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Pope Francis and St Thérèse: a surprising devotion?

Pope Francis holds up a medallion of St Therese of Lisieux after answering questions from the media aboard his flight to Manila (CNS)

During the in-flight press conference from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, journalist Caroline Pigozzi gave Pope Francis a framed medallion bearing the image of St Thérèse of Lisieux.

Pope Francis revealed to the crowd of journalists that he had been praying to St Thérèse for his trip, “I asked also for this trip that, she’d take it in hand and that she would send me a rose. But instead of a rose she came herself to greet me.”

The Pope has a devotion to St Thérèse that goes back many years. When he was first elected Pope, the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate wrote on the internet that they had seen Cardinal Bergoglio visit their church in Rome, so that he could spend time with the statue of St Thérèse. They saw him make a bee-line for the statue and kiss it on every visit.

The Pope has a strong devotion to a saint who suffered psychological agony. St Thérèse found life in her French convent oppressive. She had bouts of depression. Other nuns hen-picked her but she made a special effort to be nice to one nun who was very unkind to her. One day a vase broke in the convent. St Thérèse was accused of breaking it. Even though, it was not her fault, she knelt down and begged forgiveness for it.

I have known a number of people who dismiss St Thérèse as a weakling who couldn’t stand up for herself and was ‘obsessed with small stuff’. They fail to see that St Thérèse was not hard on others, because she spent her energy being very hard on herself.

St Thérèse was an exceptionally scrupulous saint. It does not really fit Pope Francis’s reputation as a laissez-faire liberal that he has such a love for a saint who was so strict. Surely, if he disagreed with the Little Flower’s stringent ways, he would not esteem her?

Reviewing the life of St Thérèse can make one feel very inadequate. Her humility was such that she smiled at the nuns who bullied her. Most of us are too full of self-importance to be kind to those who are unkind to us.

It could be that Pope Francis identifies with St Thérèse. The Pope has not always found life with his fellow Jesuits easy. In his case, he attracted jealousy because of his popularity, whereas in St Thérèse’s case, her fellow nuns looked down their noses at her.

It is a good sign that Pope Francis remains close to a saint who was so self-sacrificing. In the final years of her life, St Thérèse assisted the novice mistress in training the novices. Thérèse had been professed in 1890, but perhaps her greatest sacrifice was that she chose to remain within the novitiate permanently and was a professed nun who was always treated as a novice.