The arrival of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux will be a great event, says Simon Caldwell
By our friends at The British Herald
In the common parlance of our times, a lot of people “just don’t get” St Thérèse of Lisieux. Perhaps it is just too difficult to compare a diminutive French girl who vanished into the silent cloisters of a Carmelite convent at 15 to the likes of Amy Winehouse, Jordan, Britney Spears, Kate Moss and all those other glamorous celebrities who create headlines on any given day of the year.This is to an extent understandable, because Thérèse, having died from tuberculosis at the age of 24 in 1897, can hardly be considered contemporary. Yet when her short autobiography, The Story of a Soul, was published in 1898 she was propelled from anonymity to posthumous fame on the scale of a modern-day rock star.On account of Thérèse’s extraordinary popularity Pope Pius X opened her cause in 1914, declaring her to be “the greatest saint of modern times”. His successor, Pope Benedict XV, waived the 50-year waiting period for beatification. She was declared Blessed in 1923 then canonised in 1925, just 28 years after her death.Within a few decades St Thérèse came to be held in such high esteem by the Church that she was made co-patron of France with St Joan of Arc and co-patron of the missions with St Francis Xavier. When in 1927 Stalin became the undisputed leader of the Soviet Communist Party, Pope Pius XI named St Thérèse of the Child Jesus – or the “Little Flower”, as she was popularly known – as patron saint of all works for Russia.
More than 100 years after her death, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor has invited St Thérèse to England. On September 16 a casket containing some of her bones will arrive here and tour the country, remaining for her feast day of October 1.
The visit is generating enthusiasm in the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, which has announced that “wherever her relics have gone, millions of people have prayed beside them and experienced many graces of healing, conversion and vocation”.
When in 2001 the relics were taken to Ireland they were venerated by more than a million people, a higher turnout than that for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. Cars would even stop out of respect when the so-called “Thérèsemobile” passed by.
The English and Welsh bishops are preparing for the visit with a nationwide programme of catechesis on the life and spirituality of the saint, focusing on prayer, the call to holiness, family life, vocation and evangelisation. They no doubt see the visit of the relics as an opportunity to inspire holiness in a society growing increasingly godless, a trend condemned last week by Pope Benedict XVI as “not only an external threat to believers” but one which has “shown itself within the bosom of the Church”.
In Britain, the development of “a mentality in which God is effectively absent” has recently taken the form of a social movement which is fighting ferociously to relegate the observance of religion to the realms of the strictly private – a bit like viewing pornography, perhaps.
Secularists are now arguing more stridently than ever that the Church should have no public voice or, indeed, any role funded by the taxpayer. They are enraged by the acknowledgement of the divine in anything from state-funded schools to military chaplains, and their influence on government and media is immense.
Religious charities, they say, may only be tolerated inasmuch as they conform to prevailing secular mores, hence the refusal to exempt Catholic adoption agencies from laws compelling them to place children in the care of same-sex couples.
Religious faith is also increasingly treated as an obstacle to participation in any aspect of public life. That is why those specialists who gave scientific evidence to last year’s House of Commons inquiry on abortion were harangued and then publicly “outed” if it turned out they were also Christians. It is why Gordon Brown’s denial of a free vote on the creation of animal-human hybrids and legally fatherless children makes it, at least in the eyes of one senior London priest, “practically impossible to be a Labour MP and a practising Catholic”.
In such a context, the public veneration of St Thérèse’s relics will be seen by wider society as odd, if not scandalous – although there is little unusual in the secular equivalent of venerating (or trading) the former possessions of Elvis, Kurt Cobain or Princess Diana.
It may even appear slightly macabre. But that would be to miss the point, which is that the presence of St Thérèse – not least her intercession – ought to point Catholics toward her theology, which offers a radical response to the secularist onslaught.
Her theology of the “Little Way” can be summarised as the service of charity in each and every action, no matter how little or mundane: whether it is opening a door for someone or bearing a wrong patiently, all deeds are enacted in a spirit of love for God and for neighbour. Aware of her own “smallness”, St Thérèse wrote of her love for a forgiving God who asked her not for great deeds but only for self-surrender and gratitude. She understood that while few Christians are called to be martyrs or to preach to the multitudes, all are called to holiness.
“Love proves itself by deeds so how am I to show my love?” the saint wrote in The Story of a Soul. “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 of these actions for love.”
Such a faith is public as well as private, as it has the power to inform every thought, word and deed of in the most seemingly ordinary of lives, and to withstand the trials, hardships and the hatred of the world.
Significantly, Pope John Paul II in 1997 made the saint one of the 33 doctors of the Church, a title given to just two other women. He was conveying the message that the writings of St Thérèse are of universal importance.
The visit of her relics ought to remind British Catholics of the true role of their religion. It should encourage them to reject the false – even heretical – role being prescribed to them by militant atheists, who under the premise of establishing neutrality, are in effect imposing an alternative belief system which is fundamentally anti-Christian.
The Church already insists on a distinction between the spiritual and temporal spheres and it is for this reason that clerics are forbidden to hold political office. But it also believes that civil laws must mirror the natural law – the law of God expounded in the Ten Commandments – for them to be just.
It is right that Christians who participate in public life seek to achieve this, as both the salvation of souls and fundamental human rights require it. After all, the Church received a missionary mandate from Our Lord himself to make disciples of all nations. St Thérèse shows all contemporary Christians a way to fulfil such obligations in the modern age. Hers is a far greater legacy than that of any secular celebrities.
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