A stained glass panel in the Shrine of St Therese of Lisieux, Pasay, Philippines. Photo: Michelle Tan

Cloistered nun becomes one of the greatest missionaries

Michelle Tan

In 1927, just two years after her canonisation and 30 years after her death at the age of 24, Pope Pius XI, in his decree Apostolicorum in missionibus, named St Therese co-patron of all foreign missions and missionaries along with St Francis  Xavier.

How could a sickly little nun who had never left the cloister of the Carmel in Lisieux, France, be on par with the one who, having brought the faith to Asia and the Far East, was considered to be of the greatest missionaries of the Church since St Paul?

A heart of mission

In her autobiography Story of a Soul, St Therese herself wrote: “In spite of my littleness, I have the vocation of the apostle. I would like to travel over the whole earth to preach your name and plant your cross on pagan soil. But O my Beloved, one mission alone would not be sufficient for me, I would want to preach the Gospel on all the five continents simultaneously and even to the most remote isles! I would be a missionary, not for a few years only, but from the beginning of creation until the consummation of the ages… O my Jesus, what is your answer  to  all  my  follies?”

The Word of God answered her plea when she meditated on 1 Corinthians 12 and 13. She realised that, although the Church was comprised of many vocations just as the Body of Christ was made of many parts, the greatest vocation in the Church and the heart of the Body of Christ, was the vocation to love.

Because she was bed-ridden and her body wracked by tuberculosis, she told the Lord she could live out this vocation only by doing small and ordinary actions with great and extraordinary love, thereby making them into great deeds. “I have no other means of proving my love for you other than that of strewing flowers before your throne – not allowing one little sacrifice to escape, not one look, one word – profiting by all the smallest things and doing them through love.”

Later, even when she lay dying and in great pain, she could still write with passion, “Upon my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth. I will raise up a host of mighty saints. My mission is to make God loved!”

The vocation to love

St Therese had already been called to a vocation of love when she was just 14. A sensational crime had taken France by storm, committed by a man named Pranzini who faced execution by guillotine for the brutal murders of two innocent women and a child during a robbery, and St Therese was determined to save his soul.

“I wanted at all costs to prevent him from falling into hell… feeling that of myself I could do nothing, I offered to God all the merits of Our Lord, the treasures of the Church and begged (my sister) Celine to have a Mass offered for my intentions… I told God I was sure He would pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini; that I’d believe this even if he went to his death without any signs of repentance or without having gone to confession. I was absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus.”

Her prayers were answered. The next day, the newspapers reported that in the last moments under the guillotine, he took the crucifix a priest held out to him and kissed the wounds of Jesus three times before he was executed.

The science of love

In his 1997 Apostolic letter Divini amoris scientia proclaiming St Therese a Doctor of the Church on the 100th anniversary of her death, Pope St John Paul II explained what he called her “science of love”.

“The spiritual doctrine of Therese of Lisieux has helped extend the kingdom of God. By her example of holiness, of perfect fidelity to Mother Church, of full communion with the See of Peter, as well as by the special graces obtained by her for many missionary brothers and sisters, she has rendered particular service to the renewed proclamation and experience of Christ’s Gospel and to the extension of the Catholic faith in every nation on earth.”

Through her humble offering of “little flowers”, St Therese brought salvation to a great sinner. She inspires all of us to do the same. Like her, we may be cloistered in our homes and confined within the borders of our country in this time of Covid-19, we may be sick and suffering, and we may be small and weak. Yet, if our hearts burn with love of God and the desire to save souls, we can be missionaries without limits. Despite our “nothingness”, our “little flowers” of ordinary prayer and sacrifice, strewn with extraordinary love, will become great fruit spreading the seeds of divine love and making God loved throughout the world.