On the day Pope Francis released his Apostolic Letter on St Thérèse of Lisieux, the General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Canon Christopher Thomas, shares a reflection on his devotion to this great Doctor of the Church.
I blame St Thérèse for getting me through the seminary! My devotion to her began when I went to the seminary. Actually, I didn’t really know very much about her, but she was somebody who I turned to in prayer when things got tough.
In all of the places that I’ve worked, if there wasn’t a statue of Thérèse, I’ve always tried to put one in. So here at Eccleston Square, we have a statue of Thérèse in our chapel. We have one in my former parish in Nottingham. This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of her birth and the 100th anniversary of her beatification not so long ago.
In fact, when I was a student in Rome in 1997, she was made the youngest Doctor of the Church for her teaching. And it’s quite a remarkable teaching from somebody who died so young. We all remember, with great affection, the visit of the relics of St Thérèse to England and Wales in 2009.
I can remember it very vividly. I was asked to help with the hearing of confessions at Nottingham Cathedral before the relics arrived. And I went into the box at about 4pm and came out at 6:55pm, just before the Mass was beginning. I said I’d come back after the Mass and stayed until midnight. It was constant. She’s a draw to people’s faith because of the simplicity of her life.
In fact, if you come to my house and you sit where I normally sit in my house, there’s a little statue of Thérèse that looks at me and in her hand is a book. Written in the book, in French, is “I am love at the heart of the Church.” It’s a reminder to me of my ministry as a priest, which is not simply to be love at the heart of the Church, but to demonstrate the love of God for all of his people. Thérèse is a real character for that and I think she has great appeal to old and young alike.
As somebody who entered the cloister young and never left the cloister, she was passionate for the redemption of every soul. That’s why Pope Pius XI in 1927 declared that she would be a Co-patroness of the Missions of the Church, alongside St Francis Xavier. Now, St Francis Xavier did leave the cloister, as it were, although I don’t think he was ever in it – he was a Jesuit – and he was the great converter of Asia. If you go into the Church of the Jesu in Rome and turn right when you get to the crossing point, on the left is the altar of St Ignatius, but on the right you can actually see St Francis Xavier’s baptising arm in a big reliquary. It’s said that he baptised over 100,000 people during his lifetime.
So St Francis was somebody who went out and preached the Gospel, whereas we have Thérèse, who sat in her cloister, sat in the monastery, but she was no less passionate for the conversion of souls to know Christ and to know His love, than St Francis Xavier who went out and did all of that work.
Her heart burned for the redemption of every human soul. She wanted them to know – she wanted everybody to know – that Christ was the Way, the Truth and the Life, the Way that led to the Father, the Truth that meant that you were free and the Life that was not just to be lived fully in this world, but to go forward into the next, into eternal life.
So the commitment that she made to missionary life was not about going to far off lands, but committed to prayer and sacrifice for the work of the missions. Her daily Mass, Adoration in front of the Blessed Sacrament, prayer and fasting, were her tools of missionary activity.
It was Pius XI that recognised that contemplative prayer was so important and a necessary part alongside that Apostolic work, because both are needed for the Gospel to take root in people’s hearts.
What is missionary activity? It’s simply the proclamation of the Gospel and an evangelisation of peoples so that the Church can take root where it has not been before. It’s easy for us to think of films like The Mission, a great film, but at the end of the day, we must all be missioners because we must all commend the work of evangelisation to our prayer, to our acts of fasting and penance and prayer and activity. Because we all have our role to play in the mission of the Church.
I don’t know if you remember, many moons ago, we had a Little Way Week, which was to encourage those small acts of charity, or just little actions to remind people of the Lord and to serve others and to think a bit less about yourself. Maybe we don’t need a week for that. Maybe it should be more embedded in our lives. But it was a good idea…
Very much so. How do we proclaim Christ? If we were to take the quote that comes from St Francis of Assisi, “Go out into the world to proclaim the Gospel, and if you have to use words.” It’s the way that we show an integrity of life that will draw people to an understanding of Christ. To see that the way we act and the way we speak and the way that we are one with another should become attractive to others, because it should show that we are living out those two great commandments of God – to love Him and neighbour. The Little Way Week was just a focus on those little things. We don’t have to go all the way to Thérèse for that. From my homeland, St. David said “Do the little things well.” That’s really, really important in the Christian life.