23 January 2010

Three young witnesses to the faith

Last evening I celebrated Mass with the Sisters and girls and young women at Holy Family Home here in Bacolod City. You can read about Holy Family Home here, here and here. We were celebrating the feast of Blessed Laura Vicuña about whom I posted yesterday. This was our third year to do so. Blessed Laura is the patron of those who have suffered from abuse.

I link the celebration with that of St Agnes, whose feast was the day before, and who was martyred at the age of 12 or 13. Blessed Laura, who died exactly 1600 years and one day after St Agnes, was just a few months short of 13. Two years before her death she had offered her life to God for the conversion of her mother. God listened to her prayers.

St Agnes, El Greco (detail)

As I was telling the stories of these two young girls who had given their lives to God, I recalled what had happened in the life of the great Thérèse of Lisieux when she was 14. The website of the Apostleship of Prayer gives this account of the story which the saint recounted in her autobiography, Story of a Soul:

St. Therese joined the Apostleship of Prayer on October 15, 1885 when she was twelve years old. 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. 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.

St. Therese tells 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 fourteen 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.

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? Perhaps 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... a murderer named Pranzini.

St Thérèse as a child

I told the girls, many of whom have suffered deeply, about the sacrifices of these girls, the same age as many at the Mass, had freely made for the sake of others. They showed that our suffering, in whatever form it comes, doesn't have to be wasted but can bring life - eternal life - to others. I could see that they were listening intently.

Though I rarely ask any of the girls about what they have been through - they get proper professional help - they are very much aware that I know something of their suffering.

The three young girls whom we remembered at our Mass last evening are persons who can bring hope into the lives of so many today. They also had a deep sense of the reality that God calls each of us to be a saint, incuding every child. I remember how the words of St Paul, Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Col 1:24), once hit me like an arrow through the heart after a retreat many years ago. They have been words of hope to me ever since.

I thought I'd include the full painting by El Greco, which he did between 1597 and 1799, from which the detail of St Agnes above is taken. It's called The Virgin and Child with St Martina and St Agnes. St Martina was a Roman virgin martyred in 226. There are many stories about her but not much, if any, factual history.

St Agnes, whose name is a Greek word meaning 'chaste' is associated, as in El Greco's painting, with lambs, as the Latin word for lamb is agnus. Yesterday, the feast of the saint, as happenes every year, the pope blessed the lambs the wool of which will be used to make the palliums that are given to newly-consecrated metropolitan archbishops on the Feast of St Peter and St Paul.

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