VANCOUVER, British Columbia — On Sept. 16, the reliquary of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus — the Little Flower — will fly into Vancouver for the start of a three-month tour of Canada. After visiting 41 of Canada's 63 Catholic dioceses, it will fly out of Halifax on Dec. 15, returning the saint to her home in Lisieux, France.
It seems a little strange that a shy young nun who never left her convent in rural Normandy should now be a patron saint of missionaries. But in 1997, to mark the centenary of her death, the Little Flower's relics began traveling the world.
St. Thérèse's bones are now visiting their 22nd country, Bosnia-Herzegovina, on a tour that is cloaked in secrecy because of the religious feuding there. Canada will be their 23rd country in the past four years. And after Canada, they go to Africa.
“She'll break all the records in Canada, like she has everywhere else,” says Father Donald Kinney, a Carmelite monk from Idaho, who accompanied St Thérèse's bones on their 1999–2000 American tour.
“People are so interested in this little Carmelite nun,” he adds. “And it's so ironic, because she said all she ever wanted was to lead a hidden life.”
Father Kinney says the great attraction of St. Thérèse is her Little Way, a kind of spiritual antidote to the negative aspects of modernity. The Little Way is defined by her words, “We cannot all do great things, but we can all do little things with great love” — put into practice by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and quoted by President Bush at his inauguration.
The popularity of the Little Flower is phenomenal. Over 15 million people visited St. Thérèse's remains in Mexico, and over a million more during her 1999–2000 tour of the United States. The tour of the Philippines last year included a visit to death row at the National Prison outside Manila, where 33 presumably hardened convicts reached out to touch the 300-pound, four-foot reliquary containing her bones.
But nowhere has the saint shown her capacity for transforming of a nation like she has in Ireland.
There, between Easter Sunday, April 15, and July 1, her reliquary drew a third of the nation's 4 million people. Over 75,000 people trooped through Dublin's cathedral on the evening the relics first arrived there.
“It was most unexpected,” said Carmelite Father Linus Ryan of Dublin's Terenure College, who accompanied the saint's bones throughout Ireland.
“We had 115 venues, at churches all over the country,” he said. “And the schedule was two hours on the road” — in a Mercedes van dubbed the Thérèse-mobile — “and then 22 hours at a church. The churches stayed open all night, and there were long lines, sometimes a half-mile long, from 8 in the evening till 2 a.m.”
Even more moving, Father Ryan said, were the number of small churches along the route that weren't scheduled for a stop. “But there'd be a crowd, 200 or 300 people with the local priest, standing by the road as we'd be driving by. Of course it put us off schedule, but we'd have to stop for a few minutes. There'd be this great silence. It was very dignified. The hand of God was there.”
Father Ryan calls the Irish response to St. Thérèse “the greatest mass movement of our people in history,” and he rejects vehemently any suggestion it might be “a mile wide and an inch deep” and amount to a superficial attraction to the saint.
“The people of Ireland have had an economic boom for over 12 years, and they're discovering money doesn't guarantee happiness,” he says. “The people are searching for meaning; and into the middle of this comes this young saint, with her great love of God -and who doesn't like a good love story?”
The result, Father Ryan says, has been “a massive return to the sacraments, especially the sacrament of penance. Priests all over the country are saying there's been a return to confession by people who've been away from the sacrament for 10 or 20 years.”
Brief, Beautiful Life
Born in 1873, Thérèse Martin entered a Carmelite convent at Lisieux at the age of 15. Eight years after she joined the convent, she took ill and began spitting up blood from tuberculosis. In 1897, at age 24, she died, unknown to the world. Her funeral was attended by 30 people.
After her death, however, the nuns in Thérèse's convent obtained permission to print her autobiographical notebooks. Published a year later, The Story of a Soul became an instant classic. It is considered by many to be the single greatest spiritual work of modern times.
American Carmelite Father Kinney says that it's precisely the Little Flower's anonymity with which modern people identify, and her simplicity which they seek.
“Our lives are so impersonal and so complex, it becomes so easy for people to think that their lives don't matter,” says Father Kinney. “But as Thérèse's Little Way says, in God's eyes, we're not important for the great things we do, but for the love with which we do them.”
Father Kinney defends the practice of honoring the relics of the saints.
“Even in the New Testament, some of St. Paul's clothing was saved as a relic,” he says. “We don't concentrate on her bones, as such. Having her bones there is just the occasion (for grasping) her message of merciful love.”
Within a decade of her death, Thérèse of Lisieux had become an object of popular devotion. By 1923, her convent received 800 to 1,000 letters a day, reporting favors received through her intercession. She was canonized in 1925; and in October 1997, Pope John Paul II named her a doctor of the Church, putting her among the Church's two-dozen most-honored theologians. Not bad for a young woman with almost no formal schooling.
Gerald Baril, secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops committee coordinating the visit of St. Thérèse's relics, says the planning has been going on for a year and a half. Most of the dioceses throughout Canada will have them for two or three days, and in the far northern Labrador City-Schefferville Diocese, the reliquary will yet be traveling by snowmobile.
In addition to the expected vigils with the local bishops in attendance, some of the dioceses are planning trips to schools, penitentiaries and youth events.
Father Myles Gaffney, coordinator for the visit to the western Diocese of Calgary, says St. Thérèse's youthfulness and simplicity explain part of her appeal for modern folk — “doing ordinary things with such great care, doing everything for Christ.” In addition, however, “her influence today is obviously so great before the throne of God. Miracles and graces beyond number have been due to her inter-cession.”
Joe Woodard writes from Calgary, Alberta.