by Gianni Valente
Rome (Agenzia Fides) - Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, proclaimed by Pope Pius XI co-patron of the missions with Saint Francis Xavier, lived a good part of her short and fragile life (she died aged 24 from tuberculosis) within the walls of a monastery. But before she began her time in seclusion, the Saint of Lisieux, whose liturgical memory is celebrated today, was able to draw on the apostolic and martyrial memory of the Church of Rome which, by tradition, in the month of October, also calls on all Catholic communities around the world to collect aid for missionary works. It happened in November 1887, when Therese was 14 years old and Pope Leo XIII was celebrating his priestly jubilee.
Among the many pilgrimages organized to pay homage to the elderly Pontiff, there was also one organized by the French diocese of Coutances. Therese Martin took part with her father Louis and her sister Céline.
Therese traveled to Rome with a "plan" of her own: if she had the opportunity, she wanted to speak to the old Pope and ask him directly for permission to become a Carmelite at the age of fifteen.
From the report on her trip to Italy, which she recorded in her diary "Story of a Soul", the pages in which Therese describes her encounter and conversation with the Pope have become famous. But perhaps the most impressive details of the teenager's story are those describing her pilgrimage to the Christian memories around the Eternal City: "Oh, what a journey! It taught me more than the long years of study", writes Therese. And she adds: "I have seen beautiful things, I have contemplated the wonders of art and religion, but above all I have walked on the very land of the apostles, the land that is soaked with the blood of the martyrs, and my soul grew in contact with holy things".
The pilgrim group's journey, which began in Paris, stops in Milan, Venice, Padua and Bologna before ariving in Rome. The train arrived in Rome at night, and Therese, Céline and their father Louis found accommodation in a hotel on Via Capo le Case, a street which also overlooks one side of the Propaganda Fide palace. They stay in the city for seven days. Her unique travel notes, which she entrusts to her diary, detail not only her meeting with Pope Leo XIII, but also the Colosseum and the Catacombs, the Basilicas of Saint Cecilia and Saint Agnes, as well as the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
In the Colosseum, the young girl from Lisieux says, she separated from the group to descend into the ruins with Céline, as a daring adventure: "Finally I saw," writes Theresa, "this arena in which so many martyrs had shed their blood for Jesus and I was ready to kiss the ground they had consecrated, but what disappointment! The center is just a heap of ruins that the pilgrims can only look at because a barricade prevents them from entering; After all, no one feels the temptation to walk through these ruins. So did we come to Rome not to go down into the Colosseum? That seemed impossible to me": Therese no longer listens to the guide's explanations and starts looking for a way to get away from the protected paths and descend into the ruins.
She climbs over the fence, taking Céline with her and "and then we climb onto the ruins that are crumbling under our footsteps. Dad looked at us, astonished at our boldness and said we should turn back, but both fugitives heard nothing more".
The two sisters went in search of a piece of pavement on which was visible a cross which the guide had indicated as the one on which the martyrs had fought", and when they found it, "we knelt on this sacred ground, our souls merging into a single prayer. My heart pounded as I placed my lips on the blood-stained dust of the first Christians, I asked for the grace to also be a martyr for Jesus, and I felt deep in my heart, that my prayer was answered. All this," Therese continued, "was accomplished in a very short time; after picking up some stones, we returned to the ruined walls to begin our risky venture again. Father, who saw our happiness, could not tell us off, and I could see that he was proud of our boldness.... The good Lord was clearly protecting us, because the pilgrims, who were a little away, did not notice our absence (...)".
"For Therese", wrote Giovanni Ricciardi, "it is not enough to know or see from a distance. In front of the relics of the martyrs she feels the need to get closer, to touch them with her own hands". This will also be the case at the catacombs of San Callisto.
"They are exactly as I imagined them when I read the description of the lives of the martyrs", says Therese. There, too, the two sisters let the pilgrims move a little further, went down to the bottom of the ancient tomb of St. Cecilia and picked some soil. "Before the trip to Rome," writes Theresa, "I had no particular devotion to this saint, but when I visited the house converted into a church [the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere], the site of her martyrdom, I learned that she was named Queen of Harmony not because of her beautiful voice or her musical talent, but because of the memory of the virginal song that she brought to her heavenly Spouse, hidden deep in her heart, I felt more than just adoration for her: a true tenderness as a friend... She became my favorite saint, my intimate confidant...". Therese also recalls a detail from the “Passio” of Saint Cecilia that she may have read in the lives of the martyrs: "Cecilia always carried the Gospel of Christ hidden in her bosom and never ceased day or night to talk about the Lord in her prayers and very often asked Him to preserve her virginity".
Therese felt the same connection as a sister with Saint Agnes during a visit to the basilica dedicated to the saint on the Roman Via Nomentana. "This visit", says Therese, "was very dear to me. She was a childhood friend whom I used to visit in her house. I spoke to her in detail about her, who bears her name so well [Sister Agnes, already then in the Carmel], and I tried very hard to obtain a relic of this angelic patron saint of my dearest mother, I would have liked to bring it to her, but we were not able to get more than a red stone detached from a rich mosaic, "whose origin goes back to the time of St. Agnes and which she herself often had to look at".
Therese feels the same physical and lively approach to Christian memories in front of the most precious relics in the last and dearest memory of her Roman pilgrimage: "In the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme we saw some fragments of the true cross, two thorns and a holy nail , which were enclosed in a magnificent reliquary of chased gold, but without glass, so that when venerating the precious relic I found a way to stick my little finger into a gap in the reliquary and I able to touch the nail which was bathed in the blood of Jesus. I was really too bold." But "the Lord sees the depths of hearts", she adds, "He knows that my intention was pure and that I did not want to displease Him for anything in the world, I acted with Him like a child who believes that anything is permissible "I always had to find a way to touch everything", Therese concludes. (Agenzia Fides, 1/10/2023)