Léonie: Sister Françoise–Thérèse
[Homily preached January 21, 2017 in the Chapel of the Monastèry of the Visitation in Caen, France by Jean-Claude Boulanger, bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, at the Mass celebrating the transfer of Léonie’s body from the crypt to her new shrine in the chapel]
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.”
Brothers and sisters,
The one who draws us together this afternoon is not a nun who founded a religious order the way St. Teresa of Avila did. No, she is a child in the Gospel sense, a little sister, named Léonie, Sister Françoise-Thérèse, here at the Visitation. There was, of course, little Thérèse, the youngest; but there was above all poor Léonie. Being little and being poor go together very well. Being little, then, is the opposite of being powerful. A powerful man eventually instills fear. One may admire him, perhaps . . . but for what he does or for what he possesses, much more than for who he is. Yet Léonie has nothing else to offer except who she is. Every human being, therefore, with individual failures and successes, may recognize himself or herself in Léonie. It is in this capacity that the one who accepts being little, being deprived of a thousand things, becomes rich with a thousand relationships, with a thousand bonds . . . Without knowing it, such a person weaves an immense tapestry of a thousand faces. This, then, is what Léonie reveals to us. Only the one who is little is truly a sister, and we can name her Sister Françoise-Thérèse.
Jesus was little because he was fully the Son of God, and he had learned to receive everything from God his Father. He was little. and he was fully the brother of humanity. The perfect example of the little brother is really Jesus of Nazareth. In him all those who search for a little brother have found one. But at the same time Jesus showed who the Father is. The humble, the poor . . . in a word, all those who know themselves to be little even if they have some money, some success, some intelligence, these discover what the Father is . . . a God all-powerful in Love . . . but so dependent on his creatures . . . A God who is capable of suffering before the disfigured face of his creatures… Yes, a God who is a heart marked with a cross. There it is, what we have learned during this year of Mercy. In contemplating Léonie, it is the face of Jesus that we discover.
In 1935 she wrote in a letter addressed to her sisters at the Lisieux Carmel: “I want to be so little that Jesus is forced to keep me in his arms. This, then, is the Léonie who has implemented in her life the little way of spiritual childhood of her sister Thérèse. She adds: “My spirituality is that of my Thérèse, and as a result, that of our holy founder (St. Francis de Sales), his doctrine and hers are all one, she is the soul of whom our great Doctor was dreaming. I am in a state of perfect abandonment…” (Letter of May 3, 1935).
Léonie and the Little Way . . . the way of childhood . . . the little way of confidence.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote in the 16th century: “The Lord is present even among the pots and pans.” Léonie, certainly, was not at Carmel, but she could have written what the reformer of Carmel said. At the heart of the little way that Thérèse described, it is Léonie who understood it best. Léonie wrote: “O my God, in my life where you have put little which shines, grant that, like you, I might go towards authentic values, disdaining the human values for estimating worth and wanting only the absolute, the eternal, the Love of God, in the strength of hope.” It is Léonie who makes herself a disciple of her sister even though ten years separate them. After Leonie’s death, her influence spread very rapidly: letters arrived from every continent, and they still continue to arrive constantly here at the Monastery of the Visitation.
This little way, the way of spiritual childhood, Thérèse discovered at Christmas 1886, when she finally left childishness behind. It is the path of trust and of complete abandonment into the hands of the Father. It is a way where one leaves oneself behind in order to open oneself to others. “I am only a child, powerless and feeble; however, it is my feebleness which gives me the audacity to offer myself to Jesus, to Your Love, O Jesus.” She will write again:
I offered myself to the child Jesus to be his little toy. I told him not to treat me like an expensive toy that children settle for looking at without ever daring to touch it, but like a little ball of no value which he could throw on the ground, kick with his feet, split open, leave in a corner, and even press to his heart if that would give him pleasure.
We find here again Thérèse’s sense of humor. It is through her feebleness, her littleness that she comprehends the infinite nature of the Father’s Love.
I can, despite my littleness, aspire to sanctity; it is impossible for me to grow up. I have to put up with myself just the way I am with all my imperfections, but I want to find a means of going to heaven by a little way that is quite straight, quite short, a completely new little way.
This way is made of trust and of love within the banality of everyday life. “Jesus does not ask of me grand actions but only abandonment and gratitude. It is abandonment alone which guides me. I have no other compass at all.” This little way is a path which everyone can follow, but only while practicing Love, the kind in which “the left hand does not know what the right is doing.” We are all called to sanctity: for this it is enough to put much love into the most ordinary activities of life. “Jesus doesn’t look at the grandeur of the actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which they are done.”
Thérèse is the saint of everyday life. She speaks about the holiness of daily life, about being faithful in small things without making a fuss, about being completely filled with love. She evokes the divine under the most human of circumstances. “Picking up a needle out of love can save the world.” It is also a way within the grasp of little people who express themselves through the ordinariness of life without ever having accomplished exceptional things which would be newsworthy. It is the sanctity that is within reach of everyone. She will speak of the elevator which must bring her up to heaven, and this elevator is not reserved for the wealthy. It is within everyone’s reach; this elevator is the arms of Jesus
It is indeed this little way that Léonie lived. Little people all across the world are rediscovering it through her. Many families who have difficulties with one of their children come willingly to her. Similarly, many young women search for their vocations on a meandering path. They see themselves in Léonie, who found her path in life after three tries. And finally, as Bernanos said: “It is much easier to detest oneself than it is to love oneself with humility.” Léonie was reconciled to herself, and she accepted being different from her sisters. Never does one find a trace of jealousy in her letters. One can say that she learned to love herself with humility and in simplicity.
+ Jean Claude Boulanger
Bishop of the Bayeux-Lisieux Diocese
[Note: I thank Bishop Boulanger for permission to translate and publish his homily and for furnishing a photograph; the Webmaster of the Visitation at Caen; and Rod Murphy, who translated the homily.].