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St. Therese: doctor of the Church.

On October 19, 1997, World Mission Sunday, St. Therese of Lisieux, one hundred years after her death in 1897, was formally declared a Doctor of the Church. Together with St. Francis Xavier, Therese is co-patron of the Missions. Everyone may enquire in good faith why this new honour is being bestowed upon one who died so young, at age 24.

Last year we introduced you to St. Therese under the title, "A new doctor of the Church?" (C.I., Oct. '96, pp. 6, 7, 16). That introduction to her, also by Mary Hansen, promised to explain the reasons for this new honour at the time of the proclamation itself. That time is now.

Meanwhile, those in bad faith have already allowed their habitual distrust of Rome and Pope John Paul II to warp their judgement once again. "It appears," writes Fr. Andrew Britz, editor of Saskatchewan's Prairie Messenger, "to be at least in part based on a distrust of the theological process itself, and on a downplaying of the role of the intellectual life in the day-by-day experience of the Church." (Editorial, September 3, '97). Fortunately it's nothing of the kind. Instead it's a reemphasizing of the mystical and spiritual side of theology. This may frighten the Catholic rationalists of the day, but it will warm the hearts of everyone else. Editor

"Impossible! She has written only one book! How can a young woman in her twenties be placed on a par with the likes of a St. Augustine or a St. Thomas Aquinas or a St. Alphonsus Liguori? It will never happen." Such were the emphatic comments of an acquaintance during a discussion on the possibility of St. Therese of Lisieux's being declared a Doctor of the Church.

Well, the "impossible" has happened: St. Therese of the Child Jesus was officially declared a Doctor of the Church on October 19, World Mission Sunday, at a ceremony in St. Peter's Square.

St. Therese has become one of only thirty-three saints in the Church's 2,000-year history to receive this title "Doctor of the Church" and the third woman to join these ranks after St. Teresa of Avila, the Spanish reformer of the Carmelite Order in the sixteenth century, and St. Catherine of Siena, an Italian laywoman from the fourteenth century. Both of these saints received their title from Pope Paul VI in 1969.

"Doctor of the Church" is a title given since the Middle Ages to particular saints who are considered major teachers of the faith, whose writings or preaching have been outstanding in guiding the Catholic faithful throughout the centuries.

Therese was born in 1873 into a devout French family, the last of nine children. Because of her deep love for Mary, she entered the Discalced Carmelite convent at Lisieux at the age of 15, and she died at the age of 24, as a virtually unknown, cloistered nun. She succumbed to tuberculosis after undergoing excruciating physical and spiritual suffering.

That Therese has been granted this title should come as no surprise to those who have studied her writings and her amazing influence on this twentieth century. Although it is not widely known, Therese has left behind an extensive body of writings. Bishop Ahern, Auxiliary Bishop of New York, stated in a recent address that she has "given us more prose than St. John of the Cross and three times as much poetry." St. John, of course, is the Discalced Carmelite saint from the sixteenth century who worked with St. Teresa of Avila and who is considered Spain's most illustrious poet.

Many pontiffs and leaders of the Church have been vociferous in their praise of Therese since her death in 1897. Early in this century, Pope Benedict XV (1914-1924) declared that "through her own efforts she attained such knowledge that she was able to guide others to salvation." Pope Pius X (1903-1914) called her "the greatest saint of modern times." Pope Pius XI (1924-1938), who saw in her a "Word of God addressed to our times," canonized her in 1925. Two years later, he proclaimed her the Principal Patroness of the Universal Missions, with St. Francis Xavier. In 1944, just before the liberation of France, Pope Pius XII declared her the Second Patroness of France, with St. Joan of Arc.

Scholars and theologians are equally laudatory in their assessments of Therese. Abbe Combes, one of the pioneers in studying Therese's writings, believed that she had brought about "one of the greatest spiritual revolutions that the Holy Spirit has set in motion in the evolution of mankind, a silent and hidden revolution with innumerable fruits." The eminent philosopher Jean Guitton, the only layman authorized by Pope John XXIII to attend the first session of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, spoke of her spiritual giftedness in an essay in 1954 entitled, "The Spiritual Genius in the Teaching of St. Therese of The Child Jesus."

During a conference at Bordeaux, France, on May 18, 1958, Father Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, renowned preacher and Definitor-General of the Discalced Carmelite Order, spoke of Therese in prophetic terms: "I affirm that Therese will be, in fact, already is, one of the great spiritual teachers of the Church, one of the most proficient spiritual guides of all times." In 1947 he presented her at a conference as "a doctor of the mystical life," ranking her with St. Benedict and St. Teresa of Avila.

The public has spoken as well, and in tremendous numbers! Shortly after Therese's death, stories of her miraculous intercession proliferated throughout the world. Her autobiography, Story of a Soul, written under obedience shortly before she died, has become one of the best-selling books of this century. It has sold in the millions and has been translated into more than forty languages. Seventeen hundred churches have been named after her throughout the world. It is said that nearly every French soldier going into battle in World War I had a picture of Therese in his wallet! Fr. Marie-Eugene believed that it was St. Therese's protection that saved his life during heavy fighting as a young soldier in that war. Soon after the war, he entered the seminary and was to devote his whole life to studying her writings.

Suitable for our times

Therese seems particularly suited to be a guide for our times. Cardinal Paul Poupard, who acted as the representative of Pope John Paul II at the centennial celebrations in Lisieux this summer, remarked that Therese is an "ultra-modern saint," a "suitable model and guide for the whole Church - at the dawn of the third millennium." French theologian Fr. Yves Congar has referred to her as "one of the beacons that the hand of God has lit at the threshold of the atomic century."

Bishop Guy Gauther, Bishop of Lisieux and renowned expert on Theresian spirituality, remarked that Therese had "lived the end of her life in spiritual darkness, foretelling modern unbelief" (reportedly less than ten percent of the Catholic population in France are currently attending Mass regularly). Therese had great sympathy for non-believers, for atheists, because she herself had experienced such temptations against the faith in the last months of her life. She found herself on an "equal footing with unbelievers" suffering from "spiritual amnesia," in which she totally forgot God's love with which she had once been filled. She even questioned if there was an after-life, as she felt there was only a "nothingness" after death. She went so far as to write the Creed in her own blood.

Therese wondered that more people did not commit suicide when faced with terrible pain, especially those who denied God. She herself was even tempted towards suicide when her suffering became so overwhelming, but to the very end her great desire was to do God's will in her life, no matter what the cost. How entirely appropriate a model Therese is for our times, for the assisted-suicide and euthanasia mentality of our age!

Most of her years in the convent were marked by great aridity in prayer, "a terrible blackness" as she herself described it, in which she spoke of Jesus as "hiding." When she was seventeen, she described this dryness to her sister: "I am in a subterranean passage where it is neither hot nor cold." Adding to her mental and spiritual anguish was the agony she must have suffered as she watched her beloved father's deteriorating condition during his last four years of life in a mental hospital.

Fr. Marie-Eugene (whose cause is up for canonization), and who knew Therese's blood sisters well, describes a "woundedness" in the exquisitely sensitive child, Therese; this, he believed stemmed from the psychological trauma of her mother's death when she was only four and the loss of her "second mother" Pauline, who left for the Carmelite convent when Therese was still a school girl (after promising that she would never leave her!). Her Christmas "conversion" in 1886 completely transformed her from the "neurotic" child she was, to a strengthened person of remarkable psychological balance, which was to be sustained for the rest of her life.

Spiritual childhood

How well could this Prozac generation, this "wounded" century of ours with all of its agonies, anxieties and depressions, relate to Therese! Fr. Marie-Eugene speaks of the "precious encouragement she brings to souls in darkness." She brings hope to non-believers, to those who feel estranged from God's love, to those "poor ones" who feel too ashamed, too unworthy to approach God.

She proclaims God's mercy from the roof-tops, especially to sinners. Two months before her death she said to her sister: "I feel that my mission is just beginning, my mission of making others love the good Lord as I love Him and giving to souls my Little Way" - it is "the way of spiritual childhood," the "way of confidence and complete abandonment to God." When asked to explain what she meant by "spiritual childhood" she replied: "It means that we acknowledge our nothingness; that we expect everything from the good Lord, as a child expects everything from his father; it means to worry about nothing." She continues the analogy saying, "finally, it means that we must not be discouraged by our faults, for children fall frequently."

Fr. Marie-Eugene states that Therese's basic doctrine establishes that God is a most loving, merciful Father who "delights in loving us." Therese described it this way: "I know God. He is a father, a mother, who in order to be happy must have his child upon his knee, resting upon his heart."

Therese's genius is that she has taught us how easy it is to please God. She has taught the Church that each of us, sharing all of the weaknesses and woundedness of the human condition, can enter into the joy of being in the Lord's heart. Therese's cheerfulness and radiant smile were ever-present in the convent; charity was her way of life. To her sister Pauline, she once remarked: "Love is everything in this world. We love God only to the extent that we practise it." Her love of God permeated everything she did! Therese, the great devotee of St. John of the Cross, realized while still a teenager that "all is fleeting that we cherish here under the sun. The only good thing is to love God with all one's heart and to stay poor in spirit," thus echoing so well St. John's doctrine of the centrality of God and of detachment from all created things. John Beevers, the distinguished biographer of St. Therese, says that "God chose Therese to dramatize this truth anew, reminding us that great love, not great deeds, is the essence of sanctity." Therese herself says, "Jesus does not demand great deeds. All He wants is self-surrender and gratitude." "That is all Jesus asks from us. He needs nothing from us except our love."

Like her spiritual mother, St. Teresa of Avila before her, Therese had a great love for the Church. Towards the end of her life she remarked, "I should like to die on the battlefield in defence of the Church" -- "Jesus, I love you and I love the Church, my Mother." She also stated, "Like the prophets and the Doctors of the Church I should like to enlighten souls." Because of her new role, she will indeed "enlighten" millions more souls, not only now but in the next millennium as well.

Let us thank Pope John Paul II with the deepest of gratitude for conferring this honour on St. Therese for the glory of the whole Church.

Mary Hansen has an M.Div. degree from St. Michael's Faculty of Theology and lives in Barrie, Ontario.
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Author:Hansen, Mary
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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