This huge building behind me, the Basilica of St. Theresa of Lisieux was built entirely by donations to commemorate the life of a young woman who died in 1897 at the age of 24 of Tuberculosis. Construction began in 1929 and was finished in the early ’50s. Teresa’s life was uneventful, but she has made a lasting impact on spirituality in Europe & beyond and it's interesting to ask the question why. Saint Therese of Lisieux, as we know her, was the highly strung & neurotic youngest of 5 surviving daughters. Her parents were extremely devout. They were persuaded by a confessor that their vows of living a "continent fraternal marriage" was unnecessary for holiness. They went in to have 8 children! All of the 5 daughters became nuns. Theresa's mother died when she was just 4. She entered a Carmelite order at 15 living as a nun for 10 years. How did such an uneventful life lead to the outpouring of devotion that makes this the second most visited site of pilgrimage in France after Lourdes? How is it that every Pope since the 1st world war has lauded this young woman? She is one of only 4 women to be made a doctor of the church. Even her parents were made saints by Pope Francis in 2015, the only married couple ever to be canonised. She has inspired many other great spiritual greats. Mother Theresa of Calcutta said of her "she did ordinary things with extraordinary love". She even took Teresa’s name as she began her vocation. Teresa is associated with saccharine images on flowery prayer cards, and it is true that her rise to fame was based on a highly edited hagiography, produced by her sister, which became an almost instant bestseller. Perhaps this simple girl's faith was something comforting & attractive to a catholic Europe ravaged by WW1.
The Christian life can become over-complicated. Jesus himself continually offered simplifications of the Old Testament law that had been made so complicated by centuries of additions and interpretations. The 613 laws that offered additional explanations to the Hebrew community after the Exodus were themselves expanded upon by the Rabbis so that at the time of Jesus even the way you tithed your herbs had rules. Jesus summarised the 10 commandments into two simple laws: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. The Old Testament prophet Micah summarised the way of living that God approved of this way in chapter 6, "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
A vision statement I hope we’ll become familiar with over the next few years is simpler, humbler, bolder. It has emerged from the work of the Archbishop of York as we think about what sort of national church God is calling us to be post-COVID. St. Teresa certainly inspires the simpler part. There is significant work going on to reduce the amount of legal complexity and streamline national institutions. The danger with all these things is we just default to structural tinkering. We will doubtless have to do some of that ourselves over the next few years as we cut our cloth according to the resources we have available. That needs to be a grown-up conversation to which all are invited. We are having these conversations around the diocese over the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to hearing what type of church people feel we need to be. But for a diocesan strategy to be any more than deckchair re-arrangement as the Titanic slips beneath the waves, we need to go much deeper than questions about how many clergy we can afford, parish share and how we sustain our buildings. These are of course important, but it will be more vital to ask much simpler questions.
How can we better order our life together that we encourage each other to live out of the reality of our identity as followers of Jesus? How can we encourage one another to greater openness to the Holy Spirit who lives in all of Jesus followers, so we better shine with his light? How we can be more faithful to Christ and therefore more effective in commending him to our friends and neighbours? These are all questions about deepening our faith and Christian identity.
St. Teresa is one of those saints whose attractiveness is in her ordinariness. Her family background was dysfunctional; she was clearly quite an awkward character. What set her apart was her self-offering to God. She said, "Holiness consists solely in doing God's will and being just who God wants us to be". It sounds deceptively simple but it's a good place to start. A strategy that fostered that in God’s people in the diocese of Hereford would be a very good thing indeed