Memorial of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus
Today the church celebrates a saint who captured the heart of the modern church. A young French woman who traveled from her hometown of Lisieux, in northern France, only once in her life—a trip to Rome to see the Pope and get permission to enter the Carmelite cloister when still younger than the required canonical age (she was turned down!); a cloistered sister for all of her brief adult life (she entered the convent at 15 and died at the age of 24); someone who dreamed of being a missionary to foreign lands but who never left the walls of her convent. Despite all this—or perhaps because of it—her generous and expansive spirit, captured in her own writings and her articulation of what she called her “little way” to holiness, struck deep chords in Catholics around the world. There has been a tendency to view Thérèse somewhat sentimentally; touched up photos and art portrays her as too pretty; in fact, she had a compelling face, full of character and a lot of grit.
Pope Pius XI called her the “greatest saint of the modern church.” She was put on the fast track to canonization, declared a saint in 1925 only a few years after her death in 1897. Pius XI made her the patron of missionaries and John Paul II declared her to be a doctor of the church. Thérèse would be amazed at this to be sure. She considered herself no match for the great and learned saints. She identified with the children in the gospel whom Jesus embraced. As she noted in her diary:
Sometimes, when I read spiritual treatises in which perfection is shown with a thousand obstacles, surrounded by a crowd of illusions, my poor little mind quickly tires. I close the learned book which is breaking my head and drying up my heart, and I take up Holy Scripture. Then all seems luminous to me; a single word uncovers for my soul infinite horizons; perfection seems simple; I see that it is enough to recognize one’s nothingness and to abandon oneself, like a child, into God’s arms. Leaving to great souls, to great minds, the beautiful books I cannot understand, I rejoice to be little because only children, and those who are like them, will be admitted to the heavenly banquet.
The Scripture readings for today’s liturgy are not specifically paired with this feast but the Response Psalm echoes Thérèse’s spirit of complete trust in God’s love for her:
Hear, O LORD, the sound of my call;
have pity on me, and answer me.
Of you my heart speaks; you my glance seeks.
Your presence, O LORD, I seek.
Hide not your face from me;
do not in anger repel your servant.
You are my helper: cast me not off.
I believe that I shall see the bounty of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD with courage;
be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD.
And, fittingly, the gospel passage is from Luke’s account of Jesus’ sending out the seventy-two disciples on mission, encouraging them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” (Luke 10:1-2). Thérèse constantly prayed for missionaries and corresponded with some of them. Her body may have been confined to a small parcel of land but her spirit was world-wide, the spirit of the Gospel.
Her spirit is still alive in the church. In his encyclical on the environment, Laudato ‘Si, Pope Francis refers to the spirituality of Thérèse as a guide for us in the face of enormous moral challenges such as care for the environment.
Saint Therese 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 simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation, and selfishness. In the end, a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms. Love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world. Love for society and commitment to the common good are outstanding expressions of a charity which affects not only relationships between individuals but also “macro-relationships, social, economic and political ones”. That is why the Church set before the world the ideal of a “civilization of love”. (Laudato ‘Si, par. #230-231).
Thérèse, the cloistered missionary of Lisieux, would be proud!
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.