At his general audience on June 7, immediately before leaving for his successful surgery the next day at Gemelli Hospital in Rome, Pope Francis spoke of the passion for evangelization of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. He also prayed before her relic, which was present on the platform beside him in St. Peter’s Square. The pope placed a single white rose on the table before the reliquary, which also contained the relics of St. Thérèse’s parents, Saints Louis and Zélie Guerin Martin, whom Pope Francis canonized in October 2015. On the occasion of the audience, the pope announced that he is preparing an apostolic letter on St. Thérèse for the occasion of the 150th anniversary of her birth and the 50th anniversary of her beatification, both of which occur this year.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux was born in Alençon, France, on Jan. 2, 1873. Thérèse’s early years were close to her family and filled with a great desire to please God. She had a very simple and innocent outlook on life that never left her. At the age of 16, she entered the Carmelite convent, after having met with some resistance because of her young age. Her early years at Carmel were filled with much peace. However, time brought her terrible spiritual and physical sufferings through which Thérèse continued to grow in a deep union with God. Her interior suffering was not reflected in her exterior attitude, which was always one of joy with the other sisters. She endured terrible dryness in prayer, scruples and temptations of faith, but through them all she was a model of love in her monastery. She died at the young age of 24 on Sept. 30, 1897, after a prolonged agony. Again, through all of her physical suffering, she was an example of prayer and patience. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was canonized in 1925 and declared a Doctor of the Church by St. Pope John Paul II in 1997. Her feast is now celebrated on Oct. 1.
Pope Francis has many special saints in his life to whom he refers frequently in his writings, homilies and talks. Obviously, St. Ignatius of Loyola is one of them, as the pope is a member of the congregation which Ignatius founded, the Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits. Pope Francis makes frequent reference to St. Ignatius and his spirituality. However, there is no question that Pope Francis has great devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In fact, when he was interviewed by a group of homeless people in 2022 for a book, he was asked to identify his favorite saint, and he replied, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. On his flight from Sri Lanka to Manila in 2015, Pope Francis received a carving of St. Thérèse from one of the journalists on the plane. He remarked, “I have the habit, when I do not know how things will go, to ask St. Thérèse the little child, St. Therese of Jesus, to ask her — if she takes a problem on hand, something — that she send me a rose. I asked also for this trip: that she’d take it in hand and that she would send me a rose. But instead of a rose, she came herself to greet me.” There are occasions in which a white rose presented to Francis was understood by him as a sign from St. Thérèse.
The contrast between St. Ignatius and St. Thérèse is extraordinary. St. Ignatius was born in 1491 in Loyola, Spain. He was from a very wealthy family and his life was lived far from the devotion of the Church, as he undertook a very secular life and military career. It was only after his being wounded in battle that he began a conversion, which led to the principles of his spiritual discernment and eventually a complete change of life in which he entered the priesthood. He eventually founded the Jesuits and died at the age of 65 from a serious form of malaria on July 31, 1556. Unlike St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Ignatius experienced several visions. He had a very rigorous teaching on the spiritual life, founded a major religious congregation and is well known for his Spiritual Exercises. St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s spiritual doctrine was not a rigorous one but concerned the “Little Way” of finding God in ordinary tasks and performing them joyfully. She was relatively unknown in her short life and was influential only in her family and among the other sisters at Lisieux. However, the influence of this simple and holy child of God, who lived a short life, made a tremendous and speedy impact on the lives of popes, bishops, priests, religious and those of every other vocation in life. Her “Little Way” gave her the recognition of Doctor of the Church.
Pope Francis often quips that he thinks like a Jesuit. This may be true, but his spirituality reflects quite vividly the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. St. Thérèse’s way of life and doctrine were centered on the merciful love of God, as experienced each and every day. St. Thérèse lived in the age that emphasized the God of justice. However, she stressed the God of mercy, emphasizing how God’s greatest joy was to forgive and to receive the love of sinners. She cultivated the art of accepting failure as she would delight in her unsuccessful actions, not because they were unsuccessful, but because she knew they would bring her God’s unconditional mercy. The Lord was present to her and, even when she could not feel that presence, gave herself completely in love to Him. She expressed that if in heaven she was not surprised enough, she would pretend to be surprised just to please God. Hers was a personal, intimate, loving and intense relationship with God in which she knew that her love for God made a difference to Him.
At 86, Pope Francis is far in age from that of the short 24 years of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. He frequently quotes from the prophet Joel that, “Your elders shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions” (3:1). These words were quoted by St. Peter on the feast of Pentecost after the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles. We can truly say that St. Thérèse lived her visions as a young person. We can also say that Pope Francis experiences the dreams of his life and wants to hand them on to the young. How fitting it is that he is so influenced by the visions of St. Thérèse and that he has implemented them in the dreams of his life. In his audience of June 7, Pope Francis encouraged us to follow the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse by doing even the smallest of things, like the Lord did, with great love. Indeed, in the words of Joel, Thérèse’s young visions are Pope Francis’ mature dreams.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
June 23, 2023