War can leave a legacy of devotion to the saints

The visit of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux to England and Wales in 2009 (© Mazur/

I have been reading an extremely good book about the Church of England and the First World War – The Rev Robert Beaken’s The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918, subtitled “Civilians, Soldiers and Religion in wartime Colchester”. It is social history, written in such a way that reminds you just how fascinating such histories can be.

One of the nuggets that is thrown up by the book is the wartime popularity of a picture by Thomas Noyes-Lewis, entitled “The Meeting Place”. This work, by a now largely forgotten artist, shows a Requiem Mass in progress, and a reredos above the altar with statues of Saint George and other warrior saints, blending in with rows of thoughtful, devoutly attentive and silent British servicemen, who are, one sees immediately, gone before us marked with the sign of faith. This picture was reproduced as a prayer card, and sold in huge numbers. It is clearly Anglo-Catholic in tone, but Beaken thinks, given its popularity, it must have percolated into the Anglican mainstream as well.

The theology of the picture resonates with Catholics too: the Requiem Mass is a means through which those of us left behind can help the departed: a bridge of communication, almost, between them and us, in and through the Sacrifice of the Mass, which joins heaven to earth.

Was there any religious object that Catholic troops had in the First World War to which they were particularly attached? It seems there was. Many of the troops carried with them holy pictures of Therese of Lisieux, which they had been given by their wives, mothers, sisters and sweethearts.

Therese died in 1897, and though she was not beatified until 1923, and canonised until two years later, her autobiography had been published the year after her death and had soon become a rather surprising publishing phenomenon. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Therese’s popularity as a protectress and wonder-worker was greatly augmented by the First World War and the experience of the troops that invoked her.

Though at this point it should be observed that we need someone like Robert Beaken to research the topic thoroughly: there could well be a thesis out there entitled “Saint Therese of Lisieux and the First World War”.

Devotion to Saint Therese is still with us, and as such represents, perhaps, one of the fruits of the First World War experience. Another such fruit is the devotion to the Holy Souls. On All Souls’ Day a priest can celebrate three Masses, which is a privilege granted by Pope Benedict XV in 1915. This too remains a feature of Catholic life.

The First World War was certainly a traumatic experience for those who lived through it: but, as with all such experiences, it can go either way: it can kill faith or deepen it. Many soldiers must have had their faith sorely tested, but some perhaps had it deepened too. The War saw a deepening of devotion, in France, to Saint Martin of Tours, on whose feast the War ended.

In various parts of the Catholic world, the coming of peace brought a renewed devotion to Our Lady Queen of Peace, with churches dedicated to her, as well as statues and pictures. One of the most lovely of these is in Santa Maria Maggiore, the oldest Church dedicated to the Virgin in the western world, which was placed there by Pope Benedict XV.
Now perhaps is the time to invoke Our Lady under this beautiful title, as well as to turn to Saint Martin and Saint Therese, imploring their intercession for peace in the world.