Thursday, October 1, 2009

Thérèse of Lisieux: The greatest saint of modern times

Today is the feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face and brings to mind the extraordinary success of her spiritual autobiography, The Story of a Soul. When published, it electrified the Catholic world. Soldiers in World War I carried prayers to, and medals or badges of, "The Little Flower" with them into the trenches, though it would be years before she was beatified and canonized.

After the visit to Canada of her relics and after seeing the effects of her visit to Halifax, the last official stop on her coast-to-coast (a visit to St. John's was added at the last hour), I have become aware of the greatness of her spiritual teaching. Of course, when one speaks of "who is the greatest" it's bound to be controversial. The caption is only one of many possible answers....

Today's blog entry, includes an article from early September in The Catholic Herald, explores the outlook on the eve of the visit of the relics to England and Wales, presently nearing the mid-mark.

I begin by posting the CCCB report on the visit of St. Therese's relics in 2001, compiled shortly after the tour was completed.

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Recalling the 2001 Visit of the Relics of St. Therese to Canada

Visit to Canada of relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: A success beyond all expectations (6 February 2002--Ottawa - CCCB)... Nearly two million Canadians venerated the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux during their September 16 to December 17, 2001, visit to Canada.

According to Mr. Jacques Binet, chair of the National Organizing Committee, "We had expected a large turnout but the response went far beyond our expectations".

In all, the relics visited 49 of the 63 Latin Rite Catholic dioceses across Canada, stopping at 118 different locations. The reliquary stopped at cathedrals, basilicas and parish churches, as well as local pilgrimage sites such as Wakaw, Saskatchewan, and major national shrines including the Canadian Martyrs' Shrine, Midland, Ontario; Saint Joseph's Oratory, Montreal; the Sanctuary of Cap-de-la-Madeleine, near Trois-Rivières; and the Sanctuary of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, near Quebec City.

"For travelling by road across Canada," Binet added, "the Committee had bought a van, generally known as the 'Thérèse-mobile', which carried the reliquary over some 20,000 km. At the wheel were a number of wonderful and generous volunteers from the Knights of Columbus, as well as Gérald Baril, a member of our committee, who drove for much of the time."

The relics were transported by plane on seven occasions, including a trip to the small Native community of St. Therese Point in northern Manitoba, and also to St. John’s, Newfoundland. For four days, November 29 to December 2, they travelled to the northern-most parts of Quebec and Labrador on a helicopter.

"The scale of the visit to Canada surprised a large number of people, including some bishops and priests as well as a lot of the media," Binet said. "First of all, there were such large crowds each time the reliquary stopped on its journey from Vancouver to St. John’s. Then there was the presence of people from other faiths, including Muslims, Buddhists, Orthodox and Protestants. Finally, there was such a deep sense of reverence wherever the relics were."

Binet said the presence on Canadian soil of the relics of the "Little Flower" touched the hearts of many Canadians, judging by testimonies later received and also by what was seen first-hand by those accompanying the reliquary. "We saw popular faith express itself in such a surprising way," he said.

"Now it remains for us to try to understand what lies behind this phenomenon, as it will probably have an impact on all the Catholic Church throughout Canada." The relics of Saint Thérèse de Lisieux came to Canada at the invitation of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. This was the 22nd country to welcome the major reliquary of the young French Carmelite nun who died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 24, was canonized in 1925 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997....

The relics of St. Therese have been travelling throughout the world since 1994 and are presently in England (cf. story below).

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Pilgrims gather outside the Carmelite chapel at Lisieux before morning Mass. Around 800,000 come to this town in the Pays d'Auge region of Normandy each year, drawn by the reputation of its most celebrated one-time resident, St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, often referred to - in a phrase she uses in her autobiography Story of a Soul - as the "Little Flower".

The visitors are a mixed bunch - all ages, all nationalities and the whole gamut of motivations for being here, from the devout to the merely curious. Patricia is an Irish-born nurse in her 60s from Bromley. "This," she tells me, her husband hovering at her shoulder anxious that they should go in and take their seats for Mass, "is my 33rd year in Lisieux. Some years I have come four times." And what keeps her coming back? "Thérèse, of course. She always answers you. She will give you many roses if you ask for them."

As she turns to go inside, she adds, as an after-thought, "I think Thérèse is very good for young people", but does not pause to explain. Perhaps she feels she doesn't need to. When Thérèse died of intestinal tuberculosis in 1897, she was only 24. Many feel that this early death gives her a special gift for speaking to young people, not least because her spiritual autobiography, written while in the Carmel, is so frank about her doubts and dark nights of the soul.

In contrast to Patricia, Sheila and Dee, two sisters in their late 40s from the north of England, are here for the first time.

"I have to be honest," Dee begins almost apologetically, "I haven't read much about Thérèse, but I grew up Catholic, still am but not a terribly devout one, and have always been very interested in St Bernadette and the Lourdes story. That captured my imagination a long time ago. So Lisieux seemed like another place to go and find some spiritual enlightenment."

Her logic is impeccable. After Lourdes, Lisieux is France's most visited shrine, with a well-trodden pilgrim route around the town, marked by a sky-blue line on the pavement, between the Carmel, the vast white basilica with a lavish mosaic interior dedicated to Thérèse which opened in the 1930s, and the saint's former family home, Les Buissonnets, now a museum. And what about Sheila? She has been listening to her sister but looking slightly puzzled.

"Well, I was educated by nuns and learnt all about the Little Flower as a girl. They were French Sisters so we always celebrated October 3 as Thérèse's feast day. Like Dee, I enjoy going to Lourdes. There must be something about this place too to make so many people come."

She says it as if still waiting to be convinced. What seems to be making her most apprehensive is the thought of what lies inside the Carmel chapel. There is, housed in an elaborate gold casket with plate glass windows, a life-size statue of Thérèse, eyes closed, clutching the crucifix and smiling, as if in the moment of death. Underneath it are her bones, placed there after her original grave in the town's cemetery was exhumed in 1923, the year of her beatification (canonisation followed two years later).

"I know in the Catholic faith that there was a lot of devotion to relics of saints," Sheila admits, "but it has never been something that has interested me." Dee is also apprehensive. "There's something rather macabre about it," she suggests.

I find myself wishing that Patricia was still with us. I'd asked her about the relics too and her answer had been reassuringly everyday. "It is just like if your younger brother or sister died, and you had something in memory of them. With the relics, it is just a connection."

To mark the 50th anniversary of Thérèse's death in 1947, some of her bones were placed in a reliquary and sent off on tour around France. The Little Flower had three years earlier been named - along with Joan of Arc - as the joint second patroness of France, after the Blessed Virgin Mary. So it made sense, as the war-weary nation struggled to recover from occupation and the divisive legacy of the Vichy collaborationist regime in the south and west, to offer the memory of Thérèse as a source of reconciliation and healing.

The travelling reliquary proved so popular that it continued to criss-cross France in the decades that followed. Then, as the centenary of Thérèse's death approached in 1997, the authorities at Lisieux took a further bold step. They agreed to a request from nearby Belgium for the reliquary to leave France for the first time. The excursion went so smoothly that an invitation to Rimini in Italy was then accepted, where the reliquary was present throughout a world youth congress.

After that matters gained a momentum of their own. The reliquary has now been to over 40 countries from Iraq to Australia, and in September is coming to England and Wales.

Sister Monique Marie works with the rector of Lisieux basilica to organise the schedule and often accompanies the reliquary. Though she wears a brown and white habit like the Carmelites, she belongs to a small, recently founded French congregation of Sisters whose mission is in the world, rather than in the enclosure.

"It is not bones that people meet when they come to see the reliquary," she explains, in a formula of words that I hear repeated every time I broach with officials at Lisieux the propriety of touring Thérèse's remains, "it is a reaction. They are meeting a friend. Sometimes there is something difficult in their lives and they can leave all these difficult things to Thérèse as a friend."

The reliquary remains closed at all times and is displayed behind a glass screen. What precisely do people do when they approach it? "It depends on the culture," says Sister Monique Marie.

"In South America, you can't see the reliquary because everybody is crowding round it, wanting to touch it. We had to call the policemen, but in China, they are all standing one metre away and no one touches. For me, we are not angels. It is important to touch, just as you touch the arm of a friend."

And that intimate experience of the reliquary has, she reports, caused many to return to the practice of their faith. "It is very beautiful. Afterwards people go to Confession who haven't done it for years. They rediscover the Eucharist, the word of God and even the Church."

How, though, will the English and Welsh receive Thérèse, I wonder?

There were plans as early as 1997 to apply for the reliquary to cross the Channel. To satisfy the Lisieux authorities, however, any request must be endorsed by the bishops of the country and by the head of the Church there. Cardinal Basil Hume declined to do so.

The time was not right, he said, pointing to ecumenical sensitivities. While the veneration of the relics of saints had been a common and well understood part of Church life on these shores before the Reformation, it has been rare since, and the late cardinal was afraid, some feel, that the spectacle would unsettle other churches and show Catholicism, after he had been so careful to exorcise the ghosts of the Reformation, in what many would take as a medieval, superstitious light.

So if it wasn't the right time back then, why is it now? With me in Lisieux is Fr Michael McGoldrick from Oxford, head of the Carmelites in England and Wales and one of the organisers of her visit to England and Wales.

"Things were different back then. There was a different atmosphere," he begins. "I believe we have moved on in the past decade, become more multicultural and more tolerant of difference." He points in particular to the presence, on the reliquary's itinerary, of York Minster. It will be an ecumenical first for Thérèse.

But given that so few will even know what a reliquary is, I persist, might it give rise to the wrong sort of headlines, as Cardinal Hume had feared? "It is going to be a sensitive issue, certainly, because it is not part of the tradition in Britain. The challenge for us preparing for the visit is to get people beyond the bones to the central message of Thérèse."

However good the preparation, though, won't there always be something slightly medieval about praying over the bones of a saint?

"Realistically, yes," Fr McGoldrick concedes, "but in Thérèse's case there has been such a response around the world - such a totally unexpected response - it makes sense."

In Ireland in 2001 it is estimated that 75 per cent of the population turned out to see the reliquary. Such an overwhelming response has prompted some to predict that the visit to England and Wales will see a public outpouring of emotion to match the scenes that accompanied the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

What Lisieux offers, in advance of the forthcoming visit, is a chance to reflect and take stock of the global growth in interest in Thérèse.

When she died in 1897, the Carmelites (who by then included three of her sisters) began work, as was their tradition, on compiling an obituary about her for circulation to other monasteries. They found they had very little to say about her and it was only then that they recalled she had written down her memories of childhood and more recently her thoughts about vocation. The manuscript they unearthed was printed in book form instead of the obituary and called Story of a Soul. After it had been distributed to other convents, there were a few left over, so these were handed out to locals. Soon requests came in for additional copies, and then more and more. The cult of Thérèse was born as a word-of-mouth phenomenon.

The 24 Sisters who today inhabit the Lisieux Carmel rarely give interviews. It is not part of their vocation. And they are equally reluctant to open the doors of their enclosure to too many visitors lest it disturb their daily routine of prayer, contemplation and labour (in their case, bookbinding).

However, it is a day of celebration when I visit - a Sister from Réunion, a French overseas territory in the Indian Ocean, has made her final profession and so Sister Marie Lucille, in her late 80s and able to remember, as a young nun, the last years of Thérèse's sisters at the Carmel, agrees to meet me. Bird-like, with pale, almost translucent skin, she wears the modern, cut-down version of the habit that clothes the statue of Thérèse, but still in the same brown and white. She seems genuinely at a loss to know why Thérèse has become such a global figure.

"Some people who come here," she suggests, practising the English that she has started to study in recent years, "know very little about her and are attracted, I don't know why, perhaps because she is a woman, or perhaps because they read her book, Story of a Soul, and as a result they are very in love with her."

What is it, though, I press her as we sit in the Carmel's parlour, about the autobiography that chimes so much with the modern reader? "It must be Thérèse's spirituality. The important thing is her love for Jesus and for the simple life, to serve the world. Everybody can understand her book."

Thérèse called her approach to finding God in the everyday the Little Way.

"When I read certain treatises," she writes in Story of a Soul, "where many obstacles to perfection are shown, my poor mind grows tired very quickly. I close the learned book that wearies my head and dries up my heart and I take instead the Holy Scripture. Then everything appears to me in a clear light. A single word opens out infinite horizons to my soul. Perfection seems easy to reach."

During the First World War many French soldiers in the trenches would carry with them a copy of Story of a Soul. Those who survived came afterwards to Lisieux to donate their medals, which sit in rows in a display case in the museum next to the Carmel. Miraculous cures thanks to Thérèse's intercession with God began to be reported.

"I had been diagnosed with a tumour," reads one of the marble plaques, originally in the chapel, now on the wall of the museum, signed GR and dated 1921, "Sister Thérèse saved me."

There may well have been a political dimension to Thérèse's elevation to sainthood in the post First World War years - a tonic for a nation exhausted by war, or even a retort from the Vatican for the dominant secularism and anti-clericalism of the French government. Yet Thérèse is not the product of church-state machinations. She became genuinely popular as soon as people read her book. By the time of her canonisation in 1925, 410,000 copies of Story of a Soul had been printed. Rome's endorsement merely served to unleash a second wave of interest around the world. By the early 1930s, over two million copies of an abridged version of the autobiography had been sold.

"She makes the love of Jesus very real," says Fr Michael McGoldrick. "No matter who you are, what good or bad you've done, she is approachable and easy to relate to. She had, for instance, a fairly troubled childhood that people can relate to. As a young person, until 13 I'd say, she had a neurotic aspect to her personality. I find that very encouraging. You can be neurotic and still make something good out of that."

Thérèse's mother died when she was four. At first her sister Pauline became her surrogate mother, but then she entered the convent. Another sister, Marie, replaced her, only then also to leave Thérèse behind and go into the Carmel. Thérèse was devastated.

"She found it hard to relate to other girls at school and was bullied. She was hurt very easily," says Fr McGoldrick, "but she grew to be strong. When you read Story of a Soul you see great strength of personality in latter years when extraordinary darkness in her spiritual life called into question her whole purpose, but she dealt with that in a mature, brave way."

There are, as I walk the blue line about Lisieux, twin threads about Thérèse always apparent. She is both ancient and modern, a decidedly contemporary saint in some ways, and yet also of a piece with the Church's heroes and heroines of the first millennium (not least in her sainthood being largely prompted by popular acclaim).

The modernity is there in the photographs of her that you can purchase in the Carmel's gift shop, copies of originals taken by her sister who was permitted a camera in the enclosure. Minutes later, though, as I stand in front of another the glass case, this time on an altar in Lisieux basilica and containing the bones of Thérèse's right arm, I am transported back in a flash to the pre-Reformation period.

The same double effect is there in her writings - some of which are illustrated in the decorations in the basilica. There is above all her urging of the need to trust in God's love, something that goes back to the start of the Bible. But there is also her vocal doubts, rarely a part of the cult of earlier saints, but a feature of Thérèse that echoes with the lives of many Catholics in our secular, scientific and sceptical times.

"When my heart, weary of the enveloping darkness, tries to find some rest and strength in the thought of an everlasting life," she records, "my anguish only increases."

Even as death was circling, Thérèse was writing of her desire to go to Vietnam to serve God as a missionary.

"She spoke," says Sister Monique Marie, "of her wish to go all around the world. In life, it could not happen. But today, she is a missionary as her relics travel the world. That is one of the things with Thérèse. She always seems to get what she wants in the end."

[Peter Stanford's new book, The Extra Mile: A Twenty First Century Pilgrimage, is published by Continuum next year. Details of the visit of St Thérèse's relics can be found at]

The reliquary of St. Therese of Lisieux now in England until October 16

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