It’s the very ordinariness of St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose relics are now touring Britain, that makes her so popular.
St Thérèse of Lisieux has been dead for 112 years now but when she toured Ireland in 2001 a million people came out to see some of her bones, which are displayed beneath a golden statue in a glass-windowed hardwood coffin that weighs 132kg. Her tour of Britain, which starts in Birmingham today, will see her visiting Wormwood Scrubs prison as well as Catholic churches and cathedrals all over the country. It represents a remarkable turnaround in Catholic attitudes here: in 1997, the cautious Cardinal Hume vetoed her arrival for fear it would stir up prejudice. But now things are different. The church seems more confident that the tide of secularism has turned, and it needs a boost to its morale after the years of apparently unending scandal. So a display of flamboyant and shameless devotion to the relics will be an assertion of its status.
If anyone thinks this is strange and medieval, they should perhaps ask themselves what happens when football trophies are put on display today. The veneration of powerful relics is something that long predates organised religion and may even survive it. It speaks to something deep in human nature, and Thérèse’s cult, though stimulated by her family and convent, grew among ordinary Catholics first. She was, I suppose, the ecclesiological equivalent of Jade Goody: someone whose very ordinariness made her lovable. Certainly her exterior life was almost entirely miserable, right from the beginning.
Her parents, poor and devout, had nine children of whom five daughters survived infancy; all of them ultimately became nuns. Their mother died of breast cancer when Thérèse was four. She herself entered the convent at 15, and died of Tuberculosis at 24. She never seems to have accomplished anything in the outside world; what spread her fame was the publication of her diary, The Story of a Soul, which is the chronicle of a long inner triumph over misery and humiliation by embracing them.
She was single-minded, strong-willed and determined: the only ambition of hers which was thwarted was her desire to be a priest. Characteristically, she chose to interpret her own early death as a kindness from God who that way spared her the pain of living past the age when she might have been ordained if she were a man.
“I have always wanted to become a saint,” she wrote,
Unfortunately when I have compared myself with the saints, I have always found that there is the same difference between the saints and me as there is between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and a humble grain of sand trodden underfoot by passers-by. Instead of being discouraged, I told myself: God would not make me wish for something impossible and so, in spite of my littleness, I can aim at being a saint. It is impossible for me to grow bigger, so I put up with myself as I am, with all my countless faults. But I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way which is very short and very straight, a little way that is quite new.
The little way she hit on was simply to seize every chance she had to exercise humility and love. Instead of great, heroic works, she did what she could. There is a touch of Lord Longford about this. But it has also inspired countless people whose lives have seemed almost as narrow and hopeless as hers was from the outside. One of her sisters circulated an edition of her writings after her death, and by 1910, the convent was sending out more than 180,000 pictures of here every year (for she was a saint modern enough to be photographed) and over 35,000 little relics. The sisters had been farsighted enough to break up the wooden floor of her cell and her bed after her death.
In the first world war she became immensely popular among French soldiers, and nearly half a million copies of her autobiography had been printed by the time she was canonised in 1925. The next year, her bones were exhumed, and have since been distributed among a variety of splendid reliquaries. She is the great saint of the ordinary and of the unglamorously wretched. Unlike the pentecostal cults, hers promises no wealth, few miraculous healings, and no worldly happiness. She is a realistic saint for the recession.
Posted by Andrew Brown Wednesday 16 September 2009 14.30 BST guardian.co.uk