St. Thérèse – Patroness of the Missions
Capitular Mass at Westminster Cathedral October 14th.
One of the people who gave courage to Thérèse especially during the final months of her life was the French missionary priest and martyr – Fr. Theophane Vanard. He was a missionary in Vietnam who suffered persecution, torture and eventually a cruel death by beheading in 1861. He was, however, a tremendous inspiration to Thérèse. He was a courageous and dedicated priest but also his letters portrayed him as being a very human and very happy person. This especially appealed to Therese. He was such an inspiration to her that she had his portrait pinned to the curtains of her cell during her final months. A few months before she died she composed a poem in which she wrote:
“To suffer for God seemed to you a delight
Smiling you knew how to live and how to die.”
Thérèse wanted to be part of the great French missionary effort of the second part of the 19th century and she would have liked to accept the invitation of the Carmel in Saigon to be a part of a new foundation in Hanoi. While this was not to be Thérèse was still very much part of that missionary endeavour through her prayers and support for missionaries. This support is especially illustrated in the letters she wrote to and received from a young French missionary in China Fr. Adolphe Roullard and an aspiring missionary Maurice Belliere.
The situations Adolphe and Maurice faced were completely different. Adolphe was ordained a priest on September 8th 1890 – exactly the same day Thérèse was professed. He was facing the challenges of being a missionary in China
– the challenge of learning a new and difficult language,
– the challenge of understanding a new culture and
– the reality of physical danger even possible death.
Maurice on the other hand was facing the internal struggle of self doubt. “Was he good enough to be a missionary?” “Had he the qualities necessary – the courage, the faith, the dedication – to be a missionary?” Finally, on October 4th 1897 he wrote his last letter to Thérèse saying that he had left for Algeria “Your brother” he said “is a missionary since yesterday.” He wrote the letter, not realizing that Thérèse had died, on the very day she was buried.
Thérèse wrote to Adolphe and Maurice with warmth and wisdom, she prayed for them, she encouraged them but most important of all she helped them to trust in God’s love and to abandon themselves to God’s love. In a very practical way she had become their guide on their spiritual and missionary journey. Thérèse understood instinctively that all mission is rooted in God’s love. Mission is first and foremost about knowing God’s love and secondly about living and giving witness to that love and proclaiming that love to the world.
This is the point Matthew makes in this evening’s Gospel. In answer to the question about the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus stresses the importance of those who are usually considered the least. Being the least – being like a little child – is the requirement for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven while welcoming the least is the criteria for mission. In other words we can’t show God’s love unless we know God’s love.
Thérèse’s deep desire to know God’s love developed early in her life and continued throughout her life. She grew up within a loving family with a strong sense of being loved by God. Through the separations, the sickness and the sufferings she experienced, she learned to trust in God’s love but also to abandon herself to God’s love. For Religious in France in the second half of the 19th century the taking of vows was often seen as a call to offer oneself as a victim to Christ. Thérèse came to understand that in all dimensions of life and in all aspects of life, loving involves suffering. It was especially through the intimacy and indeed the trials of prayer that this communion with and trust in God flourished so much so that towards the end of her life prayer both in times of trial and joy was “a simple aspiration of the heart, a glance to heaven, a cry of recognition and love”. Every missionary who has ever struggled with learning a new language, learning about a new culture or with the poverty and pain of his or her people can identify with the importance of trusting in God.
Knowing that God loved her, however, was the prelude to allowing God to love through her. For Thérèse her vocation to love was both very practical and totally universal. She felt called to show that love in the little things and situations of life like being kind to a difficult sister in the community, like being diligent in all her duties at Carmel, like performing simple acts of penance. Although Thérèse never left Carmel she also felt called to proclaim that love to the remotest islands of the earth. Her mission to proclaim God’s love transcended the boundaries of culture, class and country so much so that she continues today to proclaim God’s love through her words and her writings. She is indeed a worthy Patroness of the Missions teaching us – as she did Adolphe and Maurice – how to know and contemplate God’s love, showing us how to live that love and inspiring us to proclaim that love.
As we come to the end of a remarkable four weeks and prepare for Mission Sunday we thank God for the way she has led us to know God’s love a little more and we now ask God to help us to live and proclaim that love a little better – helping us in turn to be better missionaries ourselves.