“We have conferred… or better yet, we have recognized the title of Doctor of the Church for Saint Teresa of Jesus.”
Pope Paul VI said these words on September 27, 1970 during a Mass at which he honored Teresa of Avila as the first woman to receive this lofty title.
Eight days later he would also make Catherine of Siena a Doctor of the Church. And then, in 1997, John Paul II would add Thérèse of the Child Jesus (the Little Flower) to the list.
Benedict XVI gave the title to Hildegarde of Bingen in 2012.
During that September 27 Mass of some 50 years ago, Paul VI noted that, through baptism, the woman “participates in the common priesthood of the faithful, which empowers and obliges her to ‘profess before all the faith received from God through the Church'” (cf LG, 2,11).
“In this profession of faith, many women have reached the highest summits, to the extent that their words and writings have been a light and guide for their brothers and sisters,” he added.
Thus, the magisterium officially recognized what the People of God had long since perceived: in the Christian community, women do teach, by virtue of their baptism, in a complementary register to the teaching of the hierarchical Church.
Teresa of Jesus was aware that she had received a special gift. She claimed to be ignorant, complaining that she did not have access to Scripture (Spanish translations of the Bible were banned in 1559) and had to resort to theologians.
But she was steadfast in acknowledging the graces she received.
“One thing is to receive this favor from the Lord, another is to understand what it consists of (…), and yet another is to know how to speak about it and make it understood” (The Book of My Life, 17:5).
To know how to receive God’s graces and to correspond to them is the characteristic of holiness. To understand and explain God’s action is the characteristic of a teaching charism given for the whole Church.
At the invitation of her superiors and of her Carmelite sisters, without an editorial project, Teresa recounted, with her particular feminine genius, her experience of a privileged relationship of love with Christ Jesus.
She recounted anecdotes, humor and images from daily life, as well adding spontaneous prayers of supplication and praise. And she taught readers to pray by praying with them.
The Carmelite reformer, founder of 18 monasteries throughout Spain, made theology in life, finding in her memory the biblical words that enlightened her experience and what she revealed about God through her actions.
She sought the correct words to give an account of her encounter with the Risen Christ, who was alive and well with her, who sought her company and waited for her, even before she sought his company.
With simplicity, she recounted her struggles to respond to this love that preceded her. With solid common sense and a benevolent listening to the laity, she accompanied clergy and consecrated persons on the path of prayer.
At a time when certain currents of spirituality advocated contemplation of the divinity without passing through the humanity of Christ, she rebelled. It is the God who came to meet us in the mystery of the Incarnation that she joined in faith, the God who entered into the history of humankind and into her own history.
The image of the Savior covered with wounds, who loved her and gave himself up for her (see Gal 2:20) overwhelmed her (Life, 9:1).
Her spirituality, centered on Christ, puts prayer within everyone’s reach: “We are not angels, we have a body (…) in times of drought, Christ is a very good friend, because we see him as a man and contemplate his weaknesses and trials, and he keeps us company and, with the help of habit, it is very easy to find him close to us” (The Book of My Life,22:10).
A few decades before Descartes and his famous “I think therefore I am”, Teresa discovered that her “I” is only fully found in the loving encounter with the “you” of her Creator and Savior.
I am yours; for you I was born; (…)
Yours, through you I am redeemed (…)
Yours, because you called me
Yours, because you waited for me
What do you want to do with me?
(The Book of My Life,22, 10; Poetry,5).
Because she loved Christ, Therese of Jesus loved the Church. She suffered from her heartbreak, from the delicate intertwining of the political and religious in the Spain of Philip II, from the abuse of power in a time of easy excommunication and censorship.
But she died saying, “I am a daughter of the Church”. The one called La Madre is a mother and doctor in the Church because she loved it with a filial, clear and passionate love.
Father Jean-François Lefebvre is the director of the Studium de Notre-Dame de Vie and a professor at the Faculty of the Teresianum (Rome).