St. Therese of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face
- Feast Day: October 1
- Born: Marie-Francoise-Therese Martin on January 2, 1873 in Alencon, France
- Died: September 30, 1897 at the age of 24 in Lisieux, France
- Declared Doctor of the Church: October 19, 1997
- Patronage: Missions/missionaries, France, Russia, HIV/AIDS sufferers, florists and gardeners, loss of parents, those suffering from tuberculosis
A Chance Meeting
Not having grown up Catholic, I had little to no knowledge of the saints. That being said, perhaps it’s not uncommon for cradle Catholics to also be a bit ignorant of them. Even after my conversion, I hardly gave a second thought to the existence of the saints, or to their role in my life, although we invoke their intercession each Sunday at Mass during the “I Confess” and in the Eucharistic Prayer.
I first came to know of St. Therese of Lisieux when someone gave me a book of meditations based on her teachings called “I Believe in Love.” Unlike many spiritual books that were either too dry or seemed way over my head, I read it from cover to cover. I was struck by the words of this young woman – so simple, yet so profound – and instinctively understood them to be great spiritual truths. I appreciated her candour in describing the challenges and frustrations she met both at home and in her life at the convent, as they were the kinds of things with which I also struggled. Most of all, I was deeply touched by her desire to completely abandon her life to God, trusting that He would make something good of it.
Ultimately, this was the area of my faith that I found most difficult – letting go of my own ways and my own desires, and allowing God to be in control. It’s one thing to say that we love and trust Him, but quite another to actually turn our lives over to Him. In the life of St. Therese, in her “Little Way,” I saw such a disposition put into action. Through her example, I began to see that God knows better than even I do what’s right for me. From this moment, I grew to love the saint known as the “Little Flower,” whose only desire was to love God with the simplicity of a child. But it would still take some time for me to understand that perhaps God had sent her into my life to help me love and trust Him all the more.
Simple Life, Simple Faith
Undoubtedly, the environment in which Therese grew up had a profound impact on her. It was a warm, loving, faith-filled home, but it was also one that had experienced its own share of suffering. By the time Therese came along, her parents had already lost four children, and she herself arrived frail and sickly. As a result, and as the youngest of five girls, Therese was doted on incessantly which only added to her precociousness and strong temper. But it was also within family life that the foundation of prayer, the liturgy, and good works began to instill in her an ardent love for Jesus and Mary.
When Therese was only five, she lost her mother to breast cancer. While she would later describe it as the most painful part of her life, it would ultimately draw her closer to Jesus and Mary. Her father played a big part in this, as on their frequent walks together, they would often visit different churches and even stop to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. From early on, Therese saw her world as only the beginning, a mere glimpse of what lay ahead and for that which she most longed: heaven.
When her sister Pauline, whom she had come to see as a second mother, left for the Carmelite monastery, Therese felt her loss keenly. Shortly thereafter, the young girl fell seriously ill with severe headaches, fever and hallucinations, and though doctors weren’t able to diagnose the precise cause, she attributed it to the devil. It wasn’t until Therese turned to a statue of the Virgin near her bed, and prayed for a cure that she found relief. “Suddenly,” Therese writes, “….Mary’s face radiated kindness and love.”1 Though only 9 years old, she had for some time felt drawn to enter the Carmelite Monastery in Lisieux, a resolve that was only strengthened during her long illness. Her joy was found in receiving the sacraments, and she wanted only to do something great for God. When another sister, Marie, entered the convent, Therese was bereft once again. Then something miraculous happened on Christmas of 1886. The sadness that had characterized her life for so long receded, replaced by an insatiable love for souls. “My heart was filled with charity. I forgot myself to please others and, in doing so, became happy myself.”2
Therese became convinced that her suffering and prayers could bring others to Jesus, an idea that was confirmed by what she saw as a remarkable sign. The story is recounted here:
“In the early summer of 1887, a criminal, Henri Pranzini, was convicted of the murder of two women and a child. He was sentenced to the guillotine. The convicted man, according to police reports, showed no inclination to repent. Therese immediately stormed heaven for Pranzini’s conversion. She prayed for weeks and had Mass offered for him. There was still no change in the attitude of the condemned man. The newspaper La Croix, in describing Pranzini’s execution, noted the man had refused to go to confession. Then on September 1, 1887, as the executioner was about to put his head onto the guillotine block, the unfortunate criminal seized the crucifix a priest offered him and, the newspaper noted, “kissed the Sacred Wounds three times.” Therese wept for joy; her “first child” had obtained God’s mercy. Therese hoped that many others would follow once she was in the Carmel.”3
Though her request to enter the convent had been repeatedly refused because she was thought to be too young, this only fueled her desire. Indeed, she thought of little else. After appealing to both the priest-superior and the local bishop without success, Therese’s father decided to take her and her sister on pilgrimage to Rome as a diversion. Not so easily dissuaded, Therese found an opportunity to make her plea once more, this time going straight to the top. In an audience with the Pope (though she had been forbidden to speak to him), Therese knelt down and quietly whispered, “Holy Father, I have a request…”
Ultimately, the girl’s efforts were rewarded and, on New Year’s Day 1888, Therese was admitted to the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux at the age of 15. She would later go on to describe her “little way, “ the Way of Spiritual Childhood, a plan of humble surrender to the will of God “embedded in the Sacred Scriptures.”4 “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3).
So what does this little saint have to do with me – or with any of us? Though I had been introduced to St. Therese many years before, my own personal relationship with her was far from over, and she began “appearing” in my life in various ways. The next time was about 10 years ago, when I was asked to join a committee in our church to help foster vocations. The bishop of our diocese had wisely decided that every parish needed to be more proactive in praying for and encouraging vocations, especially those to the priesthood. I had always had a great respect for priests, but had never considered my role as a layperson in promoting vocations. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a huge time commitment, so I agreed to be part of it.
At our first meeting, the vocations director at the time, Fr. Myles Gaffney, came and met with the 5 of us and, together, we came up with some initiatives for the parish. He also handed out prayer cards that included information for the St. Therese Society, a group of lay people committed to praying for priests and vocations. The beautifully simple prayers helped me to remember the priests that had been a part of my life over the years – in teaching me about my Catholic faith, praying for me, and giving me the sacraments – and encouraged me to pray for them by name.
I also began to understand this idea of abandonment to the will of God that St. Therese embodied so well. Her wonderful example would inspire me many times over the next several years as I struggled to balance the daily demands of family life with my desire to do something great for God. As a wife and a mother of 5 children, what could I do that would really make a difference in the world? In the busyness of my daily life, all I had time to do was pray…as long as God didn’t mind that it was mostly while washing dishes or changing diapers. I also began to go to Mass more frequently – several times a week. My sister-in-law joked that it was necessary to get my “full hour” of the Sunday Mass, as each occasion with kids in tow only allowed for snippets. Yet even if I didn’t catch a word of the homily, I found that I was greatly strengthened by the Eucharist.
Though we seemingly shared little in our backgrounds or vocations, St. Therese became my constant companion. Each day, I prayed her Morning Offering,5 and asked God to help me see His hand at work in my life. Mostly, I continued to pray for priests and for vocations. When my family and I began to come in contact with more priests, it was only natural that we looked for ways to support and befriend them. We found them to be very real people with a wide range of interests and ideas, in addition to their love for Christ and the Church. Matters of religion and faith had always been regular topics at our dinner table, so we appreciated their insights and enjoyed what they added to the conversation. Hearing their vocation stories was particularly edifying, and I discovered that many had been “showered with roses” after saying a novena to St. Therese during the process of their discernment.
Probably the most profound impact of the intercession of St. Therese on our lives was when our son, Philip, began to consider a call to the priesthood. For some reason, I never really thought that my prayer for more vocations would touch our family in such a personal way. What’s more, because we now knew and felt comfortable with many priests, there was a place to turn with our questions and concerns. What a blessing for our son to have their guidance throughout the discernment process and, as his parents, to be given honest responses about both the joys and challenges of the priesthood.
The saints are for us!
We have experienced many graces in getting to know various priests over the years and likewise, have come to see the importance of praying for them to persevere in faith. They need the love and support of all of us to fulfill what God is asking of them. St. Therese felt this need acutely. “I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.” Her words help us to see that God uses each of us to build up the Church and that prayer is no small thing. Rather, it is often the best thing we can do!
In every age, God raises up saints to help lead us back to Him – both individually and as a whole – and to bring about whatever is needed most in His Church. Without a doubt, there is a great need for vocations to the priesthood, but it’s certainly not for lack of the Lord calling! He continues to call many to serve Him in the Church, men who will abandon themselves to the Holy Spirit and thus become holy priests to lead all people to God. St. Therese holds the key for all of us – living lives of simplicity, love, and abandonment to the will of our Heavenly Father. She has gone before us to show the way!
– Kelley Holy
Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face is the youngest of all the “Doctors of the Church”, but her ardent spiritual journey shows such maturity, and the insights of faith expressed in her writings are so vast and profound that they deserve a place among the great spiritual masters.
– Pope John Paul II
1 Society of the Little Flower, “Life Story – Our Lady of the Smile”; available fromwww.littleflower.org; Internet; accessed 7 September, 2013.
2 Ibid, “Life Story – The Christmas Conversion.”
4 Rt. Rev. Mgr. Vernon Johnson, “The Message of St. Therese of Lisieux” (Catholic Truth Society, 1997), 7.
5 Used by the members of the St. Therese Society of Calgary
A Morning Offering by St. Therese
O my God, I offer you all my actions of this day for the intentions and for the glory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I desire to sanctify every beat of my heart, my every thought, my simplest works, by uniting them to its infinite merits; and I wish to make reparation for my sins by casting them into the furnace of its merciful love. O my God, I ask of you for myself and for those whom I hold dear, the grace to fulfill perfectly your holy will, to accept for love of you the joys and sorrows of this passing life, so that we may one day be united together in heaven for all eternity. Amen.
Daily Prayer for Priests
O Jesus, I pray for: your faithful and fervent priests, your unfaithful and lukewarm priests, your priests laboring at home or abroad in distant mission fields, your tempted priests, your dying priests, and the souls of your priests in purgatory.
But above all, I recommend to you the priests dearest to me: the priest who baptized me, the priests who absolved me from my sins, the priests at whose Masses I assisted and who gave me you Body and Blood in Holy Communion, the priests who taught and instructed me; all the priests to whom I am indebted in any other way (especially…). O Jesus, keep them all close to your heart and bless them abundantly in time and in eternity. Amen.
Daily Prayer for Vocations
Heavenly Father, Lord of the harvest, we earnestly ask you to bless our diocese and our world with many priests who will love you fervently, and gladly and courageously spend their lives in service to your Son’s Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We pray that their lives may be always centered on our Eucharistic Lord, that they be always faithful to the Holy Father, and that they may be devoted sons on Mary, our mother, in making you known and loved; and that all may attain heaven. Bless our families and our children and choose from our homes those whom you desire for this holy work. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.