St Therese of Lisieux: Bigger than the Pope

This autumn, the remains of the nun who went to become Saint Thérèse of
Lisieux, will arrive in Britain for the first time where it is anticipated
they could produce an outpouring of public veneration unseen in this country
since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The relics will be continuing a
world tour which has been ongoing for 12 years and has drawn tens of
millions of Christians and other religions to pray and kiss the Perspex box,
home to the wood and gilt reliquary in which her remains are kept.

In all 40 countries visited so far, from war-torn Iraq to Australia, the
display has been accompanied by extraordinary scenes with a piece of her
clothing recently taken into space.

In Ireland in 2001, a 14-day tour attracted 75 per cent of the population ?
more than turned out to see Pope John Paul II during his landmark visit in
1979. A farewell rally in a Wexford football stadium drew 20,000 people. The
previous year a four-month tour of the United States saw 1.1m faithful turn
out from La Plata to Honolulu. In New York 15,000 crowded outside New York’s
St Patrick’s Cathedral forcing police to close Fifth Avenue.

Arriving at Portsmouth Cathedral in September the relics will be transported
by a specially adapted hearse already being dubbed the Thérèse-mobile. They
will visit 22 different locations, accompanied at all times by a priest,
culminating in an appearance at Westminster Cathedral. The bones will be
displayed at the chapel at Wormwood Scrubs and a hospice. In a symbolic show
of ecumenicalism the relics will also be taken to York’s Anglican Minster
where they will be available for veneration through the night.

Organised by the Catholic Church of England and Wales which represents a faith
community of 4.5m, the tour is being paid for by public donation. Canon John
Udris of Northampton Cathedral, a member of the organising committee, said
it was hard to know exactly what to expect. “I will be intrigued myself
to see what kind of response we will get. My hunch is that with the English
temperament we might be more reticent and we might find that our immigrant
communities from Africa and India take the lead.” Canon Udris, who
visited the relics last month, said people were profoundly affected by their
encounter with the relics. “One of her characteristics was her
childlikeness, simplicity and straightforwardness. Being in her presence
seems to bring out those qualities in us,” he said. Canon Michael Ryan
who has worked with the Dean of York to bring the relics to the magnificent
surroundings of the Gothic minister said Thérèse ranked alongside St
Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. “Ordinary Catholics and others are moved
by her because she is so relevant to them. She was a person who struggled
with life and with depression,” said Canon Ryan. “She gave her
life totally to God and a lot of people identify with her. Most people are
suffering in one way or another. Christ helped her carry that cross and she
got over her problems joyfully.”

Born in Alençon in 1873, Thérèse was one of nine children born into a deeply
religious family. Her mother died of breast cancer when Thérèse was aged
four, a tragedy which left an indelible mark for the remainder of her life.
Having moved to Lisiuex, the departure of her sister and substitute mother
Pauline to a Carmelite convent struck a terrible second blow. The twin
losses were the cause of her depression and made her volatile. But her
personality was transformed in Christmas 1884 when she underwent a religious
experience that persuaded her to devote her life to God. But the Carmelite
convent, where two sisters were already residing, refused her entry and she
was forced to appeal directly to the Bishop and Pope Leo XIII. As a novice
nun her problems continued. Her father suffered a series of strokes which
left him with hallucinations and resulted in his incarceration in an asylum.
In the last 18 months before she succumbed to tuberculosis Thérèse endured
terrible physical pain and deep depression. Yet such was her inner sense of
peace few realised she was ill.

Her celebrity has helped turn her home town in the Calvados region of Normandy
into France’s second most visited shrine after Lourdes attracting more than
two million visitors per year. Her life is charted in her slender
autobiography Story of a Soul, published after her death, describes her
belief in the Little Way ? the realisation of sanctity through small acts.
She was eventually canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1925.

Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Catholic weekly The Tablet said the
veneration of saints’ bones was common in Britain before the Reformation.
She said the cult of Thérèse was fuelled in part through the fact she was
one of the first saints to be photographed. “There is a curiosity
factor about this. People in this country are probably the most sceptical in
Europe,” she said. “There are some who will be made uncomfortable
by it. But what we forget in this day and age is that in terms of English
history there would have been more people who thought it was a perfectly
normal thing than who thought it peculiar. We are really just returning to
an English tradition that has been lost.”

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