Carmelites reflect on St Therese papal letter

Carmelite nuns in Christchurch with Bishop Michael Gielen.

Pope Francis’ recently released exhortation on St Therese of Lisieux brought to the fore her message of abandoning oneself to God’s plan to find peace.

The Carmelite nuns in Christchurch, in response to NZ Catholic’s request for their reaction to the Pope’s message, said that they were “delighted to hear he was writing this, and appreciated it when it came”.

Sr Cushla of Mary Immaculate said that, as Carmelite nuns, they “are not given to expressing their opinions on a document publicly”, but as this letter is about St Therese, she shared her own reflections as well as “those gleaned [from] the document”, as well as “gleaned from some nuns here and in our wider region”.

Saint Therese of Lisieux

“[Pope Francis] directs the attention of the Church once again to this young woman whose message was ‘a breath of fresh air’. Pope Francis, a long-time fan of St Therese, gathers up the main strands of her message and presents them, with an eye to the situation of the Church at this time,” Sr Cushla said.

She said that the Pope’s letter got right into the essence of the saint’s spiritual life.

“Her doctrine is universal and applicable for every person’s spiritual journey, not just Carmelites, or even just Christians,” Sr Cushla said. “[Pope Francis] illustrated the point by mentioning that Therese is presented by UNESCO as one of the most influential women of all time.”

Sr Cushla said that paragraph 24 of the Pope’s letter stood out for her: “If we are in the hands of a Father who loves us without limits, this will be the case come what may; we will be able to move beyond whatever may happen to us and, in one way or another, his plan of love and fullness will come to fulfilment in our lives.”

“As I perceive it, I do see a lack of confidence in people, and a lack of trust.  Our world is currently in a situation which must be rather frightening to people,” Sr Cushla noted.

“To actually believe that God has a plan for us, and to abandon ourselves to that plan, is conducive to living in peace. So many are untrustworthy, and the media particularly seem to be moved by partiality and untruth. In our confused world, with all that might happen, this is a clarion call to not worry; all will be well. There’s a plan behind all this, and there is a loving Father guiding us.”

She said that the Pope bids us to call on St Therese to help us to be more confident in “God’s immense love for us”.

“I think a lot of the brokenness today comes about because men and women do not believe in this, so have to forge their own way.  When a child feels truly loved, they have the security to make their way forward in the world, knowing that they have a basis to return to,” Sr Cushla reflected.

“If we had this confidence, the whole problem, it seems to me, would be resolved. We could operate from a place of unfathomable security, not living out of our insecurities.”




Sr Cushla said that Pope Francis’ exhortation reminds us to place our confidence in God’s love and plan for each one of us.

“When we see that our source is other than us, it doesn’t all depend on us, we can develop an attitude of appreciation, then joy becomes our normal attitude,” she said, citing paragraphs 13, 17 and 19 of the Pope’s letter.

She said that Pope Francis points us to St Therese’s genius, which the Pope said is “leading us to what is central, essential and indispensable”.

“We are continually called from all sides: ‘Look at us!’  But there are only some of the directives that are going to fulfil us, and we don’t want to become scattered. Stick to what is essential,” Sr Cushla said.

She said, “Another point Pope Francis drove home more than once is that St Therese’s missionary/apostolic spirit – launched by the experience of praying for Pranzini and his last-minute conversion – is the polar opposite of a self-centred spirituality that habitually looks only inward”.

Sr Cushla expressed hope that people will read the exhortation and then read St Therese’ autobiography, “Story of a Soul”.




Carmelite Father Steven Payne, chair at the Center for Carmelite Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, called St Therese, who, at 15 years old, entered the Carmel Convent 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 desire to become a saint,” Fr Payne 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 ‘The 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.”

Father Payne hoped, as a Carmelite, that the letter would lead to a re-reading 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 [the Pope’s exhortation] 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.”

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Rowena Orejana

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