THE GOOD THIEF HAD BECOME A MODEL OF REPENTANCE. LITTLE ST THERESE WAS THUS REMINDED NOT TO DESPAIR OF HENRI PRANZINI’S SALVATION. HE TOO COULD RECEIVE THE GRACE OF CONVERSION “IN AN INSTANT”.
ST THERESE MULTIPLIED HER PRAYERS AND SACRIFICES TO OBTAIN HIS CONVERSION…
LITTLE ST THERESE WANTED TO BECOME A NUN
On Pentecost Day, May 29, 1887, Therese decided to confide her great desire to her father: to enter Carmel as soon as possible. She wanted to be there by Christmas. Admirably generous, Monsieur Martin expressed no opposition to the plan. He could easily see that she was serious. Picking a blossom of saxifrage from a wall nearby, he gave it to his youngest daughter, explaining to her that she herself was a little flower that God had always eagerly cared for.
A GREAT EUCHARISTIC GRACE
One Sunday in July 1887, Therese received a great eucharistic grace at Saint Pierre Cathedral. At the end of Mass, a picture of the Crucified Christ slipped out of her Missal and she was struck by the thought that His blood was falling to the ground without anyone thinking of collecting it. She decided to remain at the foot of the cross for the rest of her life to receive this precious divine dew, for the sake of sinners. In her heart she heard Jesus’ cry “I thirst”, and for Therese this thirst was a thirst for love.
HER FIRST GREAT SINNER TO PRAY FOR
A few days later, Therese was presented with a privileged opportunity to put her resolution into practice. On July 13, 1887 Henri Pranzini, a convicted murderer, was condemned to death. The newspapers of the time insisted on the criminal’s particularly rebellious character. Despite the overwhelming charges that weighed against him, he manifested no sign of repentance. In fact, he boldly proclaimed his innocence.
It is unlikely that Therese had read many articles about Pranzini in the papers although she did not refrain from doing so. However, everyone was talking about the criminal. “Everything led to the belief that he would die unrepentant,” Therese recalled, “I wanted at any cost to prevent him from falling into hell.” Her concern was to save a great sinner from the mortal danger he was in. By persevering in his dishonesty and impenitence, he might be deprived forever of the joy of living with God.
A picture in the chapel in Saint Pierre’s Cathedral where Therese attended Mass every morning reminded her that, in a flash, the Good Thief had become a model of repentance. She had no right then to despair of Pranzini’s salvation. He too could receive the grace of conversion “in an instant”.
She multiplied prayers and sacrifices to obtain his conversion and had a Mass celebrated for him. Although she was certain that Jesus would answer her, she asked Him to give her a sign of Pranzini’s genuine conversion. “Simply for my consolation,” she said to the Lord, “because he is my first child!”
Thus she was jubilant to read the account of what happened at his execution in the September 1 edition of ‘La Croix’. At the last minute, Pranzini had asked for the chaplain’s crucifix and had kissed it twice. In writing her memoirs eight years later, Therese recalled that he made this gesture “three times”. This sign of repentance had a special significance for Therese because it was before the wounds of the Crucified Christ that her heart began to burn with the desire to save many souls.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED ON AUGUST 31 1887 WHEN PRANZINI WAS EXECUTED
‘Souvenirs de La Roquette’ [Memories of La Roquette], a book written by Father Faure, the outstanding chaplain who exercised his ministry at La Roquette prison for six years, and who accompanied twenty condemned prisoners to their execution, tells the story: Pranzini, who spoke eight languages fluently – he spent the hours of his imprisonment translating pages of Alexandre Dumas. Into various languages – always received the chaplain with great courtesy and frequently attended Mass. Pranzini told him feelingly about the piety of his mother, who lived in Alexandria.
The day before the execution, the chaplain stayed with him in his cell for a long time. Always very discreet, Father Faure wrote: “Our interview was more cordial and more intimate than ever. We conversed for more than two hours and, when I left him, he told me he was sorry to see our conversation end so soon.”
This helps us to understand better the condemned man’s response to Monsieur Beauquesne, the director of La Roquette, when he was asked, early in the morning of August 31, if he wanted to stay with Father Faure for a few moments. “The chaplain has fulfilled his duty,” he replied, “and I know mine.” He was no doubt alluding “to our long conversation of the previous day,” commented Father Faure. Here is how he described Pranzini’s last moments: “When, after saying a last farewell, I took a step back, he cried out in a voice choked with anguish, in a cry full of repentance and faith: “Father, bring me the crucifix!” I quickly went to him and pressed the crucifix to his lips – he kissed it fervently. We exchanged a couple of words… He was pushed against the platform, a noise sounded, the blade fell… it was all over.”
THERESE’S VISIT TO THE BISHOP, OCTOBER 31 1887
Pranzini’s so greatly desired conversion encouraged Therese to put everything in place to enter Carmel as soon as possible. Since the Lord gave her Pranzini as her first child, she would surely have many more if she consecrated her life to self-sacrifice and prayer for the salvation of sinners.
Canon Delatroette, the priest responsible for watching over the admission of postulants, was definitely opposed to Therese’s candidacy. “She is much too young… Let her wait until she is twenty-one! Unless, of course, His Excellency gives permission.”
Therese seized the opportunity. “Let’s go to see the bishop! … And if he is opposed,” she added, “I will go and ask the Pope.” As it happened, her father had signed up himself and his two youngest daughters for a pilgrimage to Rome, organised by the diocese of Coutances in honour of Leo XIII’s jubilee.
For the trip to Bayeux, Therese wore her prettiest white dress and put her hair up in a bun in order to appear older. Before the audience, she and her father entered the cathedral, where there was a funeral going on. Therese was quite a sensation with her white dress and hat!
A prudent man, Bishop Hugonin avoided making a final decision on the spur of the moment. He merely assured her that he would soon discuss her request with Canon Delatroette. Therese had no illusions about this. The bishop would not change Canon Delatroette’s mind. Her request would be shelved. She did not wait to be out of the room before the tears flowed. Bishop Hugonin, in his paternal manner, tried to console her. He pressed Therese’s head against his shoulder and promised to give her his response during the pilgrimage to Italy.
The falling rain on that October 31st 1887 was indeed the reflection of her sadness. “I have noticed,” Therese later wrote, “that in all the serious situations of my life, nature has been the image of my soul. On days of tears, the heavens cried with me, on days of joy, the sun shone brilliantly and not a cloud could be found in the blue sky.”
WAITING FOR CARMEL
On her return from Rome, Therese waited as patiently and peacefully as possible for Bishop Hugonin’s response to her appeal. Every day, after Mass at the cathedral, she checked the mailbox for a response. Nothing came! To encourage her sister to “abandon” herself totally to Providence, Celine gave her a little model boat on whose sail she had engraved the name “abandon”.
Christmas 1887 arrived! Still nothing! Therese cried at Midnight Mass… But she discovered that the trial must increase her confidence… At last, on January 1, the eve of her fifteenth birthday, Mother Marie de Gonzague transmitted the bishop’s response: It was yes!
One final difficulty then surfaced: her sister, Pauline, thought it prudent to postpone Therese’s entrance until spring. Thus the very young postulant would be spared beginning her religious life in the midst of the Lenten austerities.
Her entrance was set for April 9, the Monday of the second week of Easter. Therese had reason to remember that on Celine’s little boat, whose name was “abandon”, there was inscribed on the sails a quotation from the Song of Solomon: “I sleep but my heart keeps watch”. If Jesus had seemed to be asleep and doing nothing to facilitate her entrance into Carmel, His Heart nonetheless continued to watch over her lovingly.
– This article was published in “Helping the Missions side by side with St Therese, Issue No 79, To Commemorate the visit of St Therese’s Relics”, published by “The Little Way Association”; contact for donations / to join the mailing list: The Little Way Association, Sacred Heart House, 119 Cedars Road, Clapham Common, London SW4 0PR