This homily was preached by Deacon Br. Pier Giorgio of Christ the King, OCD, on the Memorial of St. Teresa of St. Augustine and Companions on July 17, 2020, at a Discalced Carmelite Monastery of nuns.
Sisters, there is something about today’s martyrs that is fascinating. Perhaps it is because they are not martyred in some far-away and missionary land, but rather in the streets of Paris and in the midst of a mob of so-called modern thinkers. There is something familiar about their circumstances to us. When we are confronted with escalating tensions in society, news stories about violence and vandalism to churches, we must consider, just like the nuns of Compiègne, how deep are the depths of our faith?
I am fond of their story, particularly of their playful scheming as they are locked away in prison. Having resigned themselves to God’s will earlier in their lives at their vows of religious life, they have already died and risen in Christ. They rewrite the lyrics of the revolutionary anthem to instead concern the victory of their martyrdom and the triumph of God and His mother. Imagine being a prison guard with these nuns, listening to them write together the anthem of their impending death. Hearing the revolutionary tune of La Marseillaise, but with very different words: “Let’s give our bodies in his Name! Let’s climb, let’s climb, the scaffold high! We’ll give God the victory!” (William Bush, To Quell the Terror, ICS Publications, p. 36).
In the Gospel today, the Lord tells us to ponder the meaning of the words of the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). In the time of Hosea, the Israelites had turned to idolatry and were offering sacrifices to false gods at the expense of the oppression of the poor. At the time of the French Carmelite martyrs, the revolutionaries in France had desecrated the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, renaming it the Temple of Reason, wherein atheism was enthroned. They offered sacrifices to their idols in the execution of their adversaries and abandoned the poor by attempting to destroy the Church in France. Our sisters in Compiègne were among their idolatrous sacrifices. Jesus says, “If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men. For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (Matthew 12:7–8). Ours is not a bloodthirsty God who desires or demands the blood of the martyrs to satiate some thirst. Rather, he desires us to love Him and be merciful to others. And yet, he accepts the consequence of martyrdom in the sacrifice the martyrs make within the context of the idolatrous sacrifice of their executioners. The execution of Christians is something that God permits in his Divine sovereignty. And then, just as through the Paschal Mystery, he transforms an idolatrous act of murder into resurrection to eternal life. He then throws seeds into the faith of future generations. Just as the martyrdom of the North American Martyrs planted the faith in St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who we commemorated earlier this week, the martyrdom of the Compiègne Carmelites planted the seeds of faith for the future saints of France, including our beloved sisters, Mariam of Jesus Crucified, Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Elizabeth of the Trinity, and more. The Hebrew word for mercy that Jesus quotes from Hosea is hesed, which has a complicated meaning. For Hosea, it means something like doing for another what is necessary for their livelihood. Mercy is the sacramental life of the Church, the necessities of our spiritual livelihood: baptism, eucharist, and reconciliation. By its idolatry, revolutionary France had abandoned this hesed-mercy.
Last summer, I went with some of the brothers to the movie theater in downtown DC to watch the Met’s production of the Dialogues of the Carmelites, the opera by Poulenc which is based on the story of today’s martyrs. Poulenc’s opera is a powerful representation of the internal struggle of faith of a young nun named Blanche as she struggles and ultimately comes to terms with martyrdom. While Blanche is a fictional character, we see the heart-wrenching strain she undergoes in order to abandon herself to faith. In the opera, the Mother Prioress says to the young novice, Sister Constance, “When priests are lacking, martyrs are superabundant.” In other words, where the sacraments can no longer be celebrated, God provides through the fruits of the sacrifices of the martyrs. While we cannot take these words doctrinally—they come from an opera—they should give us something to consider. As Carmelites, we are called to sit at the feet of the Eucharistic King for hours each day. If ever He is taken away from us, like the bride in the Song of Songs, like the martyrs of Compiègne, we may be called to follow after the Bridegroom. In our following, we may have to say with the bride: “Making their rounds in the city the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the walls. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.” (Song 5:7–8)