love and it is supernatural love twice over. It is supernatural for the mind and supernatural for the will. How is Christian charity supernatural for the mind? Because, unless God had become man, and God is love, love became man. Unless God, who is love, became man and taught us by His own life, passion and death that there is such a thing as absolutely, utterly, totally selfless love, we wouldn't even know what the word meant.

But Christian charity is also supernatural for the will. Besides having to be revealed by God, who is love becoming man, this same God-man has to provide us with a supernatural power otherwise known as grace to enable us to practice this selfless love. Christian charity, therefore, is supernatural twice over, as just explained. But it is also supernatural love in two ways or on two levels: it means, first of all, loving God more than anyone else in the world, especially that one other person who is most constantly in competition with God for being loved, who happens, just coincidentally, to have our name. Supernatural charity, therefore, means loving God above all creatures, especially that one oh – so loveable creature who happens to be – pardon the grammar but it's good theology – me.

Christian charity also means loving others out of love for God. Depending on the size of the audience, I look around to see if anybody is older than me. I'm safe tonight. All I know is, you just cannot – and the verb is cannot – love others selflessly unless you are inspired by a deep love for God, because whatever else faith tells us, no matter how loveless a person may seem, how mean, how unkind, how cruel, how thoughtless, faith tells me, well, I may not be able to see anything loveable in this person, but I believe God loves him or her. And then – my lips may tremble when I say it – but I say, "Lord, You know exactly how I feel, but You love her (or You love him) and You tell me Lord if you love Me, love those whom I love." Christian charity, therefore, means loving others out of love for God and, what is most demanding and humanly impossible, loving others even as God, Who became man, loves us; even loving others to die for others and – hear it – loving others who don't love us! This is not Dale Carnegie, "Winning Friends and Influencing People;" It is not making mazuma. What some people love is a very profitable business. Not Christian charity.

Catechists then, to summarize part two of our reflections, Catechists have many truths of the Faith to teach, but none is more basic, none more important or profitable for salvation, or more distinctively Christian than to teach – and be sure that those you teach learn – the meaning and the value and the practice of selfless, supernatural love. That is Christianity.

Part Three: The Catechist as Channel of Christian Love

What do we have? Part three left: The Catechist as Channel of Christian Love. If the teaching of Christian love (or charity) is so important in communicating the true Faith, how can this be done? In other words, what is the pedagogy for teaching selfless love, otherwise known as Christian charity? One simple declarative sentence: The most effective way for a catechist to teach Christian charity is to practice Christian charity. Over the years I've come to define a good teacher as one who can repeat without boring his students. Let me repeat, the most effective way for a catechist to teach Christian charity is for the catechist to practice Christian charity, because the purpose of catechesis is not merely to instruct the mind. It is indeed to instruct the mind, but in order that the mind, duly instructed, might inspire the will; might inspire the will to action. What kind of action? Everything which Christ, (remember, just before His Ascension, the closing verses of St. Matthew's Gospel) Our Lord told His apostles, "Go in therefore, teach all nations; teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." The purpose of religious instruction is that the will might respond to and obey the commandments that Christ taught us. And what is the most fundamental commandment that He taught us? It is selfless charity. But to make sure that nobody would miss the lesson, He couldn't have made it more plain. On the last day, He will come to judge the whole human race. And He will judge the human race on the whole litany of virtues: humility, patience, chastity, obedience, you name it. But synthesized in all the other virtues is that on which we shall finally be judged by the same Christ Who told us that we are to observe all of His commandments, we shall be judged mainly by our practice of selfless charity.

There is much more locked up in the statement we made, remember? That the most effective way for a catechist to teach Christian charity is for the catechist to practice Christian charity. There's much more locked up in that simple declarative sentence than meets the eye. God will use us as catechists – parents for their children; teachers for their students – and, by the way, theology is just a more sophisticated form of catechesis. All that they do in theology is use bigger words, that's all. God, then, will use us as catechists to teach all the virtues in the measure that we ourselves practice these virtues. And here, the synthesis of all the virtues: one perspective, the foundation of all the virtues; from another perspective the crown of all the virtues; from still a third perspective is Christian charity. God will use us as channels of His grace in the measure that we ourselves practice the selfless love of God and remember, that selfless love of God is not just a moniker. It is loving God without, well, intruding self.

Question: Do we always need what we want? Do we always want what we need? Those two monosyllables have locked in them almost the history of the human race. What do we need? We need what God wants. What God wants us to do (or not do) is what we need. Over the years I've quoted the late Will Rogers, remember Will Rogers? The homespun American philosopher. I like to quote his famous definition of advertising: Advertising is that which makes people buy what they don't need with money they don't have, and the multibillion dollar advertising industry is very successful. And the net result is massive unhappiness because unhappiness is unsatisfied desires. After thirty years of teaching theology, simplest definition that I can come up with for unhappiness: unsatisfied desires.

The key, then, is to desire what we should desire, which is what? What we need. What do we need? What God wants us to desire. That's why I like that translation of the Beatitudes in which one of the Beatitudes reads: "Happy are those who hunger and thirst for what is right, they shall be satisfied." How simple. Not easy, but how simple life really is provided we know what God is telling us. You'll be happy even in this world not to say in the world to come provided you desire here on earth what is right, what you need. I repeat saying that the catechist will be only as effective an instrument in God's hands for teaching here Christian charity in the measure in which that person practices Christian charity, himself or herself. I think in Mother Theresa's vocabulary, she doesn't use the word channel, she uses the word conduit – the idea of a live wire conducting current. The current is God's grace and we are to be conduits of God's grace. That's our role in life. But we'll be these conduits of God's grace to other people enabling them even to understand Christian charity and, with emphasis, practice Christian charity. And this is the law of divine revealed truth only if, and in the measure that, we ourselves are living lives of selfless charity ourselves. I call this, then, the iron law of spiritual reproductivity. It is also the secret of being an effective catechist.

Side Two

I have two, call them, monikers; call them two laws for all catechists: Live what you teach and another, be what you say, and, for our purpose, especially Christian charity otherwise known as selfless love. If you do that, if you love what you are teaching, better, if you live what you are teaching, you can leave the rest up to God. He knows that the main reason He became man in the Person of Jesus Christ was that we might follow in His footsteps and prove to a selfish world that Christianity is the true religion. Why? Because it produces selfless people who believe, with the little flower, that our primary vocation in life is to love. Of course on earth the price of loving selflessly is suffering. Of course! So what's new? The cost of loving selflessly is pain. The proof of loving selflessly is pain. The way to love selflessly is to be willing to suffer pain and the proof of that is [crucifix] God who is love became man. Oh what nonsense, what learned gibberish is now in thousands of books, all so much dirt. There's only one fulfillment for the human heart: that is to love selflessly; love God with our whole hearts and love others out of selfless love for God.

However, although necessarily it's a law, although necessarily if we're going to love as selflessly as God became man to teach us, you'll have to suffer, in other words carry the cross. Wonderful! So we embrace the cross. Well, let me tell you, the reward is great. Already on earth selfless love produces such peace of soul that's a joy of heart as nothing else can provide. And the more you suffer in loving, the more joy you experience. I wouldn't dare say this, unless in some small faltering way I was trying to live it. And in the life to come. The reward of selfless love is to enjoy the possession of God who is love and then enjoy that experience through all eternity. Amen. Thank you for listening. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 2003 Inter Mirifica

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