On March 29, 1847, a Carmelite nun from Tours, France, named Sister Marie of St. Peter received a mission from Christ: to defeat the workings of the men operating in Paris at the time, in what He called the “Society known as the Communists.” The weapons He gave her were His Passion and Cross, and the prayer of reparation to His Holy Face. He also especially asked for reparation for sins against the first three commandments.
“Oh, if you only knew their secret and diabolical plots and their anti-Christian principles,” Christ said to Marie in a purported apparition, “They are waiting for a favorable day in order to inflame the whole country. To obtain mercy, ask therefore that this Work of Reparation be established by addressing yourself to him [the archbishop] who through the bounden duty of his office can establish it.” (Marie of St. Peter, The Golden Arrow (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2012), 58, 202-203).
Sister Marie accepted her mission, and the devotion became popular and was embraced by two future saints: Thérѐse of Lisieux and Pope John Paul II. St. Thérѐse lived a profound contemplative spirituality of Christ’s Holy Face, and Pope St. John Paul II wrote on the special significance of the contemplation of the Face of Christ for living a truly Eucharistic piety of communion with and for others.
The teachings of these three masters of the interior life — Sister Marie, St. Thérѐse and St. John Paul II — show us how we can use the devotion to the Holy Face of Christ to love and serve the Suffering Christ in others, especially today as we find ourselves distanced from loved ones and see violence erupting in our streets.
St. Thérѐse and the Suffering Servant
As Genevieve Devergnies related in Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Life, Times, and Teaching, Thérѐse was told about the then-popular devotion to the Holy Face of Christ as a very young child. That said, ”Until my coming to Carmel, I had never fathomed the depths of the treasures hidden in the Holy Face,” she wrote.
Meditation on the Suffering Servant made present in the Holy Face was to become the cornerstone of Thérѐse’s spiritual life. She made the words of the prophet Isaiah “the whole foundation of my devotion to the Holy Face, or, to express it better, the foundation of all my piety” (Genevieve Devergnies, “Suffering Opened Wide Its Arms to Me,” in Conrad De Meester, ed., Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Life, Times, and Teaching (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1997), 132-134.) — referring to the passage in Isaiah 53: “He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye, no beauty to draw us to him. He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering” (v. 2-3).
Thérѐse’s devotion to the Holy Face was so great that even carried a lock of Sister Marie’s hair with her as a relic and insisted her own novices recite prayers to the Holy Face as given to Sister Marie in purported apparitions of Christ (as described in the book, “The Golden Arrow”).
Thérѐse’s Oblation to Merciful Love
While Marie was given the mission to spread devotion to the Holy Face in reparation against the spread of atheism, Thérѐse came to know the darkness of atheism herself during her final illness, offering her suffering for unbelievers.
Thérѐse helped the Church understand a great deal about our unity as the body of Christ. She helped renew that understanding through prayer and by offering our trials, doubts, and dark nights of faith, we can make reparation for the sake of other members of Christ’s body.
Importantly, Thérѐse offered her suffering as an oblation to Merciful Love rather than to a punishing God of judgment who would demand pain as a sacrifice. This was a major departure from a negative strain of rigorist spirituality popular in her time.
Pope St. John Paul II’s Spiritual Theology of Communion
Pope St. John Paul II declared St. Thérѐse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church, an honor given to saints whose teachings are deemed important not just for those of their era but for the good of the Universal Church throughout all time. He came to develop her spirituality of the Holy Face into a renewed Eucharistic spiritual theology.
John Paul presented his ideas on the invisible dimension of communion and how our lives can become “completely Eucharistic” in his 2001 apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte.” Issued at the end of the Great Jubilee, he devoted a section of the document to what he called the “spirituality of communion.” In it, he highlighted the Eucharist as “the sacrament of unity,” and as the “source of communion.”
John Paul called for the Church to live out its Eucharistic character in the world: “To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings.” He argued, however, that before plans can be made to make this school a reality, this “spirituality of communion” must first be fostered. He wrote: “A spirituality of communion indicates above all the heart’s contemplation of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity dwelling within us, and whose light we must also be able to see shining on the face of the brothers and sisters around us.”
He insisted that we should consider our brothers and sisters as members of the Mystical Body and so as “a part of me.” According to John Paul, this identification with others allows us to enter into their lives, sense and meet their needs, and enter into true friendship, calling us to “make room” for others and bear their burdens.
Importantly, John Paul strongly cautioned, “Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, ‘masks’ of communion rather than its means of expression and growth.”
Contemplating the Face of Christ
The foundation of John Paul’s spiritual theology of communion was the contemplation of the Face of Christ and the need to live in the light of Christ — for others. John Paul wrote that the legacy of the Jubilee Year was the “ … contemplation of the face of Christ: Christ considered in his historical features and in his mystery, Christ known through his manifold presence in the Church and in the world, and confessed as the meaning of history and the light of life’s journey” (“Novo Millennio Ineunte,” No. 15). It is in knowing Christ, both God and man, that we also know “the true face of man, ‘fully revealing man to man himself’” (No. 23).
In a section of the document which begins with the question of what we must do to live a Christian life, John Paul suggested we do not need a new program as one already exists: “Ultimately, it (the program) has its center in Christ Himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in Him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with Him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem” (No. 29).
The pope reflected on the witness that a life of contemplation produces: a holiness that is the “message that convinces without the need for words…the living reflection of the face of Christ” (No. 7). He urged that it is “the Church’s task to reflect the light of Christ in every historical period, to make his face shine also before the generations of the new millennium” (No. 16).
At the darkest moments of history, God sends saints to teach and console. The prophetic witness and teachings of Marie, a hidden daughter of Carmel, her sister in spirit Thérѐse, doctor of the universal Church, and John Paul, our most recently sainted pope, can strengthen our resolve today to live truly Eucharistic lives in the light of the Blessed Trinity and the Holy Face of Christ — with and for others.
Clare McGrath-Merkle, OCDS, DPhil writes from Maryland.