Memorial of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus
Today the Church celebrates a beloved saint, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the “Little Flower.” Her life and fame are full of ironies. She lived in the provincial town of Lisieux in the Normandy region of France and except for participating in a diocesan pilgrimage to Rome and other sites in Italy, never left her hometown. She became a cloistered Carmelite sister at the age of 15, joining her two older sisters in the same local convent. She died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of twenty-four.
Yet for someone whose life seemed destined for obscurity she became one of the most popular saints in the history of the Catholic Church. Pope Pius X called her the “greatest saint of the modern era.” She was canonized in 1921 by Pope Pius XI, only twenty-eight years and her popularity spread through the church like wildfire and remains strong—her shrine in Lisieux is the most popular pilgrimage site in France after Lourdes itself. Although she spent her brief adult life in a cloistered convent, she is the patron of missionaries. And although her education was home-bound and rudimentary, she has been declared a “Doctor” of the Church.
Thérèse gripped the imagination of the Church precisely because of the paradox of her life. She espoused what she called “the little way”—placing her entire life in the arms of God, filled with a tender love for Jesus—she dedicated every conscious act of her life as an act of love and devotion to the One who loved her. She was thoroughly human and thoroughly committed to the gospel. No gesture, no act of enduring annoyance from her fellow sisters, no smile or bearing of suffering—was too little or insignificant to become an act of love. She was a young woman, living a sheltered life, and having limited experiences, yet possessing a magnificent spirit that reached out to the entire world and incorporated its hopes and concerns in her daily prayer.
In his powerful encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (“On Care for Our Common Home”), Pope Francis recognizes the overwhelming ethical and issues posed by human responsibility for the ravages that are now effecting our earth. He urges people of good will, no matter what their religious convictions may be, to join with believers in addressing these problems. Some people such as competent scientists and political leaders can have a substantial impact. Others of us may despair of knowing how we can respond. Here Pope Francis turns explicitly to the spirituality of the saint we honor today. “St. Thérèse of Lisieux invites us to practice the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simply daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness.”
The Pope goes on to say that the mission of the church, through such small gestures, is to build a “civilization of love”—a beautiful phrase that I think Saint Thérèse would eagerly embrace.
Saint Thérèse, pray for us and for our world.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.