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Why is St. Therese of Lisieux the Patroness of the Missions?


by Greg Mitchell

St. Therese or the Little Flower once said “Charity is the most excellent way that leads to God. I finally had rest…I understood that the Church had a Heart and that this Heart was burning with love. !” One can contemplate why Pope Pius XI, in 1927, declared St. Therese of Lisieux the Patroness of the missions. Having never left the cloister, she was given this title along side her co-patron the great St. Francis Xavier who traveled to many lands and converted much of  Asia. Vatican II defined missionary activity in these terms: “The special end of missionary activity is the evangelization and the implantation of the Church among peoples or groups in which it has not yet taken root.”  As a missionary working with a pre-Christian culture it brings me great comfort to have saints like St. Francis Xavier and St. Therese of Lisieux along side me in the work of the missionary apostolate in Central America.   In her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, St. Therese reflects on the new freedom of a new joy she will enjoy in heaven. She writes, “There will be no longer any cloister and grilles and my soul will be able to fly with you into distant lands” [1] . In 1927, Pope Pius XI declared St. Therese of Lisieux  the patroness of the missions. But how would a person who never even left the cloister come to be named with the title Patroness of the Missions? Can a person be a missionary for souls without ever leaving home?

An Ardent Desire for Souls

From a young age St. Therese had the desire to go to the missions. Her great zeal and ardent desire for souls was instilled in her from early on. She writes about a grace she received at her conversion: “Like His apostles: ‘Master, I have fished all night and caught nothing’… He made of me a fisher of souls. I experienced a great desire to work for the conversion of sinners, a desire I hadn’t experienced so intensely before.”  Months later, in July of 1887, she would be confirmed in her vocation. It happened in the Cathedral of Lisieux. “One Sunday, 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. As yet, it was not the souls of priests that attracted me, but those of great sinners.” [1] Her physical life on earth was anchored to the cloister but her missionary heart burning with zeal for souls was already in the mission fields and distant lands.

To Contemplate Christ the Key to Missionary Authenticity and Activity

Saint John Paul II on many occasions has said “man needs to contemplate the face of Christ.” The face is intimate and encompasses much of our senses, it is how we know others. We see with our eyes and discern and a smile or a frown is a sign of the emotions we are experiencing from moment to moment.  St. Therese contemplated the face of Christ Crucified, and for love of souls, gave her life to Christ Crucified. St. Therese, once in Carmel, understood her missionary vocation from a contemplative point of view. She writes. “I had declared at the feet of Jesus–Victim, in the examination preceding my Profession, what I had come to Carmel for: I came to save souls and especially to pray for priests. When one wishes to attain a goal, one must use the means; Jesus made me understand that it was through suffering that he wanted to give me souls, and my attraction for suffering grew in proportion to its increase.”In the note she composed for, September 8, 1890, she petitioned Jesus: “That I save many souls . . .” Toward the end of her life (19.03.1897) she will add that she wants to “even save souls after my death.”The principle of her Carmelite life was constant: It is “for prayer and sacrifice that one can help the missionaries.” [2] Following her example it has been my experience that a contemplative prayer life is indispensable in the work of the missions. Holy Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, prayer and fasting are very important in the life of the missionary and the “source and summit” of which all missionary activity flows.

Vatican II and the Missions

Vatican II defined the missionary activity in these terms: “The special end missionary activity is the evangelization and the implantation of the Church among peoples or groups in which it has not yet taken root. [3] John Paul II stated in Redemptoris Missio that the steps of evangelization of the Church can be summarized in these points: 1) the simple presence and witness to Christian life; 2) human development; 3) liturgy and prayer; 4) interreligious dialogue; 5) the explicit announcement of the Gospel and of the catechism. [4] As a missionary in the field, I have personally found these steps to be both integral and  a valid reality of missionary life here in the Cabecar Reserve.

Pope Pius XI and the Patroness of Missions

So along with St. Francis Xavier who converted much of Asia, Pope Pius XI recognized the absolute essential of prayer and the contemplative life for those active in the mission fields in the example of St. Therese of Lisieux  . St. Therese was a spiritual master of the contemplative life. She considered her call and the call of her fellow sisters to be the spiritual mother of the missions and missionaries, She stated “Our vocation is not go to reap in the fields of the mature crops; Jesus doesn’t tell us: ‘Lower your eyes, look at the fields and go and reap’. Our mission is more sublime still. Here are Jesus’ words: ‘Lift your eyes and see. See how in heaven there are empty places, he asks you to fill them. You are my praying Moses on the mountain; request workers of me, and I will send them. I only wait for a prayer, a sigh of your heart! The apostolate of prayer, is it not so to say, higher than that of preaching? Our mission, as Carmelite, is one of forming evangelical workers that will save millions of souls whose mothers we will be”. [5] By baptism we are all called to be missionaries. Some are called to go into the mission fields while others follow Christ into the mission fields while never leaving home. There are some who follow the example of St. Francis Xavier and others the example of St. Therese of Lisieux who are both called to the mission, the mission of saving souls. Please join us in adding the missions and the work our family is doing here in Costa Rica to your St. Therese novena prayers.

[1]    Dámaso Zuazua, OCD, General Secretary of the Missions. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, 3rd ed.  Trans. By John Clark. Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C. 1996.

[2] Dámaso Zuazua, ocd,  General Secretary of the Missions. Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, 3rd ed.  Trans. By John Clark. Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C. 1996.

[3] Vatican II Documents

[4] Redemptoris Missio

[5] Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, 3rd ed.  Trans. By John Clark. Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington, D.C. 1996. p. 254. Henceforth referred to as Story of a Soul.

As Carmelites We live our life of allegiance to Jesus Christ and to serve Him faithfully with a pure heart and a clear conscience through a commitment to seek the face of the living God (the contemplative dimension of life), through prayer, through fraternity, and through service (diakonia). These three fundamental elements of the charism are not distinct and unrelated values, but closely interwoven. 

All of these we live under the protection, inspiration and guidance of Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, whom we honor as "our Mother and sister." 


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