Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Virgin and Doctor

St Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Virgin and Doctor (Memorial)

Marie Francoise Thérèse Martin was born on 2 January, 1873 at Alencon, southwest of Rouen in the north of France. She was the youngest daughter of Louis Martin, a watchmaker, and his wife, Zelie-Marie Guerin, a lacemaker, who died of breast cancer when Theresa was four years old. Both parents had wanted to enter religious life and, when they could not, hoped their children would do so. There were nine children but only five girls survived.

Thérèse grew up in a traditional religious home having little contact with the world, typical of middle-class Catholicism of the time. In 1877, the family moved to Lisieux in Normandy, where an aunt helped to look after the girls and where Thérèse went to the Benedictine convent of Notre Dame du Pré. One after the other her elder sisters entered the Carmelite convent in Lisieux. At 15, after her sister Marie entered the convent, Thérèse tried follow her but the superior of the convent would not allow it on account of her age. Later, her father took Thérèse on a pilgrimage to Rome and, during a general audience with Pope Leo XIII, she asked him to allow her to enter at 15 but the Pope said: “Well, my child, do what the superiors decide.” Soon after, the Bishop of Bayeux gave his consent for her to enter as a postulant in 1888. Her name in religion was Sister Thérèse of the Infant Jesus and of the Holy Face.

The following year, 1894, her father suffered a stroke and died and the fourth sister, who had been looking after him, was now able to enter the Carmel.

Not surprisingly, the overall description of Thérèse’s life is easily told. She followed the daily routine of a Carmelite sister from day to day but did so with great commitment and devotion.

Apart from being made assistant to the novice mistress in 1893 at the age of 20, she never held any other significant responsibility in the community.

Thérèse is known for her “Little Way”. In her quest for sanctity, she realized that it was not necessary to accomplish heroic acts, or “great deeds”, in order to attain holiness and to express her love of God. She wrote, “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.” (She would later be known as the “Little Flower”.)

Thérèse’s final years were marked by a steady decline that she bore without complaint. In 1895, she suffered a haemorrhage which was the first sign of the tuberculosis which was to bring about her early death. On the morning of Good Friday, 1896, she began bleeding at the mouth brought on by her pulmonary condition. Her TB had now taken a turn for the worse.

As a result, she was not able, as she had so dearly wanted, to offer herself for a Carmelite mission foundation in Hanoi, Vietnam (then French Indo-China). She remained on in the Lisieux convent, accepting great suffering without complaint. In July 1897, she was moved to the convent infirmary, and just three months later died on 30 September, 1897 at age 24. On her death-bed, she is reported to have said, “I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me.”

Carmelite convent in Lisieux
It is most likely that, like most Sisters in her secluded situation, nothing more would have been heard of her. However, she had been told, under obedience to write a short spiritual autobiography now known as L’Histoire d’une Ame (Story of a Soul). In 1895, she began writing a memoir of her childhood under instructions from her sister Pauline, known in religion as Mother Agnes of Jesus. While on retreat in September 1896, Therese wrote the second part, consisting of a letter to her eldest sister, Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart. In June 1897, when Mother Agnes realised the gravity of Thérèse’s illness, she immediately asked Mother Marie, the prioress, to allow Thérèse write another memoir with more details of her religious life. It was published after Therese’s death, after editing by her sister Pauline (Mother Agnes).

The book became a religious best-seller of the 20th century, and was translated into most European languages and in Asia as well. Its publication was accompanied by reports of miraculous cures and countless ‘favours’ granted through her intercession. It is still in print.
Since 1973, further editions (including the original version of Story of a Soul), her letters, poems, prayers, and plays she wrote for convent recreations have been published.

Pope Pius X signed the decree starting the process of canonization on 10 June, 1914. Pope Benedict XV, in an unusual move, dispensed with the usual 50-year delay required between death and beatification. On 14 August 1921, he promulgated a decree on the heroic virtues of Thérèse and gave an address on Thérèse’s way of confidence and love, as a model for the whole Church.

Therese was beatified in April 1923, and canonized two years later, on 17 May, 1925 by Pope Pius XI, just 28 years after her death. Her feast day was added to the Catholic liturgical calendar in 1927, to be celebrated on October 3. In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved it to 1 October, the day after her death.

Thérèse of Lisieux is the patron saint of AIDS sufferers, aviators, florists, illness, and missions. In 1927, Pope Pius XI named her a patron of the missions (with St Francis Xavier) and in 1944, Pope Pius XII named her co-patroness of France with St. Joan of Arc.

By the Apostolic Letter Divini Amoris Scientia (“The Science of Divine Love”) of 19 October 1997, Pope John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Universal Church, one of only three women so named (the others being Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena). In fact, Thérèse was the only saint named as a Doctor of the Church during John Paul II’s pontificate.

While presenting a deceptively simple and even pious image, it is clear that Therese was very close to the message of the Gospel and, in her sufferings, she showed a great spirit of courage, strength and self-sacrifice. Her interior asceticism was based on selfless and unconditional obedience rather than on simple exterior acts of penance.

The influence of her spirituality would lead many in her own convent, in her Order and in the Church generally to a greater appreciation of the asceticism arising from a faithful living out of ordinary community and daily life.

In art Theresa is represented in a Carmelite habit holding a bunch of roses in memory of her promise to “let fall a shower of roses” of miracles and other favours.

Some things which Therese said:

  • I am a very little soul, who can offer only very little things to the Lord.
  • I will spend my Heaven doing good on earth.
  • After my death I will let fall a shower of roses.
  • While desiring to be a priest, I admire and envy the humility of St. Francis of Assisi and I feel the vocation of imitating him in refusing the sublime dignity of the priesthood.
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