Comment Opinion & Features

St Thérèse, Newman and an extraordinary journey into the Church

St Thérèse of Lisieux

One day Ethel, the wife of Alexander James Grant, a Scottish Presbyterian pastor, left a newspaper in her husband’s office. It was a copy of the Catholic Herald and she had opened the paper strategically at a page describing the life of a seemingly obscure French nun.

Ethel had converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism in 1908 and hoped that her husband would follow her across the Tiber. But that seemed unlikely: Grant was a pastor of the United Free Church of Scotland, a denomination not known for its sympathy for Catholicism. A scholarly man who knew eight languages, he served the people of Lochranza, a village on the Isle of Arran. His exposure to the Catholic Church was limited to two encounters with priests. They had offered “a few words about the Roman Religion,” he recalled, “but I was absolutely refractory to their insinuations.”

Yet in an idle moment, Grant read the article, written by a Fr Taylor, which told the story of Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin, who had joined the Carmelite order before dying at the age of 24, having outwardly accomplished little of significance. The article mentioned that a full English translation of her autobiography would be published soon.

Intrigued, Grant cut out the article and put it in his wallet, where it remained for about a year. Eventually one of his wife’s friends obtained from a community of nuns The Story of a Soul (albeit an older, incomplete version). At Christmas 1909, Grant returned from preaching a mission suffering from influenza. He found the book on his bedside table, and read it eagerly. “I esteemed that what had fallen into my hands was the work of a genius,” he said later.

Then something truly shocking happened to the Presbyterian pastor. This is how he described it:

One evening, when I was fully awake, I felt an extraordinary sensation, and I said to my wife as she entered the bedroom: “that little girl is here” –

“Who?” she asked.

“The little Flower” I replied, “I’m sure she’s in this room.”

Nothing had prepared me for this sensation, or prompted an event such as this. This is how I felt in my soul: the exterior world seemed to vanish before my eyes, and it was inwardly, in my mind, that I saw the Servant of God. I pushed these thoughts aside, saying to myself: “You’re giving in to superstition and idolatry”; but my attempts at pushing her away were in vain; she came back and wrapped herself around my heart, refusing to leave me, and this is what I believe I heard: “This is how holy Catholics love Jesus, choose my little way.”

“Well,” I replied, “I shall try to follow it, if you will help me,” for I ardently desired to succeed.

Now we come to the crux of the story. Bewildered by this mystical experience, Grant sought solace in the writings of John Henry Newman, who will be canonised this Sunday. After reading the Apologia Pro Vita Sua, in which Newman described his own painful, hesitant path to Rome, Grant turned to his wife and said: “I now believe in things that I was never able to believe before.”

After months of inner turmoil, Grant resigned his living as a pastor in 1911 and entered the Catholic Church under the name of Francis-Mary-Thérèse. Not long afterwards, he was called to testify at the so-called Ordinary Trial in Lisieux, a critical early stage in the canonisation process. There he explained why he regarded his conversion as a miracle.

After he gave his testimony, Grant and his wife were invited to live in Alençon, the French nun’s birthplace. In the coming years, they would show pilgrims around the town, recounting the life of the nun who was proclaimed St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face in 1925.

Grant’s story illustrates the way in which John Henry Newman has guided countless people to the Catholic faith since his death in 1890. As the articles in this issue explain, Newman’s life was not a smooth progression from triumph to triumph, but rather a humiliating journey from one failure to another. But despite this adversity – indeed, perhaps because of it – he became the man who will be proclaimed a saint in Rome this weekend.

Newman could never have imagined his profound influence on those who came after him. His reflections on conscience inspired German students who courageously rebelled against the Third Reich. His hymn Lead, Kindly Light brought solace to Mahatma Gandhi in his darkest moments. His Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent helped to lead Oscar Wilde towards the Catholic faith. He has changed thousands of lives for the better and now, with his canonisation, he will transform countless more.