The relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux came to England and Wales in the autumn of 2009. Over the course of a month, more than a quarter of a million pilgrims came to venerate the relics and to learn about Thérèse Martin’s Little Way of Spiritual Childhood. A year later people across Britain are still talking about the experience, not least within the Carmelite Family to which Thérèse herself belonged.
The Carmelite Family of friars, nuns and lay people was heavily involved in organising events in many of the 30 venues where the relics were brought.
One of those venues was St. Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham, England’s second largest city, where lay members of the Carmelite Order organised talks about Thérèse and were on hand to welcome pilgrims in September 2009.
One of the lay members of the Carmelite Order in Birmingham, Mr. John Berry, also has national responsibility for overseeing the tertiary (lay) communities of the British Province of Carmelites. In a recent letter to his fellow tertiaries, John wrote : ‘It’s hard to believe it is one year already since the visit of the relics of St. Thérèse. The relics made an enormous impact wherever they went and the interest shown by Catholics, Christians of other traditions, and people of other faiths was truly inspirational. How are our Lay Carmelite communities a year after the relics visit ? I would like to think that we have indeed taken the message of St. Thérèse to heart and put her Little Way into practice in our lives. Thérèse assures us that our little everyday expressions of love have great value in God’s eyes, and she reminds us that “God does not look at the greatness of our actions, but at the love with which they are carried out.” Thérèse reminds the Church our time that all of God’s children are called to holiness and not just the few !’
South of Birmingham in the county of Kent, the Carmelite friars at Aylesford Priory welcomed thousands of pilgrims who came to pray alongside the relics of St. Thérèse the weekend of 9th-11th October 2009.
A year later some of those pilgrims returned to Aylesford for special events reflecting back on the relics visit experience. A special retreat on the life and spirituality of St. Thérèse was led by Fr. Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm., former Prior General of the Carmelite Order.
Fr. Joseph was among those at Aylesford in October 2010 who welcomed members of the Society of the Little Flower, which perpetuates the message of St. Thérèse and raises funds for the missions of the Carmelite Order around the world. Together they reflected back on the many ‘roses’ of grace that had been received from God in the last year through the intercession of St. Thérèse.
Carmelites in England’s biggest county, Yorkshire, also took the opportunity of the first anniversary of the relics visit to reflect on its legacy. On the feast day of St. Thérèse, 1st October 2009, the relics had been taken to York Minster, one of the most important cathedrals in the Church of England. It was the first time that the relics had been taken to a place of worship that is not Roman Catholic, and Thérèse’s beautiful message was warmly welcomed by many Protestants who admire her devotion to God’s Word in Scripture.
The senior Anglican clergyman at York Minster is the Dean, Very Rev. Keith Jones. He has a strong personal devotion to St. Thérèse and was keen for her relics to be brought to York Minster.
Local Carmelite nuns, friars and laity were present to welcome the relics at the Minster in 2009, and a year later gathered with the Dean at the Carmelite Spirituality Group which meets monthly in York. The Dean spoke about Thérèse as a spiritual genius who enables people to have a direct encounter with Jesus Christ. The Dean praised the simplicity of her life and her message, which is simply an echoing of the Gospel and makes her a credible and engaging witness to Christ. He recalled the great sense of prayer in the Minster the previous year which was open all night for pilgrims ; some 10,000 people passed by the reliquary casket from many different walks of life who shared with Thérèse their hopes and troubles, and who connected more deeply with God and with one another.
Shortly after leaving York Minster the relics of St. Thérèse were taken across the county to St. Anne’s Cathedral in Leeds. Again, tens of thousands of pilgrims came to pray alongside the relics over the course of a weekend in October 2009.
The events in St. Anne’s Cathedral were organised by Fr. John Wilson, the Episcopal Vicar for Evangelisation in Leeds Diocese. In October 2010 he looked back on the visit with Carmelites at their Spirituality Group meeting in the city. He recalled the sense of expectancy before the visit, which was widely reported in the media, both religious and secular. He spoke of Thérèse as proof that people are drawn to holiness, and described her as someone who helps people searching for holiness to approach God with confidence, not only Roman Catholics but also other Christians, people of other faiths, and even non-believers. Fr. John recalled the large numbers of people who queued to get into the Cathedral, who were willing to be counted as Christian. He observed that, with hindsight, the visit of St. Thérèse’s relics was good preparation, spiritually and logistically, for the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain a year later.
Carmelites reflecting with Fr. John also spoke of how the relics visit gave an insight into the reality of the Church ; at Leeds the bishop, clergy, religious, laity, young, old, male and female all gathered together as members of the body of Christ. Pilgrims were reminded that they are part of a universal Church, experiencing the relics visit as it has been experienced in other parts of the globe. The visit of Thérèse’s relics also reminded the Church of its duty to welcome all people and to turn no one away who is seeking God.
Fr. John spoke about how the relics had been an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel, and to listen afresh to the Word of God as the Scriptures were proclaimed at various liturgies. He described how the relics visit had also been an affirmation of the Resurrection ; Christians believe in the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting, all of which was recalled by the presence of the relics. Several Carmelites reflected on how St. Thérèse had pointed people to Christ in the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation. They also noted how the relics had reminded us of the sacramentality of the Christian faith, that is, how outward gestures and objects express some inward truth ; people wanted to touch the reliquary, to kiss it, present gifts to Thérèse, and thus show through their actions the deepest longings of their hearts.
The Carmelites in Leeds agreed with Fr. John that the visit of the relics had also been a formative experience for the many children and young people who came to the cathedral ; this once-in-a-lifetime occasion will have made a deep impression on them, and allowed for unique encounters to take place between pilgrims.
Many members of the Carmelite Family in Britain recall the visit of St. Thérèse’s relics with affection, and continue to experience graces from the event. One such grace has been an increased interest in the Carmelite way of life. Some monasteries of Carmelite nuns in Britain have received enquiries from women inspired by Thérèse’s life of prayer and service, discerning whether they too might have a vocation to the religious life. Carmelite friars have also received similar enquiries from young men wondering if God is calling them to be priests and brothers.
The intercession and inspiration of St. Thérèse is also being credited for the establishment of new communities of Lay Carmelites, including a Carmelite Spirituality Group that will begin meeting in the city of Manchester in 2011. The group will meet at the Catholic Chaplaincy to the Universities of Manchester, and the convenors believe it is no coincidence that their planning visit to the Chaplaincy took place exactly a year after the relics of St. Thérèse had been there. As Universities Chaplain Fr. Ian Kelly said, ‘With Thérèse, there are no coincidences !’
A year after the visit of St. Thérèse’s relics to England and Wales, the Carmelite Family can state that their sister’s impact is indeed a living legacy.