National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 21, 2003

Young people carry a picture of St. Thérèse of Lisieux prior to a Mass at the opening of the 1997 World Youth Day in Paris. The young Carmelite's popularity has grown steadily since her death in 1897.
-- Zuma Press
Conference examines 'genius' of Thérèse


Roman Catholic theology of sainthood holds that everything begins with a cult. When it works properly, it is the most democratic process in the church. The people of a given time or place decide that someone has lived a life of special sanctity, and the hierarchy comes in only after the fact, authenticating this popular choice.

Few cases illustrate this democratic ethos better than St. Thérèse of Lisieux, popularly known as “the Little Flower of Jesus.”

An all-star, two-day conference at Rome’s Gregorian University Nov. 10 and 11 examined the story of Thérèse, who entered a cloistered Carmelite convent in 1888 at age 15 and died in 1897 at 24, leaving behind a remarkable memoir, The Story of a Soul. She never went on a mission, never founded a religious order and never performed public works, yet devotion to Thérèse spread rapidly and spontaneously. She was canonized in 1925, only 27 years and eight months after her death, making it at the time the most rapid path to sainthood in the modern era. (Her record was narrowly surpassed by St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, in 2002.)

The Thérèse phenomenon continues. The Story of a Soul has been translated into more than 60 languages, with some 30 million copies sold in English alone. Beginning in 1997, on the centenary of her death, large crowds have flocked to view her relics as they tour the world. They made 115 stops in the United States alone, and are currently making their way across Spain.

Among the ecclesiastical dignitaries on hand at the Thérèse conference were Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Brussels, Belgium, and Cardinal Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary, a branch of the Vatican judicial system. Also present was Auxiliary Bishop of New York Patrick Ahern.

Doris Donnelly of the Cardinal Suenens Center at Cleveland’s John Carroll University, an American laywoman who was the principal organizer of the conference, said Thérèse was “the best known and loved saint in the modern period.” For one thing, Donnelly noted, Thérèse’s memoir has outsold all the other books written by Carmelite saints, including luminaries such as John of the Cross, combined.

Belgian Discalced Carmelite Fr. Conrad De Meester delivered the keynote address, quoting Pope Pius XI to the effect that Thérèse was a “word of God spoken for our times.”

Thérèse had a “genius of expression,” De Meester told the gathering of more than 300 people. “Hers was a clear, comprehensible language, because it was the language of love.”

Like several other speakers, De Meester argued that it was Thérèse’s experience of great love, combined with great suffering, that produced her unique blend of passion and depth. Thérèse lost her mother at age 4, then watched as her older sisters one by one left her to enter religious life. Her father suffered a series of strokes, was sent to an insane asylum, and eventually died. In the convent Thérèse became ill, and over the last year of her life was in constant pain.

Carmelite Fr. Christopher O’Donnell of the Milltown Institute in Dublin said that Thérèse’s life was “so gifted, and also so broken … She was purified by love and suffering.”

Canadian Oblate Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, a popular author and speaker, argued that three things account for Thérèse’s popularity.

First, he said, she is the “Anne Frank of the spiritual life,” a young woman who captured in one small book the “feel” of a transforming experience. In Frank’s case, that experience was the Second World War, while with Thérèse it was the spiritual adventure of a soul seeking God.

Second, Rolheiser said, Thérèse was a “woman of extraordinary complexity.” He expressed this idea in terms of several paradoxes, such as that Thérèse was both a little girl and a wise old woman tempered by tragedy.

Finally, Rolheiser said, the secret of Thérèse’s appeal is that she “touches that previously touched place,” the space where human beings carry a dim memory of being shaped and formed in God’s perfect love.

Sacred Heart Sr. Mary Frohlich of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago spoke about the concept of heart as a “root metaphor” in Thérèse’s thought.

Thérèse’s meditation on the Sacred Heart, Frohlich pointed out, was not focused on Jesus’ suffering and death as was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but on a woman’s restless search for her lost beloved. At one point Thérèse envisioned herself and Jesus, her “divine spouse,” resting with one another, “their hearts beating as one.”

Danneels argued that Thérèse’s approach to scripture anticipated later reforms that shaped the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Thérèse, Danneels said, approached scripture not as a proof-text but as a source of challenge. While many Catholics of her era viewed the Bible with fear and suspicion, Thérèse was comfortable letting scripture speak to her.

Discalced Carmelite Fr. Jesus Castellano Cervera, a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, explained the complex process by which Thérèse was declared a “doctor of the church.”

For Rolheiser, the basis for that decree was simple.

“You call somebody a doctor because he or she heals,” he said. “Thérèse heals because she reminds them they have already been loved in a perfect and completely satisfying way by God.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 2003

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