It was a mystery that many wanted to solve. What could be in the black briefcase that Pope Francis carried to and from scheduled events on his recent trip to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro?
On the flight back to Rome Pope Francis put an end to the mystery. “The keys to the atomic bomb weren’t in it”, Francis quipped. “Rather”, he said, “the bag merely contained a razor, his breviary prayer book, his agenda, and a book on St. Therese of Lisieux, to whom he is particularly devoted.” All the contents were pretty mundane, except, of course, that the last item really caught my attention.
I knew that Pope Francis had a strong devotion to St. Therese and prayed to her for guidance, but why would he bring a book on her to World Youth Day? It could be that he just happened to be reading it at the time and simply brought it with him to finish. I cannot prove it, but I suspect that it might have to do with the fact that a major theme of the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro was to be missionaries for Christ and St. Therese of Lisieux just happens to be the Co-Patron of the Universal Missions.
On December 14, 1927 Pope Pius XI, the same pope who had canonized St. Therese two years earlier, declared her to be Patroness of the Universal Missions of the Church along with St. Francis Xavier. Even though St. Therese never left her monastery after she entered at the age of 15, her Autobiography, Story of A Soul, reveals her intense and sustained missionary spirit throughout her life. Just ten weeks before her death on September 30, 1897, St. Therese made the following astonishing statement to her sister, Pauline: “I feel that I’m about to enter into my rest. But I feel especially that my mission is about to begin, my mission of making God loved as I love Him, of giving my little way to souls. If God answers my desires, my heaven will be spent on earth until the end of the world.” (St. Therese of Lisieux – her last conversations, pp. 102)
St. Therese had spent her entire life loving God and praying for the conversion of sinners that they might do the same. The fecundity of her missionary spirit naturally emerged from her deep, loving relationship that she had with Jesus through her contemplative prayer in the monastery. She fell passionately in love with Jesus and then offered all her prayers and sacrifices in her quiet, mundane life so that others might love God as she loved Him. St. Therese was a model in this and it is why she was declared Co-Patron of the Missions even though she lived a contemplative life.
Pope Francis understands deeply that for the missions to be successful people need to grow in prayer and only then share their own love for Jesus with others. At the World Youth Day last week in Rio de Janeiro the Holy Father exorted the young people to get to know Jesus in prayer and then to go out to share the Gospel with others. He said that Christians should not close in on themselves, but become fully alive by loving others in actions. He wants all people, especially the young, to love God and to share their love of God. In other words, he wants them to live out St. Therese’s msisionary goal “to love God and to make Him loved”.
Maybe that is why Pope Francis had a book about St. Therese in his famous black briefcase. It is only conjecture, because he didn’t say why he had that particular book. But what we do know is that the theme of mission was very prevalent at World Youth Day and St. Therese, as the Patroness of Missions, had a lot to say about spreading God’s love to all without exception.