Yesterday I led a Lenten afternoon of recollection for the Milwaukee chapter of Catholics United for the Faith. As their local spiritual advisor I've been giving these annual talks for the last three years. My theme this year was "The Little Way of St. Therese."
St. Therese joined the Apostleship of Prayer on October 15, 1885 when she was twelve years old. I can't help thinking that the practice of the Daily Offering planted the seeds for her great spiritual doctrine known as "The Little Way." In her autobiography, she wrote that she had great desires: to be an apostle, a missionary, even a priest, and a martyr. But how could she fulfill these desires? She was a cloistered Carmelite nun. She wrote:
MY VOCATION IS LOVE! Yes, I have found my place in the Church and it is You, O my God, who have given me this place; in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I shall be Love. Thus I shall be everything, and thus my dream will be realized.
Yet, she pondered, what does it mean to "be Love"? Again, God helped her understand her call. She wrote:
But how will she prove her love since love is proved by works? Well, the little child will strew flowers, she will perfume the royal throne with their sweet scents, and she will sing in her silvery tones the canticle of Love. Yes, my Beloved, this is how my life will be consumed. I have no other means of proving my love for you other than that of strewing flowers, that is, not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word, profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love.
In my talk I told the story of Pranzini, a man who had murdered two women and a young girl and had been sentenced to death. All reports were that he was going to his death angry and bitter and unrepentant. Therese, only thirteen at the time, committed herself to praying and offering up sacrifices for his conversion. The day after his execution she secretly read the newspaper account of his death. Here is how she wrote about it:
Pranzini had not gone to confession. He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance!
Young Therese called Pranzini her "first child."
This is "The Little Way" of St. Therese which Blessed Mother Teresa also followed: to do everything as an act of love for God, to offer all the little (and big) hardships of life for the conversion of sinners.
I ended my talk by asking people to imagine St. Therese arriving in heaven after her death at the age of twenty-four. Who do you think was the first person to meet her? Her mother Zelie? Her father Louis? No. I think the first person to meet her on her arrival in heaven was a man with a big smile on his face who could hardly wait to thank her for the role her prayers and sacrifices played in getting him there. I think it was a murderer named Pranzini.