I am in Woodstock, Maryland these days, at St. Alphonsus Rodriguez Church, a Jesuit parish, where I am in the middle of a parish mission. The church here has a statue of the saint whom we honor today--St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face--and a large candle burns in front it. As providence would have it, the readings at Mass this morning (not the readings for her feast but for Tuesday in the 26th Week in Ordinary Time) allowed me to share with the congregation some of the spirit of St. Therese who is the second patron saint of the Apostleship of Prayer.
The first reading from the Prophet Zechariah (8: 20-23) contains a beautiful prophetic word: "Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem. ... [They] shall take hold of every Jew by the edge of his garment and say, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'" Those words, "God is with us," appear in the first chapter of Matthew where the Son of God made flesh is called "Emmanuel." Jesus is God with us in the flesh. Zechariah's prophetic word was fulfilled when God became human, dwelt on earth, and died and rose in Jerusalem. Of course he continues to dwell with us in the Blessed Sacrament.
In today's gospel, Luke 9: 51-56, Jesus "resolutely determined to go to Jerusalem" where his destiny as the Savior of the world would be fulfilled. In Jerusalem he will die on a cross to prove God's love for the world. On the cross he will draw all people to himself, to his pierced heart. In Jerusalem he will rise from the dead to blaze a trail for us.
On the journey to Jerusalem a Samaritan village refuses hospitality to Jesus and his followers. Jews, especially those going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, were hated by the Samaritans who in turn were hated by the Jews as heretics. James and John, true to the nickname that had been given them--Boanerges or Sons of Thunder--ask Jesus if they should "call down fire from heaven to consume" the Samaritans. "Jesus turned and rebuked them." It is as though Jesus is telling them, "When I get to Jerusalem, I will die for them too. So pray for them. Pray that they may know and accept my love and be converted."
Jesus, as Pope Francis has recently pointed out, died for all, including atheists and our enemies. All. But not all have accepted the love of Jesus. Not all have accepted the salvation Christ won for us on the cross. Many are at risk of being alienated from God forever and it is for these in particular that we should offer our prayers and sacrifices.
That is what St. Therese did a year after she enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer when she was 12. Here's how she describes it in her autobiography:
"One Sunday, looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of the divine hands. I felt a pang of sorrow when thinking this blood was falling to the ground without anyone's hastening to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive the divine dew. I understood I was to pour it out upon souls. The cry of Jesus on the Cross sounded continually in my heart: 'I thirst!' These words ignited within me an unknown and a very living fire. I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls."
The first soul whom she targeted for her loving attention, the first soul that she felt Jesus thirsted for the most because he was at great risk of being alienated forever from God, was a murderer named Henri Pranzini. He was bitter and unrepentant, but Therese prayed and offered sacrifices for him. At the very last second, as the blade of the guillotine was about to drop on his neck, he, in Therese's words, "took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times?" Convinced that her prayers had played a decisive role in his last second act of repentance, Therese called Pranzini "my first child."
With these thoughts in mind, as we celebrate St. Therese, co-patron of missionaries and the Apostleship of Prayer, let us commit ourselves to praying and sacrificing for the conversion of our enemies, the "Samaritans" in our lives, as well as for all those most at risk of choosing eternal separation from God.