“Nothing in my hands I bring.
Simply to thy cross I cling.”
From the hymn “Rock of Ages”
by Augustus M. Toplady, 1776.
On 24th August, 1997, during the Mass he celebrated at the Twelfth World Youth Day in Paris in the presence of hundreds of bishops and before a huge crowd of young people from all over the world, Pope John Paul II announced that he was to proclaim St Thérèse a “Doctor of the Universal Church.” This he did on Sunday 19th October 1997 when he pointed out that Thérèse is the youngest of the 33 officially recognised Doctors of the Church, the one closest to our time, and the third woman among them. In his apostolic letter Divini Amoris Scientia, the Pope said:
“As it was for the Church’s Saints in every age, so also for her, in her spiritual experience Christ is the centre and fullness of Revelation. Thérèse knew Jesus, loved him and made him loved with the passion of a bride. She penetrated the mysteries of his infancy, the words of his Gospel, the passion of the suffering Servant engraved on his holy Face, in the splendour of his glorious life, in his Eucharistic presence. She sang of all the expressions of Christ’s divine charity, as they are presented in the Gospel.”
The Pope also said that
". . . we can rightly recognize in the Saint of Lisieux the charism of a Doctor of the Church, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit she received for living and expressing her experienced faith, and because of her particular understanding of the mystery of Christ . . . That assimilation was certainly favoured by the most singular natural gifts, but it was also evidently something prodigious, due to a charism of wisdom from the Holy Spirit."
No wonder that Thérèse is the most quoted woman saint in the Catechism of the Catholic Church!
As a child, Thérèse had a deep awareness of God’s presence in her life. She grew up loving the Lord Jesus and understanding the Sacraments to be deeply personal encounters with him. By the time she became a teenager she knew that God was calling her to embrace the Religious life in its contemplative form.
In 1887 Thérèse went to on pilgrimage to Italy with a group from Lisieux. On 20th November Pope Leo XIII met with them and Thérèse was able to ask him for special permission to enter the Carmel of Lisieux at the age of fifteen, which she did on 9 April 1888, receiving the habit on the following year. She made her religious profession on 8 September 1890, the Birthday of Our Lady.
Thérèse embraced the spiritual principles of St Teresa of Avila while faithfully fulfilling the various community responsibilities entrusted to her, especially the menial ones. During this time her faith was severely tested by the sickness of her father who died on 29th July 1894.
She continued to be nourished by the Scriptures, which were central to her spiritual life. Her response to God’s Word in openness of heart and mind nurtured her growth in holiness and made a deep impact on those around her.
The autobiographical manuscripts she wrote are a detailed account of her walk with God. Based on the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, she called it the “little way” of “spiritual childhood” and taught it to the novices entrusted to her care.
She also accepted the ministry of spiritually supporting two missionary priests with prayer and sacrifice. Indeed, seized by the love of Christ, whom she described as her “only Spouse”, she became increasingly aware of her own apostolic and missionary vocation.
In her autobiography Thérèse says that on Trinity Sunday 1895 (9th June), she gave herself completely to the love of God. Several months later, on the night between Holy Thursday and Good Friday (3rd April 1896), she suffered a haemoptysis, the first sign of the illness which would lead to her death. From this point, her writings speak of the trial of faith, which would last until she died. In the midst of her pain she wrote that her vocation was simply “to be love in the heart of the Church.”
Thérèse was transferred to the infirmary on 8 July 1896. During this time her sayings were collected. Meanwhile her sufferings intensified. She accepted them with patience, right up to the moment of her death in the afternoon of 30th September 1897. “I am not dying, I am entering life”, she wrote.
Her final words, “My God, I love you!” were uttered at the age of 24, after years of illness and spiritual struggle, sealing a life lived in total surrender to the Lord’s love. Then she began what she had already foreseen as her new responsibility - her ministry of intercession, prayer, and love in the Communion of Saints, “in order to shower a rain of roses upon the world.”
Thérèse was canonized by Pope Pius XI on 17 May 1925.
Since her death, Christians of many cultures and traditions - especially young people - have been inspired by her holiness, love and steadfast faith to give themselves completely to the Lord.
Letters to Maurice
To get a truly rounded picture of Thérèse – and in order to move away from the rather saccharine stereotype of her that has been built up, it is a good idea to read Maurice and Thérèse: The Story of a Love, by Patrick Ahern. This is the collected correspondence between Thérèse and Maurice Bellière, a stumbling young man she had never met, who was preparing to become a missionary priest. They exchanged twenty-one letters at a time when Thérèse’s suffering and pain was at its height, and when her spiritual struggle was most intense. It is significant that she was able to write such letters of support and encouragement to someone else. (The letters are accompanied by Ahern’s commentary.)
Maurice had experienced a moral failure, and couldn’t quiet his conscience. Thérèse told him that God does not want our relationship with him be based on an obsessive fear of punishment. Neither, she said, does God want us to try and bargain for salvation by promising to do good works. With all who have begun to grasp the meaning of the grace-filled Gospel down through the Christian centuries, Thérèse knew that no amount of “good works” could purchase God’s love, and that in our better moments we would always wonder if we had done enough. In fact she even said to Maurice that the best of our good works are blemished, anyway, and they make us displeasing to God if we rely on them.
Thérèse knew that Jesus came into this world to save us, to set us free. She reminded Maurice of St Augustine and St Mary Magdalene, both of whose sins “which were many” were forgiven.
She wrote to him, “I love them. I love their repentance, and especially their loving boldness.”
Thérèse knew that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Indeed, she said, “How can I fear a God who is nothing but Mercy and Love?” “Confidence, nothing but confidence” in God’s love was what she stressed. This may sound like spiritual presumption to some. But it echoes the teaching of Hebrews 10:19-22:
“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
Thérèse practised what she taught. Just four months before she died, she wrote:"I am very happy that I am going to heaven. But when I think of this word of the Lord, 'I shall come soon and bring with me my recompense to give to each according to his works,' I tell myself that this will be very embarrassing for me, because I have no works . . . Very well! He will render to me according to His works for His own sake."
And in her Act of Oblation, she prays to Jesus: “After earth’s exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.”
At the level of Christian experience, Thérèse articulates the theological convergence on the doctrine of Justification that would appear in the the Agreed Statements of the Roman Catholic/ Lutheran dialogue, as well as the Roman Catholic/ Anglican dialogue. It is significant for the ecumenical journey ahead that she occupies such a central place among the Doctors of the Church and in the Catechism.