More than 10,000 people laid siege to St. Patrick's Cathedral on a dark and rainy evening Oct. 18, to venerate the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
They also came, in the words of the event's organizer, Dr. Fran Renda, “to thank her for her help.”
What Dr. Renda meant — and what will become immediately clear to anyone who takes part in the tour — is that people are not visiting the reliquary tour to see a curiosity. They are, in a very real sense, coming to see a friend.
In any group of Catholics, you are sure to find at least one who has received some favor from St. Thérèse. Her extravagance in giving is evident in the crowds that are coming to greet her. The size of the crowd at St. Patrick's was astonishing; Dr. Renda said the numbers would only grow.
“The draw is that through the years people have felt the promise of St. Thérèse that she would spend her heaven doing good on earth,” Dr. Renda said. “It's like at the Olympics when the winner takes a lap around the arena for the crowd. They are out to thank her. “
The atmosphere at St. Patrick's was, in fact, comparable to that of a sporting event. When the relics, which will be traveling around the United States through January, pulled up in front of the cathedral in the back of a silver Chevy Suburban, the crowd shouted and cheered. “Praise Jesus! Praise Jesus!” one woman yelled.
“What we would want the relics to be is not a cult of worshipping bones, but a real focus on the life of St. Thérèse and her spirituality, on the merciful love of Jesus,” Dr. Renda said.
A psychoanalyst by profession, Renda said people need the concrete in front of them, to see and touch and feel, in order to understand that which they can't see — God. She added that the crowds that have come out to see St. Thérèse indicate that she continues to actively fulfill her vocation of “being love” in the heart of the Church.
The relics will be reserved for different amounts of time at different churches around the country. In some places, they are there for a couple of days. Often, they are reserved in the presence of the exposed Blessed Sacrament for an all-night prayer vigil. In some places, the crowds are so thick that people are turned away at midnight.
Organizers expect crowds in the Southwest to dwarf the New York scene. In Texas, stadiums have been rented out for tens of thousands of people to visit the relics.
Presentation of the Relics
St. Thérèse's bones are contained in a small cherry-wood casket with gold detailing. The casket is itself surrounded by a Plexiglas shell.
Typically, an honor guard will gather outside the church. The local chapter of the Knights of Columbus will probably be on hand; maybe even the Knights of Malta. One surprise is seeing so many religious in the same place at the same time.
For some, it will be somewhat reminiscent of the old May Day processions. If you can, try to make it to an evening welcoming ceremony. The candlelight vigil delivers the same warmth as it does at the Holy Saturday liturgy. The crowds exude the same sense of excitement and eager anticipation.
Standing outside St. Patrick's, crowds were able to see the lit sanctuary through the open doors of the church. No one was allowed in until the procession had made its way through.
It took a very long wait to have the opportunity to kneel before the relics. Visiting with St. Thérèse, one is forced to reacquaint oneself with the central mystery of the faith — that if a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will bring forth much fruit. St. Thérèse was well aware of this reality and spoke of her “Little Way” with disarming frankness and simplicity.
She spoke openly about her desire for sanctity — “I don't want to be a saint by halves” — and never sentimentalized the path toward that goal — “I'm not afraid to suffer for You. I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!”
A friend was asked by his ninth-grade class to explain the life of St. Thérèse. He responded with the simple, “All she ever really did was say her divine office and do the laundry.” That such a woman would be the object of so much attention and admiration is surely a case of a hidden grain bearing great fruit.
A Significant Event
Many people are calling the visit of the relics of St. Thérèse one of the most significant events in memory for the Church in America.
Dr. Renda explained it like this. She said that while the Pope's visits are always thrilling, he is never able to tour the whole country. Nearly every Catholic in America, on the other hand, will have the opportunity to visit with St. Thérèse.
The box carrying the relics is being transported around the United States primarily by car. After its time on the East Coast the reliquary moves on to the Midwest for a while before being flown to Miami. Then, it travels through the South to the Southwest and up the West Coast.
The great significance of St. Thérèse's grand tour is that she once confessed a desire to travel to all five continents proclaiming God's mercies until the consummation of the age. In life, she never left the confines of her monastery. In death, her wish is being fulfilled in an extraordinary way.
Thérèse is famous for using the image of an elevator to describe her ascent to God. A new technology in her day, the elevator seemed to her the perfect analogy for God's work of lifting man up from his lowliness to the heights of love. It is fitting that today, God continues to spread his Gospel of mercy through this young girl by means of a 747 jetliner and a Chevy Suburban.
It gives added emphasis to Isaac Bashevis Singer's quip that “God created man because he likes a good story.”