A personal reflection
The month-long tour of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux, 1873-1897, Doctor of the Church, has been a time of tremendous grace and blessing for the Catholic Church throughout England and Wales during the autumn of 2009.
The visit of the relics of St Thérèse, known as the Little Flower, has without doubt been the most important and memorable event for ordinary Catholics since the historic Pastoral Visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982.
The relics have made a lasting impact, and captured the imagination of thousands and thousands of pilgrims – the final number was 286,650. There were probably many more as the numbers were understated by the organisers of the tour.
Catholics and Christians from other traditions turned out in their thousands throughout the day and night, to venerate the relics for a just a few precious moments. Members of other Religious Faiths and none also came to be in the presence of a holy person.
This memorable and remarkable tour began in Portsmouth RC Cathedral on Wednesday, 16 September and ended with an emotional goodbye from the thousands of pilgrims who packed Westminster Cathedral and the Piazza outside, on the afternoon of Thursday 15 October.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, was the principal celebrant and preacher at a wonderful Mass of Farewell to the Relics of St Thérèse in Westminster Cathedral, on Thursday, 15 October.
Among the concelebrants were the Auxiliary Bishops of Westminster – including Bishop Bernard Longley, now Archbishop-Elect of Birmingham – and a priest representative from every place visited by the relics. The Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain, Archbishop Faustino Sainz Munoz and Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, President of the Governorate of Vatican City State, were present in the sanctuary.
The ornate wooden casket containing the relics – bones of St Thérèse – was showered with rose petals, and pilgrims clapped and waved goodbye as it was carried shoulder-high out of Westminster Cathedral and into the bright mid-October afternoon sunshine and the hurly burly of London life.
A huge crowed packed the piazza in front of Westminster Cathedral, Mother Church of the diocese for a final glimpse of the casket. People in the new glass-fronted offices across Victoria Street also stopped their work briefly to see what was going on.
The relics of the young French saint remained overnight in England before returning to Lisieux in France on Friday, 16 October via the Channel Tunnel.
Altogether, 95,000 pilgrims visited the relics of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux during their four-day stay at Westminster Cathedral. This brings to 286,650 the total number of pilgrims who have visited the relics during their month-long stay in England and Wales.
I was privileged to have had the opportunity of being with the relics of St Thérèse in four different locations during their visit. Firstly the Metropolitan Cathedral and minor Basilica of St Chad, in Birmingham, on Saturday 19 and Sunday 20 September. Secondly at the parish church of the Sacred Heart & St Teresa, Coleshill, near Birmingham on Monday 21 September. Thirdly at the Oxford Catholic Church of St Aloysius in Oratory when the relics arrived on a cold and wet early evening of 7 October. Then in Westminster Cathedral to say goodbye.
Fr Daniel Seward, Parish Priest of the Oxford Oratory, told me: “Despite the pouring rain on Wednesday evening 6,200 pilgrims were crammed into the Oratory Church during the 22 hours of the visit of the relics of St Thérèse. It was an overwhelming occasion of grace, with many hundreds of people going to confession. Large numbers of non-Catholics visited the church for the first time and a tremendous variety of pilgrims from near and far afield.”
Fr Seward added: “A team of more than 100 volunteers from the Oratory parish marshalled the crowds and provided free refreshments, making for an atmosphere of welcome and joy. Thérèse has done what she promised: showered rose petals from heaven.”
This personal reflection would not be complete without mentioning that the visit of the relics of St Thérèse also captured the attention of the media and new media. The coverage in television, radio and in the press, both national and local has significantly raised the profile of the Catholic Church in England and Wales in a positive and constructive way.
Some of the cynical correspondents who are usually dismissive of anything to do with the Catholic Church were left bemused as to why people of every age and background came in their thousands to venerate the relics of this much loved saint.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols ended his challenging and thought-provoking homily at the Mass of Thanksgiving in Westminster Cathedral with these words: “Let us again open our hearts to the Lord that he may guide our every moment, and fill the reservoir of emptiness within each of us. Then we will be able to accept our mission, our task, in this land today. If we are renewed in this sense of purpose, then these wonderful days of this pilgrimage will bear fruit indeed.”
“AS MESSENGERS OF CHRIST, IT IS NOT EFFECTIVENESS WE SEEK; IT IS FRUITFULNESS”
Homily of the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, at the Mass of Farewell to the Relics of St Thérèse in Westminster Cathedral, on Thursday, 15 October 2009:
Over the past 28 days, thousands upon thousands of people have thronged to pray in the presence of these precious relics of St Thérèse. It has been for us an extremely uplifting experience in all the places they have visited. Today, as we prepare to return these relics to Lisieux, we thank God for the graces and blessings we have received. This has been a time of such wonderful expressions of faith and love in which we have been strengthened and filled with joyful encouragement.
This outpouring of faith has baffled many people. Some secular commentators have not been able to make sense of it all. I have found their incomprehension quite intriguing. Other reports have simply described what was there to be seen: so many people finding encouragement, perseverance and hope through the example and prayers of this most remarkable of young women. But surely they can see, unless they refuse to do so, her testimony to the spiritual dimension of human living, a dimension which takes us beyond that which can be measured and lifts human reasonableness to new levels, until it flowers in heroism, sacrifice and perseverance in great difficulties.
For many, these days have been a time of conversion; for some they have been a time of appreciating again the value of relics as an ancient expression of our faith in God’s transforming presence in the midst of our human failures. The sense of uneasiness felt even by some Catholics can itself be a grace, prompting us to trust more readily in the closeness of God to each of us.
The real meaning of relics is, of course, that they are but a sign, a token of the holy life of this much-loved saint. They are God’s way of opening our hearts to his unwavering love. We do well to draw all the encouragement we can from this time of grace.
Today we ponder on what happens next. Where do we go from here? What do we learn from Thérèse of our mission here today? How do we in our turn, speak of the Gospel to this society of which we are part of?
We must remember that St Thérèse is the Patron Saint of the Missions. What an irony that she who never left the cloister of her convent became the patron of every mission, of every ‘sending out’! Of course we know of her dream of being a missionary, expressed in the words: ‘I would like to travel the earth preaching your name…I would be a missionary right up to the end of time,’ she said. And we have recalled her wish that she could spend eternity doing good on earth. How true that is and how grateful we are!
There is a profound sense of purpose running through the whole of the life of St Therese. She said that her single desire was ‘to love Jesus and to make him loved.’ This was her mission statement.
Can it be ours too? Can we, today, truly love Jesus and make him loved?
Love is the key. Of course, in our mission efforts we need to be clear and reasoned in all we say and do. We need to be well versed in contemporary affairs. Yet Therese teaches us the ancient Christian message: that without love all our efforts are little more than a ‘gong booming or a symbol clashing.’(1 Cor 13.1)
She had her own way of expressing this: ‘Finally I understood that love comprises all vocations, that love was everything, that it embraced all times and all places….in a word that it is Eternal.’ Then she cried out, ‘My vocation is love…Yes, I have found my place in the Church….in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be love.’
As often as we listen to these words, well-known and inspiring as they are, we need to remember that they were written in October 1896, nine months before she died. They were written, then, at a time of anguished pain and suffering. They are not the words of a young romantic, day-dreaming of an ideal future. They are born of abandonment to God, in darkness and desolation. They are, therefore, powerful testimony to the grace of God at work in our weakness, and not to the power of a self-centred romantic imagination. They are words that can shape our mission today.
These words speak directly to us today when, as a society, we struggle to understand and respond to the experience of terminal illness and approaching death. In the shortened perspectives of many, such moments are pointless and they say actually rob life of all its meaning. Therefore some seek the right to exercise the only solution that is within their own power: that of killing themselves and having others free to assist them to do so.
St Thérèse lived through those kind of moments. She too experienced suicidal thoughts of ending the pain and the overpowering sense of futility. She warned the sister who cared for her that when she had patients who were ‘a prey to violent pains’ she must not ‘leave them any medicines that are poisonous.’ She added, ‘I assure you it needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason. Then one would easily poison oneself.’
So Thérèse too lived the tension that many experience today, the tension between her individual, autonomous choice, on the one hand, and, on the other, the bonds which bound her to her community, to her family, to those who cared for her, to life. She argues, as we do today, that reason, in the context of our relationships, must acknowledge life as a gift and not an individual possession and, at the same time, embrace death when it comes.
This is so because the full expression of such reasoning is love seasoned by truth: the bonds of love which truly tie the dying person to those who care for them; the love which recognises the true impact on others of every personal action; the love of life itself, as the ultimate gift, and as stretching beyond the immediate horizons to the eternity of God’s presence.
Here we see St Thérèse preaching the Gospel for our times.
For we live in a time of fragile and disposable relationships whereas she fashioned bonds with her sisters and with the Lord that grew stronger through every trial.
We live in a time in which affectivity and love itself seem to be commercialised and relationships subject to calculations of benefit and loss, and used accordingly. She reminds us that no cost is too high for God’s love to meet, and that in love for us God has abandoned every calculation of worth and reward.
We live in a time when each individual must impose himself or herself on every relationship, fashioning it in his or her own likeness. She, on the other hand, teaches us that we find ourselves by living in and through our relationships, and that we find ourselves fully only by abandoning ourselves into the loving embrace of Christ.
In our desire for individual autonomy, we push relationships out of the heart of our living. But she shows us clearly that neither life nor death, certainly not death, has any enduring meaning beyond relationships of our belonging to each other and to the Lord.
And so our mission today – The practice of love in every relationship is the heart of our mission, a mission carried out in every action, at every moment. And our mission is here. ‘Make love real where you live’. This is her invitation.
Hidden in this invitation, and making it come to life, is a single question, addressed to every one of us who wish to share in her mission. The question is this: Do you really want to be close to God? Do you really want to live close to the Lord? Only when we answer with an unequivocal ‘Yes!’ will our mission be fruitful. As messengers of Christ, it is not effectiveness we seek; it is fruitfulness. And to bear that fruit we must abide in him, remain part of him, be with him one vine.
Now, as we continue with this Mass, we prepare for the moment in which these precious relics will leave. Let us again open our hearts to the Lord that he may guide our every moment, and fill the reservoir of emptiness within each of us. Then we will be able to accept our mission, our task, in this land today. If we are renewed in this sense of purpose, then these wonderful days of this pilgrimage will bear fruit indeed. Amen