Thérèse Today
Bishop Guy Gaucher, OCD
The mystery remains: how did a young Carmelite nun, dying unknown in a little French provincial town, manage to conquer the world?
But it is a fact. Is there, throughout the church's 2000 year history of holiness, a more brilliant course or a more intense "storm of glory" (Pius XI)? And we are only a century removed from low her obscure death, as she suffered the pangs of tuberculosis and the night of faith. We are still far from measuring the impact of Thérèse's life and doctrine on the church and world. No serious study has yet been done on her posthumous life.
Certainly the church has honoured her with an astonishing number of titles. She has been named patron of the universal missions (1927), secondary patron of France (1944), patron of all novitiates, and protector of Russia (1932), Mexico (1929), The French Mission (194 1), the Catholic Worker Movement (1929), and so on.
Popes Saint Pius X and Pius XI respectively named her "the greatest saint of modern times" and "a word of God for the world." Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pius XII, called her "the greatest wonder-worker of modern times" (1938). We could prolong the list indefinitely, and on a worldwide scale.
What is important today, a century after her "entrance into life," is to note the constant impact of her life and spiritual message. At the close of this century in which scepticism and hidden despair have invaded all levels of society, in which the hopes raised by totalitarian ideologies have misfired, in which the world of technology no longer leaves room for simple humanity, the crisis of hope has come to full term.
The church's saints re-emerge as masters of meaning, hope, and love, for "the saints virtually never grow old.... they never fall under 'prescription.' They continually remain witnesses of the youth of the Church. They never become characters of the past, men and women of 'yesterday.' On the contrary: they are always men and women of tomorrow, men of the evangelical future of man and of the Church, witnesses 'of the future world.' " It is no coincidence that the first pope to come on pilgrimage to Lisieux, John Paul 11, spoke these words in the basilica's square. They fit this young Norman girl perfectly.
We notice, at Lisieux and elsewhere, that Therese's word and prayer frees wounded people, unchains drug-addicted or despairing youth, and constantly raises up priestly, religious, and lay vocations. She goes in search of distant people, insinuates herself into the most unlikely situations, plays an ecumenical role, attracts Muslims, and touches even strangers to the faith, sometimes through a simple look at her real face that photography has made available to us.
More than fifty apostolic congregations have named themselves after Saint Therese and claim her as their patroness. In France, the fast rising new communities are often rooted in the spirituality of this young saint, for whom weakness was a springboard to sanctity in ordinary life. Thérèse continues to gather around herself both the great intellectuals and the poor of every land.
Since 1932, many theologians and spiritual writers have seen that the doctrine of Saint Thérèse has universal application. More than 600 bishops and a vast number of lay people asked Pope Pius XI to declare her a Doctor of the Church. No woman up to that time had ever received this honour, and the pope refused to cross the line. But Pope Paul VI did in 1970 when he proclaimed two women as Doctors of the Church: Saints Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. The way is now open. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux herself wrote: 'Ah! in spite of my littleness I would like to enlighten souls as did the Prophets and the Doctors. I have the vocation of the Apostle" (Story of a Soul, B 3r) and "I feel the vocation of THE DOCTOR" (B 2v).
God always granted her desires, and will grant this one when and how he wishes. The essential point remains that her life and her message, marked by her times but prophetically surpassing them (she announces what will be the great themes of Vatican II), are the most effective antidote to contemporary despair. One day she may be the "Doctor of Hope." Certainly she is an important saint for the twenty-first century, "turned toward the future and a witness of the future world."
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she desired to be Love in the heart of the church. She is, and no one can rob her of that place, because "It is Jesus who has given it to her" (cf. B 3v).

Postscript. After this piece was written (in 1996) Pope John Paul II added to the many honours that Bishop Gaucher lists, that Therese be named as the third female Doctor of the Church in October 1997.

From Conrad de Meester (ed.) Saint Therese of Lisieux: Her Life, Times, and Teaching, Washington: ICS Publications, 1997. Available from USD$44.95