After yesterday’s 40-minute visit to a Roman hospital for a “check up,” Pope Francis participated this morning in his usual Wednesday General Audience in St. Peter’s square, where he spoke about St. Therese of the Child Jesus and afterwards greeted pilgrims from his wheelchair. But only a few hours later, journalists began reporting that Francis had returned to the hospital for surgery. The Vatican Press office issued a statement that Francis would “undergo a laparotomy and abdominal wall surgery under general anaesthesia.” According to the statement, “The surgery, decided upon over the past few days by the medical team assisting the Holy Father, became necessary due to an incisional laparocele (hernia) that is causing recurrent, painful and worsening sub-occlusive syndromes.”
Several hours later the Vatican reported that the surgery had been successful, with “no complications,” but that he would remain in the hospital for a few days and that his scheduled audiences have been postponed until June 18 as he recovers.
Perhaps, then, it is providential that the Holy Father’s catechesis this morning was on the “missionary zeal” of a Carmelite nun who was sickly and, upon entering religious life, never left the Lisieux Carmel — someone who died at the young age of 24. Francis noted that St. Therese “is patroness of the missions, but she was never sent on mission.” This is true. On December 14, 1927, Pope Pius XI proclaimed her, along with the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier, as the Universal Patrons of the Missions.
Some might be confused about why the Church would declare a contemplative, cloistered nun as a patroness of missionaries. The reason, as Pope Francis explained, is that “her heart was vibrant, missionary. She recounts in her ‘diary’ that her desire was that of being a missionary, and that she wanted to be one not just for a few years, but for the rest of her life, even until the end of the world.” During her earthly life, the pope described how “Therese was a ‘spiritual sister’ to several missionaries: she accompanied them from her monastery through her letters, through her prayer, and by offering continuous sacrifices for them. Without being visible, she interceded for the missions, like an engine that, although hidden, gives a vehicle the power to move forward.”
St. Therese’s heart and prayers were with those who, like her co-patron Francis Xavier, went abroad into the mission fields to evangelize. She offered her illness, hardships, and sacrifices for missionaries. “And she did this joyfully, for the needs of the Church, so that, as she said, ‘roses might fall on everyone,’ especially the most distant,” said Pope Francis this morning. Prayer and mission are not opposed to each other; prayer is the fuel that drives mission forward.
Those who are isolated, sick, suffering, or otherwise cut off from the world — as Pope Francis will be for for the next week or two — can contribute to the missionary and evangelizing mission of the Church through our prayers and daily offerings. Anything we have, even if it’s pain or loneliness, can be offered to the Lord. As Pope Francis said:
Such is the power of intercession moved by charity; such is the engine of mission! Missionaries, in fact – of whom Therese is patroness – are not only those who travel long distances, learn new languages, do good works, and are good at proclamation; no, a missionary is anyone who lives as an instrument of God’s love where they are. Missionaries are those who do everything so that, through their witness, their prayer, their intercession, Jesus might pass by.
This is the apostolic zeal that, let us always remember, never works by proselytism or constraint, but by attraction: one does not become a Christian because they are forced by someone, but because they have been touched by love. With so many means, methods, and structures available, which sometimes distract from what is essential, the Church needs hearts like Therese’s, hearts that draw people to love and bring people closer to God. Let us ask this saint for the grace to overcome our selfishness and for the passion to intercede that Jesus might be known and loved.
And let us pray for Pope Francis’s recovery. Once again, I’ll share Pope Francis’s May 2020 prayer to Our Lady for the sick:
You shine continuously on our journey
as a sign of salvation and hope.
We entrust ourselves
[and, in a special way, Pope Francis]
to you, Health of the Sick,
who, at the foot of the cross,
were united with Jesus’ suffering,
and persevered in your faith.
“Protectress of the Roman people”,
you know our needs,
and we know that you will provide,
so that, as at Cana in Galilee,
joy and celebration may return
after this time of trial.
Help us, Mother of Divine Love,
to conform ourselves to the will of the Father
and to do what Jesus tells us.
For he took upon himself our suffering,
and burdened himself with our sorrows
to bring us, through the cross,
to the joy of the Resurrection.
We fly to your protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from every danger,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.
Image from General Audience of June 7, 2023, courtesy of LM and RM, all rights reserved.