On October 1, the liturgy of the Church celebrates the memory of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, “the greatest saint of modern times,” in the words of Pope Saint Pius X. The charm of her “Little Way,” with all its sweetness and mercy, admirably harmonizes with the traits of a genuine warrior, “I would die in a battlefield, arms in hand,” she once stated.1
Her soul had infinite aspirations: she wanted to be a warrior, priest, apostle, doctor of the Church and martyr; she felt the courage of a crusader, of a Papal Zouave; she wanted to die in the battlefield defending the Church; she wanted to preach the Gospel to the four continents and to the remotest islands. “‘Jesus, Jesus’–she would say–‘if I were to write all my desires, I would have to borrow Thy book of life; I wanted to have achieved all these deeds for Thee….’”2
An Admirer of Saint Joan of Arc
This warrior aspect of Saint Thérèse’s soul is dominant in her moral profile. Yet, even those who love her most, tend to forget this trait.3
“In my childhood, I dreamed of combating in the battlefield. When I began to learn the history of France, I was enchanted with the deeds of Joan of Arc; I felt in my heart a desire and courage to imitate them.”4
Saint Thérèse gradually became increasingly aware of the profound similarities between her life and that of the Virgin of Domrémy. Thus, on January 21, 1894, the 101st anniversary of the martyrdom of the unfortunate King Louis XVI, she wrote a theater play titled, The Mission of Joan of Arc. The following year, as Pope Leo XIII declared her “Venerable,” and France celebrated it’s holy martyr and warrior, Saint Thérèse wrote the play, Joan of Arc Fulfills Her Mission, which the whole religious community staged. Saint Thérèse played the role of Joan of Arc.5
The play featured the conquest of Orleans, the coronation of King Charles VII, but above all Saint Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake, which to Saint Thérèse meant the apex of the achievement of the heroine’s mission.6
Saint Joan, the Virgin of Orleans, and Saint Thérèse, the Virgin of Lisieux, are two models of militant Catholic combatants against the enemies of the Church and of Christian civilization. Two great saints, though leading such different lives–one a strictly military life and the other a contemplative one–nonetheless have profound affinities with each other.8
Saint Thérèse did not live to see Saint Joan’s canonization, and she was far from imagining that, on May 18, 1925, Pope Pius XI would present her, Saint Thérèse, to the Catholic world as “a new Joan of Arc”; and that during the Second World War, Pope Pius XII would declare her, like the Virgin of Orleans, “secondary patron of all France!”9
A Crusader Soul; Apparitions; the Combatant
The idea of fight constantly fed the strong soul of the saint of the “Shower of Roses.”
“I went to sleep for a few moments during prayer,” she would tell Mother Agnes. “I dreamt there were not enough soldiers for a war against the Prussians. You said: We need to send Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus. I answered that I agreed, but that I would prefer to fight at a holy war. But finally I went all the same.10
“Oh no, I would not fear going to war. With what joy, for example, at the time of the Crusades, I would have gone to combat heretics. Yes! I would not have been afraid to be shot; I would not have feared the fire!11
“When I think I’m dying in bed! I would want to die in an arena!”
The same combative spirit animated her in the struggles of the spiritual life: “Sanctity! We need to conquer it at the tip of the sword…we need to fight!”
Such is the mettle of this extremely active and energetic warrior soul, according to the testimonies of those who knew her: “Under a suave and gracious aspect [she] revealed at every instant, in her actions, a strong character and a manly soul; she would not be discouraged in her dedication to the interests of the Church.”
“This is a manly soul, a great man,” Pope Pius XI later said. Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus thus followed the advice of the great Saint Thérèse of Avila to her daughters: “I want you not to be women in anything, but equal to strong men in everything!”
Thus wrote Cardinal Vico about the Virgin of Lisieux, “Thérèse’s virtue imposes itself with incredible majesty: the child becomes a hero; a virgin with her hands full of flowers causes astonishment with her manly courage.”
A handwriting analysis of Saint Thérèse’s Act of Profession gives this admirable testimony: “An iron-clad resolution, a great will to fight, an indomitable energy are expressed here. These traits show at the same time the fright of a child and the decisiveness of a warrior.”
In 1914, when the First World War breaks out, Saint Thérèse appears some forty times in various battlefields, at times holding a cross in her hand, at times a saber! The soldiers see her; she speaks to them matter-of-factly, resolves their doubts, overcomes their temptations and calms their fears. She protects, consoles and converts them.
French soldiers would invoke her as “my little sister of the trenches,” “my war patroness,” “the shield of soldiers,” “the angel of battles” and “my dear little Captain.” A soldier wrote, “In fact, that gentle Saint will be the great heroine of this war.” Another commented, “I think of her when the cannon thunders with great roar.”
Countless were the artillery pieces and planes named after Sister Thérèse; whole regiments were consecrated to her. Countless relics of the saint that miraculously stopped rifle bullets like real shields, saving the lives of the soldiers who carried them, are in her convent of Lisieux, a testimony to the great prodigies of the one who, in fact, “died with arms in her hand.”
- Poésies de Sainte Thérese de l’Enfant-Jésus, “Mes armes,” March 25, 1897, Office Central de Lisieux, 1951.
- Manuscrits Autobiographiques, dedicated to Mother Mary of the Sacred Heart, Office Central de Lisieux, 1956, folio 4 t’.
- Lettres de Sainte Thérese de l’Enfant-Jésus, Letter to Father Belliere, Office Central de Lisieux, 1948.
- Carnet Jaune, 4.8.6 in Demiers entretiens, Éditions du Centenaire, Desclée de Brouwer Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1971.
- Summarium of the Process of Beatification and Canonization 1, testimony of Celine, 2753.
- Correspondance Générale, Éditions du Cerf-Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1972, t. I (1877–1890), Letter (no. 89) Celine, April 26, 1889; Letter to Leonie, May 20, 1894.
- Summarium of the Process of Beatification and Canonization 1, testimony of Mother Agnes, 706, and of Mother Therese of Saint Augustine, 1072.
- Lettres de Sainte Thérese de l’Enfant-Jésus, as quoted by Saint Therese of Avila in a letter to Father Rouland, November 10, 1896, Office Central de Lisieux, 1948.
- L’Esprit de Ia Bienheureuse Thérese de l’Enfant-Jésus d’après ses écrits et des témoins occulaires de sa vie. Office Central de Lisieux, 1924, Preface, at VIII.
- Father François de Sainte-Marie, OCDP, Manuscrits Autobiographiques, Office Central de Lisieux, 1956, vol. II, 53.
- Cf. Interventions de Sr. Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus pendant la guerre, Pluie de Roses, Lisieux, 1920; and Ch. Gabriel Sarraute, Un soldat français: sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus, Imprimerie Morière, 1970.