Article Title

The Thérèse ‘Phenomenon’: Reflections on a pilgrimage

Abstract

On the Saturday of Easter weekend in 2002, one journalist opened her column with these words:

Why would 40,000 people turn out in Perth to see a box of old bones? Why would hundreds of people drive from Kalgoorlie and Broome to see it, then sit through the night in a church keeping vigil?... In Melbourne, young people from around the diocese flocked into the cathedral… [1]

The international pilgrimage of Thérèse of Lisieux’s relics commenced in 1997 and has attracted huge crowds. For example, fifteen million in Mexico and 75% of Ireland’s population of roughly 5 million viewed the relics. In New York, Fifth Avenue had to be closed down when the reliquary was being brought to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

As many have already asked ‘Why this remarkable response?’ It has amazed even the most committed and sanguine of the organizers. Is it nostalgia for a lost past? Or does it point to a pathology in Catholic life seen, at its worst, as a form of ghoulish superstition? I would like to make a case that we may have here an instance of a cross- section of Catholic believers [and others worldwide] tapping into an underground water-table in our Catholic memory. Or alternatively, it is touching a nerve that is a sensitive reminder of something neglected, even forgotten.

I would like to present an approach that complements Dr. Michael Whelan’s reflections given in 1997 on the occasion of the centenary of Thérèse’s death [2] . Building on his thoughts as a fellow ‘pilgrim’ and on studies done in the intervening five years, I will attempt to address what one could call this Thérèse ‘phenomenon’ that has emerged around the ‘pilgrimage’ of her relics. The spontaneous, consistent and widespread response of faith to Thérèse through her relics is not easily dismissed. It cannot be attributed, in a reductive fashion, to the gullibility of ‘devoted Catholics’ prone to being easily led and manipulated by Church authorities.

I would like to offer some thoughts on the significance of Thérèse and her spiritual doctrine firstly in its historical context and in relation to Vatican II, then in the context of the third millennium for the Church and for the postmodern world.

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