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A vivid memory of my seminary days is being present in St Peter’s Square in October 1997 when Pope John Paul II declared Thérèse of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. White-cloaked Carmelites carried the golden casket containing Thérèse’s relics in procession. At the end of Mass her words were read aloud: “At last I had found my vocation: to be love at the heart of the Church.”
Amid a huge assembly of hierarchy and laity in the Eternal City, the little girl who had once made an embarrassing scene in front of Pope Leo XIII now emerged in her true stature as someone whose “Little Way” of confidence in God’s love, and self-sacrifice in pursuit of that grace for itself and for the saving of souls more even than for her own progress, was a teaching of perennial importance.
Perhaps because I have been several times to her shrine this year, Thérèse sent me a special gift: that of celebrating her feast when ordinarily it is replaced liturgically by the Sunday celebration. For the Sisters of Maria Stella Matutina, who are themselves contemplatives of French origin, her feast is kept as a solemnity and they are permitted to celebrate it on the actual date. They invited me for Mass, so I headed down to their convent in Grayshott, Hampshire, on October 1.
These nuns have been in Portsmouth diocese for two years. Their convent is a former presbytery which is homely – though, I suspect, a little small for their needs. I get to see it when we bless the house after Mass, the Sisters singing the Litany of the Saints, me plying the holy water. Their order seeks to live in priories of between seven and 15 Sisters, so that their life is a balance of silent contemplation and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, community prayer and life in common, and a less strict enclosure that allows them to work for the new evangelisation. Later this month, for example, they will host a Newman weekend in which they will invite young women to share their life of prayer and study.
After Mass, some time of prayer, Confessions and the blessing of the convent, we sit down to a simple and delicious lunch cooked by the French superior. The conversation flows easily as we talk of Thérèse, and I share how I have discovered the different members of the Martin family recently. The Sisters clearly relish Thérèse’s accounts of her struggles with community life for their complete authenticity and recognise only too well the struggles she experienced, and the humility and humour with which she acknowledged them.
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