The letters were written when the author was Patriarch of Venice, and were published as ‘open letters’ in the Italian Christian paper ‘Il Messaggero di Sant’ Antonio’, and addressed to various individuals, some fictional, some historical. He writes to legendary figures, to important scientific, historical and literary people, to characters from their books, plays, operas and poems, to saints, and even to Christ Himself.
St Teresa of Avila - the mystic
St Teresa of Avila, a Spanish Carmelite nun, born 1515 died 1582, came from a rich, noble family, becoming a Carmelite nun at the age of 21 years, and eventually succeeding in reforming her Order, restoring it to its original austerity. In his letter to St Teresa, Pope John Paul I has this to say:-
Dear St Teresa,
Anyone who looks at Bernini’s famous marble group, in which he depicts you pierced by the seraph’s arrow, will think of your visions and ecstasies. And rightly so: the mystical Teresa, rapt away in God, is a true Teresa.
But there is another Teresa, one I like better. A Teresa of everyday life, who experiences the same difficulties as we do and who skilfully surmounts them; who can smile and laugh and make others laugh; who moved about the world with great self-possession and lived through the most varied events, helped by her many natural gifts but even more by her constant union with God.
When the Protestant Reformation broke out, the situation of the Church in France and Germany became critical. It saddened you Teresa, ‘If I could have saved a single soul among the many lost there, I would have sacrificed my life a thousand times’ you said, ‘but I am a woman’.
A woman! But one worth twenty men, who left no method untried, and managed to carry out splendid internal reforms and influence the whole Church with her work and writings.
You were a woman who spoke out frankly, dear Teresa, and wrote in a polished, cutting style. Although you had a very elevated idea of the mission of nuns, you wrote to Father Graziano: ‘For the love of God, be careful what you do! Never believe nuns, because if they want something they’ll try every possible means to get it.’ And to Father Ambrose, refusing a postulant, you said: ‘You make me laugh when you say you know her soul just by seeing her. It’s not so easy to know women!’
Yours was the perfect definition of the devil: ‘That poor wretch, who cannot love.’
To Don Sancho Davila you wrote: ‘I have distractions too, in reciting the divine office. I confessed it to Father Dominic, who told me to take no notice. I say the same to you, because it’s an incurable disease.’ This was spiritual advice, but you were very free with advice of all kinds. You even advised Father Graziano to make his journeys on a better-tempered donkey, one without the bad habit of tossing friars to the ground; or else to have himself tied to the donkey to avoid tumbling off.
But when the time came to do battle, you seemed unconquerable. The papal nuncio, no less, had you shut up in the convent at Toledo, declaring you to be ‘an unquiet, wandering, disobedient, and quarrelsome woman.’ But from your convent the messages you sent to Phillip II, and to princes and prelates, sorted everything out.
Your conclusion was this: ‘Teresa on her own is worth nothing; Teresa and a penny are worth less than nothing; Teresa, a penny and God can do everything.’
St Teresa of Avila - a spiritual and practical leader
To me, you are a remarkable example of something that keeps turning up regularly in the Catholic Church.
Women don’t rule in the Church – that’s a function of the hierarchy, but very often they inspire, promote and sometimes direct. On the one hand the spirit ‘blows where it will’; on the other, women are more sensitive to religion than men and more capable of giving themselves generously to great causes. This means that a great many women saints, mystics and foundresses have been recognised in the Catholic Church. There are also women who led religious movements, and influenced a very wide range of people.
Marcella, a noblewoman who directed a kind of convent of rich and cultivated patricians on the Aventine, collaborated with St Jerome in translating the Bible.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century Madame Acarie influenced distinguished people such as the Jesuit Coton, Friar Canflet, St Francis de Sales and many others, and thus had an effect upon the whole of French spirituality at the time.
Princess Amalia Gallitzin, who was appreciated even by Goethe, spread a current of intensely spiritual life through the whole of northern Germany.
Sophia Swetchine, a Russian convert in the early nineteenth century, turned up in France and became the ‘spiritual directress’ of all kinds of people, lay and clerical.
I could cite other examples, but I will come back to you, Teresa, who were not so much the daughter as the spiritual mother of St John of the Cross and the first reformed Carmelites.
Today there are no problems in the Carmelite Order, but in your day there was the row I mentioned earlier.
You were on one side, full of charismatic gifts, and of ardent luminous strength given to you for the benefit of the Church; on the other stood the papal nuncio, or rather the hierarchy which had to judge the authenticity of your gifts. At first, on the basis of distorted information, the nuncio decided against you. Once he had things explained to him and had examined them better, everything was cleared up, the hierarchy approved, and your gifts were able to expand in the service of the Church.
Today we hear much about charismatic gifts and the hierarchy, but allow me to take the following principles from your works. First; the Holy Spirit is above everything, ultimately ensuring the unity of the Church. Second; Charismatics and the hierarchy are both necessary to the Church, but in different ways. The former act as accelerators, favouring progress and renewal, with the latter using the brake, in favour of stability and prudence. Third; the role of each sometimes overlap and even conflict, but since the hierarchy has to regulate all the main stages of ecclesiastical life, charismatics cannot, with the excuse that they have visions, remove themselves from its guidance.And fourth and last; Charismatic experiences are not anyone’s private reserve; but it is one thing to be able to have visions, and quite another to actually have them.
Dear St Teresa, if only you could come back today, the word ‘charisma’ is squandered. All kinds of people are known as ‘prophets’, even the students who confront the police in the streets, or the guerrillas of Latin America. People try to set up the charismatics in opposition to the pastors. What would you say– you who obeyed your confessors, even when their advice turned out to be the opposite of that given to you by God in prayer?
Pope John Paul I - author of 'Illustrissimi'
Don’t think I'm a pessimist. I hope this business of seeing visions everywhere is just a bad habit that will pass. On the other hand I know that the authentic gifts of the Spirit are always accompanied by abuses and false gifts. And the Church has gone on just the same.
In the young Church of Corinth, for instance, visionaries flourished. St Paul was rather worried about it because he’d found some abuses. Later these abuses became more noticeably aberrant.
Two women, Priscilla and Massimilia, who supported and financed Montanism in Asia, began by preaching a moral awakening ‘charismatically’; this involved great austerity, the total renunciation of marriage, and absolute readiness for martyrdom. They ended by setting up new prophets against the bishops. These men and women, ‘filled with the spirit’, preached, administered the sacraments, and waited for Christ, who was to come and inaugurate the new kingdom of heaven at any moment.
In the time of St Augustine we find Lucilla of Carthege, a rich lady whom Bishop Ceciliano had scolded because she used to press a small bone of some martyr to her breast before Communion. Hurt and angry, Lucilla induced a group of bishops to oppose Ceciliano. They failed to establish their point in Africa, but protested successfully to the Pope, then to the Council at Arles, finally to the Emperor himself. A new Church began. In nearly all the cities of Africa there were thus two bishops, and two cathedrals frequented by two opposing categories of the faithful, who, when they met, came to blows. Catholics on the one hand; the followers of Donato and Lucilla on the other.
Donato’s followers called themselves ‘the Pure’. They never sat down in a place previously occupied by a Catholic without first cleaning it with their sleeve. They avoided the Catholic bishops like the plague, appealed to the Gospel against the Church, which they said was supported by the authority of the Emperor, and set up assault squads.
In the seventeenth century, there were the nuns of Port Royal. One of their abbesses, Mother Angelica, had started well: she had ‘charismatically’ reformed herself and the monastery, keeping even parents out of the cloister. She had great gifts and was born to rule, but she became the soul of Jansenist resistance, intransigent to the last in the face of the ecclesiastical authorities. Of her and of her nuns it was said that they were ‘as pure as angels and as proud as devils’.
How far all this is from your spirit, Teresa! What a gulf between these women and you! ‘Daughter of the Church’ was the name you loved best. You murmured it on your death-bed; while in life you worked hard for the Church and with the Church, even accepting a certain amount of suffering from the Church. Couldn’t you teach some of today’s ‘prophetesses’ a little of your method?
St Teresa of Avila - daughter of the Church
"Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world."
(St Teresa of Avila)