During the June 7, 2023 general audience, Pope Francis expressed the desire to have the relics of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus (1873-1897) present in St. Peter's Square for the occasion of the 150th anniversary of her birth. Continuing his cycle of catechesis on missionary zeal, he offered the life of the Carmelite, patron saint of the missions, as an example and announced his intention to dedicate an apostolic letter to her, without specifying the date of publication.
The Sovereign Pontiff explained how St. Thérèse is patroness of the missions, although she never went on a mission. “She was a Carmelite and her life was marked by smallness and weakness: she defined herself as 'a little grain of sand.’” Of fragile health, she was only 24 when she died.
“But if her body was infirm, her heart was vibrant, was missionary. In her ‘diary,’ she says that her desire was to be a missionary and that she wanted to be one not only for a few years, but for the rest of her life, even until the end of the world.”
Asking herself from where this apostolic zeal came, this missionary strength and this joy of interceding, Francis quotes this episode of her life before she returned to the Carmel, to help us understand: “Thérèse learned of the existence of a criminal condemned to death named Enrico Pranzini. He was destined for the guillotine, but does not want to receive the consolations of the faith.
“Thérèse takes his conversion to heart and does everything she can so that the one she calls with fraternal compassion 'poor Pranzini' may make a small sign of repentance and make room for the mercy of God, in which she vows complete confidence. The execution takes place.
“The next day, Thérèse read in the newspaper that Pranzini, just before laying his head on the scaffold, ‘suddenly, seized with a sudden inspiration, turns around, seizes a crucifix that the priest presented to him and kisses three time the holy wounds” of Jesus.
“The saint comments: 'Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of the One who declared that in heaven there is more joy for a single sinner who does penance than for ninety-nine just men who have no need for penance!’” (Manuscript A, 135).
Thus, comments the Holy Father, the missionary is “one who lives, where he is, as an instrument of the love of God.” That is, the one “who does everything so that, by his testimony, by his prayers, by his intercession, Jesus may be manifested.”
And the Pope goes back to one of his ideas where he wrongly identifies missionary proselytism and physical or moral constraint: “Apostolic zeal never proceeds by proselytism – never! – or by constraint – never! –, but by attraction: faith is born by attraction, one does not become a Christian because one is forced to do so by someone, no, but because one is touched by love.” – The act of faith is made freely, without constraint; this is what makes it a virtue and meritorious.
The announcement of the next apostolic letter responds to a request made by the diocese of Bayeux-Lisieux. During a general audience in December 2022, a delegation of pilgrims had, in fact, given the sovereign pontiff two letters, containing several proposals: an invitation to come to Lisieux; a request to name St. Thérèse patron saint of the priests of the world; and the publication of an apostolic letter during the jubilee year of St. Thérèse (January 8, 2023-January 7, 2024).
The letters had not been answered, but a few months later the Vatican requested the presence of the relics at the general audience. There are several reliquaries of St. Thérèse, and it is the impressive reliquary of international travels, weighing 250 kilos, which was brought to Rome. It has made nearly 130 trips to more than 80 countries.
Brought from France by truck, the reliquary was welcomed on June 6 by Cardinal Luis Tagle, pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization, in the church of the Pontifical College of Russicum, an institute of ecclesiastical formation for the Catholic clergy of Eastern origin, and placed under the patronage of St. Thérèse.