She died just short of twenty five years old. She spent her last nine years enclosed in a Carmelite convent. She did quite a lot of traveling with her family in her younger days, yet she was never in a mission country. And yet a Pope decided to proclaim her Patroness of the worldwide Missions, alongside Saint Francis Xavier, a Jesuit priest of mythological proportions, who was a tireless itinerant preacher in India and Japan.
Why did Pope Pius XI, precisely eighty years ago, on December 14th 1927, decide to proclaim Saint Therese of the Child Jesus Patron Saint of the Missions? A rather odd decision, no?, considering that she never went to the missions?!
Obviously there is a message hidden here. Perhaps the Church wants to tell us that what makes a missionary are not the legs but the heart! A missionary after all is a person whose heart burns with love for Christ and zeal for souls. He is utterly concerned in rescuing souls from the clutches of the evil one by whatever means he can use…prayer, preaching, penance…
When she was fourteen, Therese was praying in the Cathedral of Lisieux and… “looking at a picture of Our Lord on the Cross, I was struck by the blood flowing from one of the divine hands. I felt a great pang of sorrow when thinking this blood was falling to the ground without anyone’s hastening to gather it up. I was resolved to remain in spirit at the foot of the Cross and to receive the divine dew. I understood I was then to pour it out upon souls… I wanted to give my Beloved to drink and I felt myself consumed with a thirst for souls.”
Saving souls became quickly her leitmotiv. Toward the end of her life she will add that she wants to “save souls even after my death”.
This was beautifully illustrated in one amusing incident. Mission life among the Eskimos in Labrador Canada in the beginning of last century was not easy. The external conditions were tough – travel on sleds and canoes. Isolation was a real sore issue – the missionaries had to spend months of complete solitude in a barren region of snow and ice.
Language was a problem for the missionaries coming from France. And to make things even worse, the interest in Christianity of these Inuit natives was zero. The efforts of these Oblate missionaries were only met with jeers and sarcasm from the native audience.
Pessimism reigned supreme among the priests and after numerous years of futile labors, the superiors decided to suppress this mission.
Then Therese intervened from heaven! When the mail arrived from Europe, the missionaries found a packet from Lisieux. In it there was a short Life of Sister Therese of the Child Jesus who had died sixteen years earlier and … some little sacks of dust from her casket because her mortal remains had just been exhumed. Father Arsene Turquetil, one of the missionaries, who was also from Normandy, like Therese, decided to try his ‘luck’ with this dust!
“Tomorrow morning,” Father Arsene told Brother Girard, “we will give it a shot. When the Eskimos are gathered in the room to listen the gramophone, I will give them catechesis on the law. While I speak to them, you will invoke Therese and then you will open these sacks and discreetly spread the dust upon the heads of my listeners!”
This is what Brother Girard did and sure enough the results were quick to come! Just one day after this naïve way of evangelizing, the witch doctor of Chesterfield, the biggest enemy of the Mission, came forward and requested baptism, adding, I will “come here every day. I will do all that you tell me, because I don’t want to go to the hell.”
This was just the beginning. Many Eskimos asked for baptism, a Church was built, then a hospital, both named after Therese, the Church suddenly flourished. Father Arsene even became Bishop of the area!
Many believe that this sudden dissemination of faith among the Eskimos was one of the main reasons that prompted Pope Pius XI to insist against the prudent fears of the Congregations of Rites and the Propagation of the Faith to confer the title of Patroness of the Missions to Saint Therese! Saints have a way to get what they want. Or as Saint Therese would put it, “Love attracts love!”
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.