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Make St. Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church


  Doctor as Preeminent Teacher

 What Can We Learn From Thérèse?

No one would have been more surprised than St. Thérèse of Lisieux to know that there is a major push on to have her named a doctor of the Church—in celebration of the 100th anniversary of her death this year.

“We cannot all be apostles, prophets, or doctors of the Church,” she wrote. Meditating on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (Chapters 12 and 13) which contains the idea of the Mystical Body, “Finally I realized that love includes every vocation, that love is in all things, that love is eternal, reaching down through the ages and stretching to the uttermost parts of the earth. I have found my vocation at last—my vocation is love! I have found my place in the bosom of the Body of Christ. In his body I shall be love” (as paraphrased in Simply Surrender: Based on the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux, by John Kirvan, Ave Maria Press).

That kind of spiritual insight, however simple it may seem, should merit her a place among the doctors of the Church.

Thérèse Martin’s life and the validity of her spiritual insights, her “little way” to God, impressed her family and her Carmelite sisters. When her autobiography was published the year after her death at age 24, it was an immediate best-seller and was translated into 40 languages. A flood of books, audiotapes and even videos about her has been released for this centenary year.

Doctor as Preeminent Teacher

Doctors of the Church are saints with special intellectual gifts. They are not primarily healers but doctors of philosophy and theology whose teaching should guide us in our spiritual lives.

The bishops of the United States, France, Canada, Spain, Switzerland, Brazil and Mexico have formally petitioned Pope John Paul II to declare Thérèse Martin a doctor of the Church. At World Youth Day in Paris, France, in August, Pope John Paul II announced that he intends to do just that.

The Canadian bishops, who had made their request following their November 1996 meeting in Halifax, cited the fact that Thérèse meets the three criteria for being declared a doctor of the Church set down by Pope Paul VI in 1970: Her message has current and permanent value; she bore witness to the faith in her life; and her testimony has a particular character, especially a spiritual and mystical character, that inspires others. Those new criteria elaborated on the traditional understanding of doctor of the Church for a person already canonized whose holiness is exemplary even among the saints, and whose learning and teaching are outstanding.

Pope Paul used the expanded criteria to name St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena doctors of the Church in 1970. The two recent additions are the only women among the 31 doctors of the Church. They joined the ranks alongside St. Anthony of Padua (famous Franciscan preacher and patron of this magazine), St. Francis deSales (patron of the Catholic press who wrote of lay spirituality) and St. Thomas Aquinas (whose philosophy laid the basis for much of Western theology).

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus of Lisieux, France, belongs in their number as well. She would be the youngest doctor of the Church and the third woman.

What Can We Learn From Thérèse?

Thérèse Martin was not very well educated. She entered the Carmelites at age 15 and for many of her earlier years she was tutored at home by her sisters. Despite her short life, she produced a lot of writing which provides a full look at her spiritual development and inner life.

The language of her writings—her poetry, plays, letters and autobiography—is simple and childlike. Her images are sometimes sentimental and mawkish. This is understandable because Thérèse was very young and often gushed. She prefers diminutives like flowerlet and lambkin, words we have a hard time taking seriously. But these sentimental words belie a steely soul.

Her writings provide a way for all of us, regardless of our life-styles, to attain holiness. Her words do not pertain just to a Carmelite nun’s life, or to her parents’ bourgeois life, or to European life. Her advice is equally relevant to us on the verge of a new century, a new millennium. She transcends her personal history and age.

She started with the conviction that she is a much-loved child of God. She realized that in our relationship with God we are all very small children, always will be and there is no need to be anything else. Therefore, it is in surrendering to God, not achievement, that holiness is to be found.

“When in the morning we feel no courage or strength for the practice of virtue—then is the moment to put the ax to the root of the tree,” Thérèse said in a letter. She learned that weakness has its own grace and that holiness is within our grasp. As Elizabeth Ruth Obbard, O.D.C., says in A Retreat With Thérèse of Lisieux (St. Anthony Messenger Press), “Only accept yourself and the opportunities to be a loving person that today offers.”

Thérèse teaches us the value of ordinary life, the everyday. Counter to the heretics of her day, the Jansenists, she insisted that this world and our place and work in it are to be taken seriously. Her theology was positive and incarnational.

Thérèse coped with the dark night of the soul that all of us face when God seems distant. She endured physical pain and, even worse, the pain of being misunderstood. Through it all, she kept her trust in God.

Through her words and her life, Thérèse is a model for us and a Ph.D.-class teacher of holiness. It is appropriate that she be named a doctor of the Church.—B.B.

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