St. Therese, Patron of Missionaries?
If we think of the great missionary Saints, many names will probably come to mind: Francis Xavier, Isaac Jogues, perhaps Mother Teresa, and certainly St. Paul. One of the ironies of our Faith, however, is that if we look for the patroness of missionaries, we will find a Saint who spent her entire adult life in a convent in France: St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower.
St. Therese is one of the more popular saints of our time, but who is she, and why is this cloistered nun the patron of missionaries, of all things?
Therese was born in 1873 in Alencon, France, the ninth child of Louis and Zelie Martin (though four of her siblings had died in infancy or as young children, leaving her the youngest of five living daughters). Therese’s mother died when she was only four, and she was the apple of her father’s eye.
However, after three of her older sisters had left for the religious life, Therese felt a very strong call to be a nun herself. She went as far as asking Pope Leo XIII personally for permission to enter at the unusually young age of 15. Eventually she was granted admission to the Carmelite convent in Lisieux despite her youth.
She died at the young age of 24 from tuberculosis and her life might have been one of hidden sanctity if not for the publication of her autobiography, The Story of A Soul, one of the most popular spiritual books of all time. In it she revealed her “Little Way,” through which people can reach the heights of holiness in small actions done with great love for God and neighbor. This spirituality has inspired many contemporary saints, including Mother Teresa, who took her religious name after St. Therese.
But what does all this have to do with missionaries? St. Therese has certainly aided many people in their quest for personal holiness, but she never took the Faith to distant lands.
Therese had a missionary’s heart and dreamed of being a great missionary. However, as it became apparent that this would not be possible, she recognized God calling her to support the missions with her prayers and sacrifices, which she resolved to do unceasingly. She would spiritually adopt seminarians and future missionaries and specifically pray for them. She once wrote, “My weak love, my little sufferings, blessed by God, make God loved far and wide.”
In many ways, the prayers of cloistered religious are the hidden heart of the Church, pumping life to all the active ministries. St. Therese knew this, and faithfully gave life to the missions through her prayers. Since she said before her death that she desired to spend her Heaven doing good on Earth, she remains the patron of missionaries, and undoubtedly this little spiritual giant continues to obtain for them many graces.
St. Therese was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997 by Pope John Paul II, and her feast day is October 1.