She Believes in Love

Together with her husband H. Lyman Stebbins, Madeleine Stebbins founded Catholics United for the Faith in 1968.

The apostolate is still going strong today. She spoke with features correspondent Tim Drake about herself, the organization and the re-release, by Sophia Institute Press, of Father Jean d'Elbee's I Believe in Love: A Personal Retreat Based on the Teaching of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from originally?

My parents came from Switzerland. I was born in Patterson, N.J., as one of five children. My father was a doctor of chemistry and my mother stayed home and took care of the children. My mother did a lot of charitable work during the Depression, and she also took care of refugees from Nazi Germany.

Refugees were always staying in our house. This was how I first met Dietrich von Hildebrand. As a refugee, he came to visit for dinner one evening. I later studied philosophy under him at Fordham University.

Were you raised Catholic?

Yes, but my mother was a convert from the Swiss Reform Church. She was a direct descendant of [Protestant reformer Ulrich] Zwingli and perhaps his first Catholic descendant. My husband, Lyman, was a convert from the Episcopal faith.

How did you and your husband meet?

We met through a friend of Dietrich von Hildebrand's, Dr. Baldwin Schwarz. They both lived in the same apartment building on Central Park West. Both Lyman and I were Benedictine oblates, as was Dr. Schwarz. I was introduced to Lyman one day when I went to pick something up from the Schwarz residence. Lyman was a graduate of Yale, and at the time he was a stockbroker on Wall Street. We met often at Dr. Schwarz's and Dr. von Hildebrand's.

What led you to found Catholics United for the Faith?

There was, first of all, the time in 1967 when Pope Paul VI issued The Credo of the People of God. Lyman felt very strongly that Pope Paul VI was trying to stem the faithlessness of the age. Then there were massive uprisings against the Holy Father's encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. Lyman felt right from the beginning that the revolt against Humanae Vitae was only the latest symptom of a general dimming of the faith that had taken place over the previous years.

There was also a great deal of confusion because of the loud voices of dissenting theologians. Lyman felt that it was our duty to applaud and support the Holy Father, and that the only remedy to this general disaster of dissenting voices was to build up the faith and spread the faith in whatever way that we could.

Lyman believed that we must at all times be totally obedient and submissive to our Holy Father the Pope and the bishops in union with him. What the magisterium teaches with authority is the faith. This then led to the creation of CUF.

How did you discover the book I Believe in Love?

In 1971, Lyman and I were in Rome at the Hotel Columbus. In walked a Frenchman named Pierre Lemaire. He was the head of Tequi publishing in France and was a very holy man. He had a book with him, Croire a l'Amour by Father Jean du Coeur de Jesus d'Elbee, which he handed to us and said, “I want you to read this book.”

We asked him to have lunch with us and there was an immediate meeting of minds. Lyman started reading the book, and one night while reading the book, he turned to me and said, “This is an absolutely heavenly book.” I read it and agreed.

The book is very moving. It throws a light on St. Thérèse of Lisieux and on the merciful love of God in language that is simple and flaming. It sets a fire in you. My husband spoke the book into a cassette and played it often at retreats. Many people said they were touched by it.

What in this book was so appealing to you?

It brought very close to our hearts and minds the overwhelming, merciful love of Jesus Christ. It gives one a perception and an understanding of what confidence in God's love means. The surrender that he asks of us is a loving surrender. The book distills and develops the central doctrine of St. Therese of Lisieux. One comes away with grace after reading the book.

Did you get to know the author?

No, but I did correspond with both Father d'Elbee and his wife, Sister Claire-Marie of the Heart of Jesus. The two were married for a year and had a great love for each other.

They also had a deep love for Christ and both felt called simultaneously to religious life. Father d'Elbee became a religious of the congregation of the Sacred Heart and Sister Claire-Marie became a Carmelite. He dedicated the book to her. St. Therese of Lisieux's teachings form the core of Father d' Elbee's reflections.

Why do you think this book, and St. Thérèse, touch so many people today?

It's a mysterious thing. Whereas the great mystics, such as St. John of the Cross and St. Catherine of Siena were fiery, Therese was able to bring this love of God within everyone's grasp. Her “little way” was what the mystics were saying, but in a different manner. Whereas St. John would say, “Nothing; nothing but God,” St. Therese said, “Just be a child in the arms of Jesus.” In a way, she made the spiritual doctrine accessible. She had the gift of explaining with simplicity, beauty and charm.

The Church had experienced a Jansenistic influence during the previous two centuries. Therese just melted all that away. The charm of her personality was like a perfume. She was transparent to the face of Jesus and God's grace. She brought people to Christ and she continues to do that.

Lyman felt that this was needed in our day and age, especially when theologians were strutting around like proud peacocks. This childlike way was an instrument for melting hearts and bringing them back to orthodoxy and a simple, straightforward and true spiritual life.

Sophia Institute has recently re-released the book. Can you tell me about that?

Yes. Lyman and I had completely reworked the original translation in the mid-1970s. Sophia re-released it in July of this year. I am very delighted with this new edition and feel it applies, even more so, to our day and age because of the dismay, desolation and despair that has set in. Sinful humanity seems to be caught in desolation, and to come back to the truth and the love of Christ is very difficult if one isn't thoroughly immersed in and overwhelmed by God's mercy. Otherwise the guilt is so heavy and seems too much for a human being to overcome. So, I think this a wonderful way to let the grace shine. I think it is needed now more than ever.