WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Carmelite scholars and everyday Catholics are welcoming Pope Francis’ new apostolic letter about St. Therese of Lisieux, a 19th-century French Carmelite nun beloved worldwide for her “little way” of childlike trust and confidence in God’s merciful love.
“Pope Francis reminds us and articulates the heart of the message of St. Therese,” Claire Couche, a Catholic who blogs about her devotion to the saint at findingphilothea.com, told OSV News. “St. Therese of Lisieux’s fundamental message is that God is merciful, and we can actively participate in this ‘totally gratuitous’ gift through both accepting his mercy and, in turn, extending that same mercy to others.”
Couche, a wife, homeschooling mother, nurse and etiquette instructor, cited St.Therese’s well-known autobiography, “Story of a Soul,” while commenting on the letter issued Oct. 15, the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, an influential 16th-century Carmelite nun and reformer.
In the 53-paragraph-long letter, the pontiff reflects on St. Therese — one of four women named a doctor of the church for her significant contributions — and her example.
“This Exhortation on St. Therese allows me to observe that, in a missionary church, ‘the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary,'” Pope Francis wrote, citing his 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium.” “The luminous core of that message is ‘the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead.'”
The letter marks the 150th anniversary of St. Therese’s birth in 1873, and the 100th anniversary of her beatification. She was canonized in 1925. Pope Francis chose Oct. 15 to recognize St. Therese as the “mature fruit of the reform of the Carmel” and of St. Teresa of Avila’s spirituality.
“Given the great polarization in the church and society over so many issues, Pope Francis is urging us, through this letter, to ‘return to the freshness of the source’ beyond all our divisions and focus on the heart of the Gospel, as Therese did,” said Carmelite Father Steven Payne, chair at the Center for Carmelite Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
Pope Francis opens the letter, titled “C’est la confiance,” by quoting St. Therese: “C’est la confiance et rien que la confiance qui doit nous conduire à l’Amour” or “It is confidence and nothing but confidence that must lead us to Love.”
These words, he says, “sum up the genius of her spirituality.”
While commenting on the letter, Father Payne revealed that some people argue over whether the word “confiance” should be translated as “confidence” or “trust.”
“I would think both are implied, and in fact both terms are used in Pope Francis’ letter,” he said of the English translation.
Pope Francis lists the letter’s takeaways in the penultimate paragraph, Father Payne said.
“In an age that urges us to focus on ourselves and our own interests, Therese shows us the beauty of making our lives a gift,” the pope writes, among other key observations. “At a time when human beings are obsessed with grandeur and new forms of power, she points out to us the ‘little way.'”
Father Payne called St. Therese, who, at 15 years old, entered the Carmel of Lisieux where she remained until she died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, one of the most popular saints of all time.
“Therese was always a profoundly reflective person and keenly aware of her weakness and limitations, despite her intense desires to become a saint,” he said. “Little by little, however, she learned not to rely on her own efforts but to entrust herself completely, like a child, to God’s infinite merciful love, in what has come to be called the ‘little way of spiritual childhood’ or the ‘little way of confidence and love.'”
Her writing speaks to people today, he said.
“Although Therese lived in a time and cultural context very different from our own,” he said, “contemporary readers still easily identify with the day-to-day struggles and hard-won insights she recounts in ‘Story of a Soul,’ and are drawn to her warm personality,” he said.
He noted that different groups are attracted to her for different reasons, from young people drawn to her youth, to priests who appreciate her dedication to praying for them.
“But in general I would say that, at a time when many Catholics believed that sanctity required grim determination, great deeds and heroic asceticism, she taught the ‘little way’ of total confidence in God’s merciful love, accessible to everyone,” he said. “Therese is approachable, a friend to all.”
Mary Therese Lambert, the international development director for the Society of the Little Flower, which is dedicated to promoting devotion to St. Therese, addressed the importance of the new letter.
“This letter might accomplish greater devotion to St. Therese, fostering a deeper understanding of her spirituality and encouraging more people to emulate her ‘little way,'” she said.
Couche emphasized humanity’s timeless need for the message of God’s mercy.
“Right now, in this time in history, just like our first father, Adam, we are greatly in need of God’s ever-available merciful love,” she said. “I can think of no other message that is more lasting and more current than that of God’s merciful love.”
Father Payne hoped, as a Carmelite, that the letter would lead to a rereading of St. Therese’s works and a more profound assimilation of her message. He also hoped it would inspire many to follow even more faithfully her “little way” of living the Gospel.
The letter might also inspire Catholics only vaguely familiar with St. Therese to learn more about her, he said.
“I would guess that it would be the rare Catholic who ‘doesn’t know anything’ about St. Therese, since she has been an almost inescapable presence in the church for over a century,” he said, noting the statues or pictures of her in almost every Catholic church, school and rectory.
“Still, those who only know the sentimental image of Therese will discover, through ‘C’est la confiance,’ that this youngest ‘doctor of the church’ offers much more,” he said. “She has a profound and timely message for facing the challenges of our times.”
Katie Yoder is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.