St. Theresa Seems a Sure Bet as Church Doctor

VATICAN CITY An in-depth scrutiny by the Vatican has cleared the way for St. Theresa of Lisieux to be named a “Doctor of the Church,” and the process now awaits a final decision by Pope John Paul II, according to the official promoter of the effort.

Carmelite Father Simeon Tomas Fernandez told the Register the Pope is widely expected to announce his approval of conferring the title on St. Theresa (also commonly spelled Therese) during World Youth Day in Paris. Fr. Tomas also said he has “the greatest hope” that subsequent Church ceremonies granting the honor would be held before the end of the year, if not by the saint's feast day October 1.

The announcement by the Pope would make St. Theresa the third female Doctor of the Church. The Church gives the honor to great Catholic figures who made important contributions to explaining the faith and whose teachings were accompanied by true holiness. Presently, 32 saints bear the title.

“The entire Church would be so very happy to see St. Theresa given this additional honor,” Fr. Tomas said. “It would serve as a further confirmation of the enomous influence her life and thought have had on the People of God these past 100 years.”

This year marks the centenary of St. Theresa's death. The beloved saint, also known as “The Little Flower,” and “St. Theresa of the Child Jesus,” entered the Discalced Carmelite cloister at the age of fifteen. She was only 24-years-old when she died in 1897 of tuberculosis. If she is made a doctor, she will be the youngest ever. The average age the 32 Church doctors lived to is 64. The extraordinary story of her nine years in the convent is told in the Autobiography of a Soul, which she wrote under obedience.

Fr. Tomas noted that the spread of Theresa's fame was largely due to the decision of her prioress to circulate a revised version of the book, together with details of her death, to all Carmelite houses. “Theresa knew how to respond to the great spiritual thirst in our world,” he said. “She could penetrate the great mysteries of God's love and mercy while using the most simple terminology.”

Her autobiography was soon translated into most European languages and several Asiatic ones. A number of miraculous cures and an even larger number of favors attributed to her intercession caused the truly remarkable spread of her cult.

Earlier this year, the Discalced Carmelite order and the French Diocese of Bayeux, which includes the city of Lisieux, formally presented a final request to the Vatican asking that St. Theresa be granted the title “doctor.” The request detailed the impact she has had on Catholic spirituality in the 100 years since her death.

Besides this official appeal, Vatican insiders say Pope John Paul II received hundreds of requests from Catholics around the world imploring him to confer the honor on the popular saint.

Fr. Tomas has served as the “promulgator” or official promoter of the entire effort. He noted that the process of naming someone a “Doctor of the Church” requires that three conditions be met: the person must have displayed a clear sanctity of life, they must have left an eminent doctrine, and there must be an official proclamation on behalf of the Universal Church.

In the case of St. Theresa, Fr. Tomas said the sanctity of her life could not have been clearer. “Because the Church has already recognized her as a saint, there was no doubt.” He explained, however, that the Vatican went through a lengthy process to decide whether St. Theresa's doctrine could truly be considered “eminent.”

Three high-level discussions were held since May on this point alone, he said—the first with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the second with the Congregation for the Cause of Saints, and the last meeting among cardinals, bishops, and priests from both congregations combined.

The proceedings were kept strictly confidential. Nonetheless, Fr. Tomas said he received word that participants at the final meeting “agreed unanimously and with great enthusiasm” that the doctrine put forward by St. Theresa of Lisieux could be called “eminent.”

“Now we only lack an official declaration by Pope John Paul II,” Fr. Tomas said. “And from what I've heard, he will announce, or speak of, or say something about this during World Youth Day in Paris. Naturally, we await his decision.”

In the weeks leading up to World Youth Day, Pope John Paul used his public audiences to speak with and about young Catholics. He said youth today are looking for “authentic teachers and witnesses who can show them the path of truth and love.” He also stressed that growing toward holiness is “the basic task” of the Christian life.

St. Theresa of Lisieux is one of two models of Christian faith the Pope will hold up to young people during World Youth Day Aug. 18-24. The other is Frederic Ozanam, whom Pope John Paul will beatify during the week-long gathering. Ozanam and a small group of friends in Paris founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in 1833. The charitable society now has more than 850,000 members in 130 countries.

For the benefit of World Youth Day pilgrims, St. Theresa's relics were moved from Lisieux to the Paris Basilica of Our Lady of the Victories—the church where she prayed during her visits to the French capital.

Beatified in 1923, canonized in 1925, St. Theresa of Lisieux was declared Patroness of the Foreign Missions by Pius XI in 1929—an honor Fr. Tomas called “extraordinary.”

“Theresa was too young to even know the various parts of the world,” he said. “Yet from inside the walls of her convent—through her writings, by her life, and with her prayers—she has had an enormous impact on mission territory as well as on the rest of the Church.”

Theresa was prevented from joining Carmelite missionaries in China because of a hemorrhage—the first sign of the tuberculosis which was to kill her. As a result, she stayed on in her cloistered convent, often suffering heroically in silence.

Fr. Tomas said her message is “very close to that of the Gospels” which she so often cited. “She also expressed a love of God as a Father in childlike simplicity and trust,” he said.

The saint took for her motto the well-known words of the great Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross: “Love is repaid by love alone.” Fr. Tomas noted that her “little way” of spiritual devotion shows a “deep understanding of the mystery of the Cross.”

Presently, two female saints bear the title “Doctor of the Church.” St. Teresa of Avila was proclaimed a doctor in September 1970 by Pope Paul VI. A month later, he conferred the same honor on St. Catherine of Siena. No new doctors have been proclaimed since.

Stephen Banyra is based in Rome.