The Catholic Church has the custom of honoring certain individuals who have lived lives of great piety and virtue or for the heroic act of martyrdom. Christianity is a difficult religion to follow. So much of what Jesus taught is extremely challenging to practice day in and day out, consistently, for years. Those individuals, who also had their faults, but who lived up to Christian ideals with remarkable success, are held up as examples of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. A saint is a role model.
It’s not easy to be declared a saint. The Church has a process that includes collecting all the possible data available on the individual whose name has been put forward, which includes any writing, interviews with people who knew them, interviews with people who did not know them but observed them publicly, as well as interviews with those who claimed to have had a miracle granted by this person’s intercession either before or after they died. These miracles must be documented and unexplainable by any other means.
A person put forward for sainthood must first be designated Venerable by the Pope, then a Servant of God, next as a Blessed and finally a Saint. The process may take several hundred years.
It is unusual for a series of saints to have the same name, because they deliberately chose to take a name they wished to be known by in their religious life, and then become a saint themselves. This is the case, however, with four women who are all named Teresa in religious life. (Although there are others, these four are the best known.)
The first was Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), or Dona Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda , who took the name (this is a custom in some religious orders when an individual is accepted into the order, they take a new name) Teresa de Jesus (Teresa of Jesus). The second, Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897), was named for Teresa of Avila at her baptism, and took her name in religion as Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. Edith Stein (1891-1942), took the name Teresa, Benedicta de la Cruz (Teresa, Blessed by the Cross) because of her admiration for Teresa of Avila. In fact, she attributes her conversion to Catholicism to her reading of Teresa of Avila’s autobiography. Last was Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910 – 1997) who took her name in religion from Therese of Lisieux. Other women, who took the name Teresa in religious life, are in the process of becoming declared saints themselves.
These four great women saints were all members of a religious order. All were known for their persistence in their faith and in the tasks they were to perform. Three belonged to the Carmelite religious order while the fourth founded an active missionary order (Missionaries of Charity).
All four Teresa’s had their faith revealed to the world either through their written autobiographies, through their personal correspondence or through other writings. In their time, they were pillars of strength to others, deeply in love with God, and demonstrated the Christian message through their lives. Whether they lived in obscurity or in international fame, they remained true to their calling: to love and serve God in the best way they could.
Two have been named “Doctors of the Church” (Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux) meaning that their writings contain profound truths about spirituality. They are considered among the greatest teachers of Christianity and Christian spiritual practices.
All four were born in Europe, and three spent their entire lives in European countries: Teresa of Avila in Spain, Therese of Lisieux in France, Teresa Benedicta del la Cruz (Edith Stein) Germany and the Netherlands. Only Mother Teresa left Europe voluntarily. Her order sent her to India where she spent most of her life.
Three died natural deaths. Edith Stein was gassed in Auschwitz. They came from wealthy, well to do families (Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux) or from poor circumstances (Edith Stein). They entered religious life at different times in their lives. Therese of Lisieux entered at age fifteen. Mother Teresa entered at eighteen. Theresa of Avila entered at around the age of 20, while Edith Stein was in her forties.
Of the four Teresa’s, only Edith Stein was a convert to Catholicism, having grown up a Jew. Edith Stein was also the best educated, having a PhD in Philosophy.
On the face of it, these four women don’t have much in common other than their religious names. What made them so notable that the Church says their lives reflected, at a heroic level, their love of God?
Teresa of Avila is famous in the Catholic Church for two things: she restored the Carmelite religious order to its original purpose and rule, and wrote some of the most profound books on prayer ever written (The Interior Castle). Her books, written in Spanish, were never edited or rewritten; they remain first drafts as she hand-wrote them during spare moments of the day. She lived during the time of the Spanish Inquisition which attempted to stamp out any person or writing that was overly “spiritual” and was in fact, denounced to the Inquisition. She lived in a time when kings and royalty ruled Europe and their word was final and binding. Everything that happened in a kingdom needed royal approval, including the founding of religious houses. She suffered from physical illnesses throughout her life, yet she traveled extensively to accomplish her goals. When exhumed, her body was found to be incorrupt.
Therese of Lisieux grew up the pampered youngest child of a well to do pious Catholic family. Like Teresa of Avila, her mother died when she was young. Her older sisters, one by one, left home to enter the convent. After a conversion experience, she too longed to enter the convent, and begged for permission to enter at the age of fifteen, one year before most girls were accepted into the order. Permission from the Bishop was requested and denied, so she appealed to the Pope. She did enter at fifteen, dying at age twenty-four of tuberculosis. She left behind an autobiography (The Story of a Soul) written at the request of her superiors. This book, like the works of Teresa of Avila, has become regarded as a giant in spiritual literature, documenting through her own life and experiences, how she followed Christian ideals in “little things” for love of Jesus. Just as she saw herself as only a “little flower” so her way to perfection became known as “The Little Way.” Her body remains incorrupt and is on display.
Edith Stein (Sister Benedicta de la Cruz) was born and raised a Jew. Her autobiography (Life in a Jewish Family 1891-1916, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1986) is unfinished. She was a brilliant woman. Her doctoral dissertation in philosophy was a phenomenological exposition of the concept of Empathy. As a woman and as a Jew, she was prevented from taking up an academic career at any German university but she was able to obtain a teaching position at a Catholic girl’s school. She was a popular lecturer. Some of her speeches and writings on women have been translated into English and published (“Das Frau” or “Woman.” Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1987). After her conversion to Catholicism she was drawn to the Carmelite order where she was eventually admitted. When Germany began purging its population of Jews, her order transferred her to the Netherlands where it was felt she would be safe. When the Nazi’s conquered the Netherlands, she and her sister Rosa were part of the general round up and they were sent to Auschwitz. The Church honors martyrs or those who died for their faith. Ironically, Edith Stein was martyred, not for being a Christian, but for being a Jew. Pope John Paul II named her a co-patron saint of Europe.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta became known to the world when she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for her work among the destitute of India. She founded the Missionaries of Charity, whose work of mercy was, and is, to serve the poorest of the poor. She saw the face of Christ in every person she met, whether it was Pope John Paul II or a dying Untouchable crawling with worms. She drew people to her and to the work but insisted that she and the members of her order were not social workers. Their service came from a deep need to be obedient to Jesus in all things, rooted in a consistent and profound prayer life. Like Teresa of Avila, she was a strong minded woman. She had a rock-like faith that sustained her through decades of long arduous days of fighting and caring for the unwanted. Her letters (Mother Teresa, “Come be my Light”) describe her “Dark Night of the Soul” (Saint John of the Cross) while remaining completely trusting in God. She exemplified the message that the virtue of the “Corporal Works of Mercy” comes about only through deep prayer and love.
All four are admired by the Catholic Church for living out their faith in a heroic manner. What is striking is that they deliberately chose the same name by which to be identified and known. Each was groundbreaking in her own way, following in the footsteps of Teresa of Avila. They represent the best of Catholic womanhood: strong minded, persistent, dedicated, deeply spiritual and loving. They gave everything they had. They shared Christ’s love with their lives.