Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Conference Examines 'Genius' of Therese

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Conference Examines 'Genius' of Therese

Article excerpt

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. Th6rbse 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 Therese, 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 Therese 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 Therese 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 Therese 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 Car roll University, an American laywoman who was the principal organizer of the conference, said Therese was "the best known and loved saint in the modern period." For one thing, Donnelly noted, Therese'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 Therese was a "word of God spoken for our times."

Therese 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 Therese's experience of great love, combined with great suffering, that produced her unique blend of passion and depth. Therese lost her mother at age 4, then watched as her older sisters one by one left her to enter religious life. …

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