Mission Sunday: The Missionary Spirit of St Thérèse of Lisieux

Source: District of Asia

"I became a Carmelite for this purpose: since I was unable to be a missionary in action, I wished to be one through love and penance."

The missionary spirit of the Carmelite Patron Saint of the missions we not unnaturally take for granted: has not she been proclaimed the Patron of all missionaries? Perhaps for that reason, we pass over her missionary sayings with little attention. Yet what she felt and said about the missions and missionary work holds a lesson for all of us. The recent publication of her complete correspondence  offers an opportunity to study this lesson anew at the clear spring of her spontaneous effusions.

We do not find in her letters a theological statement of the purpose of the missions or of mission methods. St. Thérèse never wrote anything of the kind. She probably was unaware of the “planting of the Church” in the mission lands and of “adaptation'. Her missionary spirit is something else than the result of a methodical study. It flows straight from the one purpose of her life: "My vocation is love". Her missionary zeal is zeal for souls out of love for Jesus. "We have only one thing to do in the night of this life... to love Jesus... and to save souls for Him so that He be loved" . Ah, Celine, I feel that Jesus asks from both of us to quench His thirst by giving Him souls, particularly souls of priests" . Her missionary zeal aims at saving souls and at helping the saviours of souls, the priest-missionaries.

An apostolic spirit, she said after her mother, St. Thérèse of Avila, is essential for a Carmelite. "A Carmelite who would not be an apostle would fall short of the purpose of her vocation" (p. 346). But what is there particular in her apostolic spirit that she should be, in preference to other contemplative saints, the patron of missionaries? What is there in the "powerful missionary spirit that animates Theresian spirituality " which makes her the model of all missionaries ?

There must be something more than her desire to leave for a Carmel in the missions , her special vocation to the Carmel of Tonkin which she could not follow up on. Perhaps we may, from her letters, especially those written during the last two years of her life to the two missionaries she had “adopted”,  point to three characteristics of her apostolic and missionary spirit which justify her official title of patron of the missions.

First, her missionary spirit is thoroughly supernatural and relies on prayer and sacrifice as the means for gaining souls. Was this the lesson the Holy See wished to inculcate when making her a patron of the missions? Thérèse writes, "My only weapon is love and suffering."  And she understands that her brother-missionaries, besides their preaching and apostolic labour, will also make use of this means. So seriously does she take this that she not only rejoices at their crosses and nearly envies them their trials, but even, in spite of what missiology may object, does not hesitate to wish them, after long years spent in apostolic labour, “the incomparable favour of martyrdom”. And she is malicious enough to ask beforehand for her share of the relics, "some of the hair of a future martyr".  Till then, "the martyrdom of the heart is not less fruitful than the effusion of one's blood". Her own part in their missionary work will be prayer and sacrifice; in itself, it is but a little zero, but the zero when placed at the right side of, i.e., after, the unit becomes powerful.

A second characteristic of St. Thérèse's missionary zeal is its universality; her desires are "immeasurable”. She no doubt assists, in the first place, the missionary brothers whom Providence through obedience, has given her. But her zeal embraces the whole world and all the mission fields, all priests and all missionaries. Her letters to her sister Celine, before the latter was a Carmelite, bring this out." Celine, let us not waste our time... let us save souls,... My Celine, let us live for souls, let us be apostles, let us save especially the souls of priests, these souls which should be transparent like crystal. Alas! How many bad priests, priests who are not sufficiently holy. Let us pray and suffer for them, and on the last day Jesus will be grateful". “Celine, let us pray for the priests; let our lives be dedicated for them. Jesus makes me feel every day that this is what He wants from both of us". "Our mission as Carmelites is to prepare the labourers of the gospel who will save millions of souls of which we shall be the mothers".  "I should like to convert all the sinners of the world... to save many souls in a short time'.

Perhaps the most original trait of St. Thérèse's missionary zeal is that she does not limit her desires and work to this present life only, but wishes and promises to continue her work of saving souls when she will be in heaven. She promised this to her missionary brothers, who were upset by the news of her approaching death: "In heaven I shall have the same desire as on earth to love Jesus and to make others love Him... If in heaven I could no longer work for His (God's) glory, I would prefer exile to the homeland.. I promise to remain your little sister in heaven... My soul will be able to fly with you to the distant missions". "I am happy to die... because... I shall be more useful to the souls that are dear to me, particularly to you... I shall leave no peace to the dear Lord till He has given me all that I want".  "Ah, my brother, I feel I shall be of greater help to you in heaven than on earth... I do not mean to remain idle in heaven, my desire is to go on working for the Church and for souls; this is what I ask of God and I am sure He will grant it". What she promised her missionary brothers in particular, she also wishes to do for the missions and for the whole world, according to her immeasurable desires.

The Church has taken her at her word: she made her the Patron of all Missions. And her shower of roses over the mission fields was her answer from heaven..