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The Devil’s Advocate

Whenever the Church conducts a process of beatification or canonization, there is always a person who is appointed to argue against the candidate’s holiness. This person is the Promoter of the Faith, commonly called the devil’s advocate. For the cause of Thérèse, it was Msgr. Verde who was nominated.

 Verde-petit 

  The objections of Monsignor Alexander Verde

to the Canonization of Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus

 Click here to read these objections to the Cause of Therese in full

All canonizations within the Catholic Church are the culmination of a long, complicated procedure that is governed by specific rules of canon law. During a series of trials, judges pass judgment on cases that are presented by, on the one hand, lawyers who are favorable to the candidate for sainthood, and on the other, by a designated objector, the Promoter of the Faith, who is responsible for listing everything that could hinder the recognition of the candidate’s sanctity.

From January 1914 onwards, Msgr. Verde held this function for the cause of Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus. An experienced member of the hierarchy (he had been Promoter of the Faith since 1902), he was already distinguished for the rigor with which he carried out his tasks. This lawyer did not intend to be swayed by the charm which emanated from Story of a Soul or intimidated by either the shower of miracles that had been attributed to the little Carmelite from Lisieux or by the large popular movement that was rising in support of the canonization. It fell to him to scrupulously enforce the norms that Benedict XIV had laid down for any recognition of authentic sanctity. He applied himself to this in the Adnimaversiones (objections to the process), which he finished in April 1914. His line of argument, to put it briefly, was not lacking in consistency.

We can group his objections into two series, the first of which centers around Story of a Soul. Who, without the testimony that Thérèse provided on herself, would have thought that this nun that died aged 24 was a heroine of faith? Her entourage had undoubtedly noticed her great piety, but the young girl had accomplished nothing extraordinary. Her holiness passed unnoticed by many of her companions in the convent. It was problematic that Thérèse had written an autobiography that would be used as a means of “self-defense”, even if the narrator’s intention was not to show her personal merits but the grace of God at work in the smallest of souls. It would have been better to have had the objective testimony of a spiritual director, one who was unknown to the family. It was problematic that witnesses often referred to her book to interpret their own memories or support the idea that Thérèse was a saint. Their admiration stemmed from reading and not from direct observation. Lastly, it was problematic that the convent of Lisieux had published the manuscripts so quickly and organized an entire propaganda campaign (indulgences, holy cards, brochures, etc.) to spread the Theresian message. Verde insinuated that the Servant of God was a self-proclaimed saint and was admired mainly on account of her story.

The other series of objections was based on the virtue of humility. The Promoter of the Faith did not fail to cite her blood sisters’ comments relating to the advice Thérèse apparently made on her deathbed to collect relics; this was hardly a sign of self-abasement. Most importantly, according to the norms of Benedict XIV, the virtues of servants of God should have a heroic character. Yet the numerous little and ordinary humiliations that Thérèse suffered voluntarily did not display this character. The Carmelite might well have convinced herself that her little way, which was composed of tiny daily sacrifices, pleased the Child Jesus as much as proof of dazzling heroism. But the fact that she proposed an innovative doctrine in terms of holiness so young, and on her own initiative, revealed a confidence that was hardly compatible with extreme humility. What is more, whilst preaching humility, she displayed her merits to others, and not without taking a certain literary pleasure in writing a work that she claimed she completed out of obedience to her Superior. Besides, several conflicting testimonies sufficed to confirm that her life, which was hardly sublime, did not make her a unanimously admired example of holiness.

All in all, the Promoter suggested the idea of there being two types of holiness. The first was performed by pious servants of God in private, its intimate value being known by the heavenly Father alone: as authentic as it may be, the Church as a ruling body remained unaware of it. The second was demonstrated in an extraordinary way and was visible on the outside. It immediately inspired a form of veneration that owed nothing to biased publications. This was the type that, after confirmation of the candidate’s miracles, the Church raised to the glory of the altars. Thérèse belonged to the first category of saints, regardless of the graces she imparted from heaven. Verde concluded that, short of modifying the customary rules, her case had to be rejected.

The lawyers for the canonization cause delivered a skillful response to these objections, invoking the God of the Magnificat who raises up the humble, the unknown and the little in the person of the Blessed Virgin. Also, Pius X gave his consent for the Cause to be officially introduced. In 1921, having become Secretary of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, Msgr. Verde sided with the position of the new Pope, Benedict XV, according to whom “the universal popularity of Story of a Soul” was indisputable evidence of holiness. Verde followed the subsequent stages of the process with keen interest and signed the official documents in favor of Thérèse’s canonization.

Anne Langlois
Professor specialized in literary Classics, having translated Msgr. Verde's objections from Latin 
 

Click here to read these objections to the Cause of Therese in full

 

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