The flu has visited our community, inviting some of us to a different sort of Lenten penance than originally planned. I spent the greater part of my own ‘forced retreat’ with some good friends, just catching up. Yes, St. Therese and Pope St. John XXIII were happy to keep me company, being that germs are of no concern to them. I revisited a favorite picture book of the life of St. Therese and the autobiography of Pope St. John XXIII. And, in both books, I was reminded of the power and legacy of spiritual fathers and mothers.
First I thumbed through page after page of photos, real photos, of St. Therese, her ‘people’, and her ‘stuff’: favorite holy cards, childhood room, dolls, artwork, cell, letters, etc. Perhaps because of my own work with formation, though, I was taken especially with a photo of St. Therese with one of her novices, Sr. Marie of the Trinity. From what I’ve read, we’ll just say that Sr. Marie of the Trinity had a rough start in religious life. She said herself that there were seemingly insurmountable difficulties from lack of health, virtue, and acceptance from the community. But then, above all these roadblocks, there was St. Therese who believed in her vocation, going so far as to say: “I would willingly give my life for you to be a Carmelite.” On Sr. Marie of the Trinity’s Profession Day, Therese said: “I feel like Joan of Arc witnessing the Coronation of Charles VII!” Truly Therese accompanied and loved this sister, but with love perfectly fit to her uniqueness, with a tough love, a love that the Lord used to form Marie into a true Carmelite and made her one of the first disciples and pilgrims of the Little Way. In the photo they both had hints of mischief about them that delighted my heart! I like to imagine Therese whispering at that moment: “Vivre d’amour!”
After putting this book down, I picked up Journal of a Soul (the autobiography of John XXIII) and read this from his tribute to his former spiritual director, Fr. Francesco Pitocchi: “At the conclusion of our first meeting he gave me a motto to repeat to myself calmly and frequently: “God is all: I am nothing”, and this was like a new principle and opened to my gaze new horizons, unexplored, full of mystery, and spiritual beauty. AND I WAS SATISFIED! I had found what I so long desired and what, ever afterwards, whether near or far from him, I was to retain, a safe and trustworthy adviser, the kindest and most faithful of friends, and above all a father, a real father, whose wise and persuasive words were such as to form and nourish Jesus Christ in my soul, and so train it to manhood in Christian and priestly life.” As I read this, I felt indebted to this good priest: Thank you Fr. Francesco. Thank you for being a spiritual father to this seminarian, who would become first a priest, then a bishop, then the pope, and at last a saint. I pray that you are with him now in the eternal embrace of our Heavenly Father!
As we reflect on these two examples, let us remember our own spiritual fathers and mothers who have so affected our life, whose words or examples have formed us, challenged us, and taught us to believe in love . Let us think of the many who have been vessels of God’s Mercy to us, though perhaps totally unaware. How many times have we been a nameless person in the crowd touched by a someone’s words or actions, or have been an anonymous penitent behind a screen! – and yet we walk away changed, by God’s grace, through the instrumentality of this ‘link in the chain’ (to use Bl. John Henry Newman’s words).
But with an enduring gratitude, let us call to mind those who have faithfully accompanied us through the years, through the ebb and flow of life, through dark valleys, deserts, torrential rains, and blizzards! – “such as to form and nourish Jesus Christ” within us. To them who are in a mysterious way a reminder of Our Lord’s promise: “I will never leave you orphans” – let us offer a little tribute of thanks! No doubt the most fitting tribute of thanks that any spiritual father or mother could desire would be the one that Pope St. John XXIII gave…to become the saint that we are called to be!