St. Therese of Lisieux and the Guillotine

In 13 Today's Church on 2014/09/28 at 12:00 AM
  • In July of 1887, a French man by name of Henri Pranzini was found guilty of a triple murder in Paris and condemned to die. His crime became known worldwide not simply because of its awful brutality, but also because one of his victims was a child.
  • Moreover, by all accounts it guessed that Mr. Pranzini would die impenitent, for his was seemingly the hardest of hearts imaginable. And thus it was with great anticipation that he was led to the guillotine in late August of 1887.
  • However, unbeknownst to this hardened sinner was the fact that a teenaged girl in Normandy was not only praying for his conversion and had a Mass offered for this intention, but she was also completely confident that he would repent on the scaffold and succumb to God’s mercy.
  • And that’s precisely what happened. Just before he handed his head over to the awful guillotine, Mr. Pranzini reverently kissed a crucifix as a sign of his sorrow for his sins.
  • The young Norman girl praying for him, of course, was none other than Thérèse Martin, whom most of us know either as St. Thérèse of Lisieux or the “Little Flower.” This week on October 1, Holy Mother Church will celebrate St. Thérèse’s feast day.
  • Of all the many remarkable things that can be said about St. Thérèse and her saintly life, perhaps the most remarkable was her unshakeable confidence in God’s mercy.
  • What we learn from the Little Flower is that we must all be confident in God’s mercy, even if our past contains many terrible sins – even sins like those of Pranzini.
  • We are given great reason to have confidence in God’s mercy in our readings today. The prophet Ezekiel teaches us today that if a man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is right and just, he shall be saved.
  • And in today’s Gospel Jesus tells the chief priests and elders of the Jewish people that even tax collectors and prostitutes – who were considered the worst elements of society – can enter into the Kingdom of God!
  • The point is that Heaven is open to all who repent of their sins, no matter how terrible or numerous one’s sins may be.
  • Of course the Church counts amongst her saints many very notable sinners: St. Paul was murderer; St. Mary Magdelene was reputed to have been a prostitute; St. Augustine fathered a child out of wedlock; and St. Fabiola was an adulteress and bigamist.
  • Yet now we herald these people as some of the greatest saints of the Church – all because they repented of their sins and changed their lives.
  • The secret of converted saints is that they never lost sight of their sinfulness. They didn’t torture themselves with thoughts of their past or refuse to forgive themselves, but they never forgot how terrible theirs sins were and the great mercy God showed them.
  • Their secret is that they became humble by being more concerned with reminding themselves of the sins rather than basking in their virtues.
  • By developing humility through recognizing their sinfulness, the saints were better able to live lives of sacrificial love, doing nothing out of selfishness or vainglory, but rather regarding others as more important and looking out for the interests of others rather than their own interests – just as St. Paul commends us to do in the 2nd reading.In our “dog-eat-dog” society today, we are often very quick to think of our goodness, focusing on our strengths and talents. It seems that we all have a resume ready to show how good we are.
  • But truly, my brothers and sisters, we should focus on our talents and virtues only as a means of growing in gratitude to our Lord, who has given us every good thing we have, and to put ourselves at the service of others.
  • Matthew 9:13 reminds us that Jesus came to call sinners, not the righteous, and thus it is good for us to acknowledge our sinfulness, for this breeds humility within us and makes us more thankful for God’s incredible mercy.
  • In the Traditional Latin Mass, the priest prays most of the Canon of the Mass in a soft voice that no one else in the church can hear. The exception is the phrase “nobis quoque peccatoribus,” which means: “to us also, sinners.”
  • So in effect, the only time the priest raises his voice to an audible level is to remind himself and the faithful present at the Mass that we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy. It’s a humble reminder of who and what we truly are: people in need of a savior.
  • For without God’s mercy, Heaven will be attained by none of us. The good news is that our Lord promises His mercy to all who call upon Him with true sorrow for their sins, and His is a mercy that is strong enough to melt even the hardest of hearts.
  • Remember, my brothers and sisters, it’s not so much the seriousness of the sins we’ve committed that will keep us out of Heaven. It’s our refusal to acknowledge and repent of our sins that will keep us out of Heaven.
  • Therefore, let us all pray for the grace to know our sins and repent of them. May we all be humble enough to face and acknowledge our faults and failings. And in so doing, may we all be completely confident in the Lord’s mercy.

©Fr. Timothy Reid

Pastor of St. Ann Catholic Church, Charlotte, NC


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