During his 26-year pontificate, St. Therese of Lisieux was the only saint whom John Paul II elevated to one of the highest honors of the Church.
In addition to canonizing various men and women, declaring them saints, popes have also labeled specific saints as Doctors of the Church. This custom started in the 13th century, when popes began singling out specific saints who were exemplary teachers in various theological or spiritual topics. These holy men and women were given the official title of Doctor, which stems from the Latin root word docere, meaning “to teach.”Since the 13th century, only 36 saints have been given this title! It is a rare title, one that is not given out carelessly.
What’s interesting is that even though St. John Paul II canonized roughly 482 saints in his 26 year pontificate, he only declared one saint to be a Doctor of the Church.
That saint was St. Therese of Lisieux, commonly known as the “Little Flower.”The choice was fascinating, in that she was not a theologian and barely had an education.
She is the youngest Doctor of the Church, having died at 24 years old.
Yet, John Paul II believed her to be a “scientist,” as he relates in his apostolic letter, Divini Amoris Scientia.
During her life Thérèse discovered “new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings” and received from the divine Teacher that “science of love” which she then expressed with particular originality in her writings. This science is the luminous expression of her knowledge of the mystery of the kingdom and of her personal experience of grace. It can be considered a special charism of Gospel wisdom which Thérèse, like other saints and teachers of faith, attained in prayer.
This “science of love,” is not something that is typically lifted up by the Church, and she stands out from other doctors for her teaching on the spiritual life.
In the writings of Thérèse of Lisieux we do not find perhaps, as in other Doctors, a scholarly presentation of the things of God, but we can discern an enlightened witness of faith which, while accepting with trusting love God’s merciful condescension and salvation in Christ, reveals the mystery and holiness of the Church.
Thus we can rightly recognize in the Saint of Lisieux the charism of a Doctor of the Church, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit she received for living and expressing her experience of faith, and because of her particular understanding of the mystery of Christ. In her are found the gifts of the new law, that is, the grace of the Holy Spirit, who manifests himself in living faith working through charity.
He also believed that Therese, through her autobiographical Story of a Soul, has an extraordinary ability to speak to people of the modern world, both Christians and non-Christians.
Thérèse of the Child Jesus is not only the youngest Doctor of the Church, but is also the closest to us in time, as if to emphasize the continuity with which the Spirit of the Lord sends his messengers to the Church, men and women as teachers and witnesses to the faith…Thérèse is a Teacher for our time, which thirsts for living and essential words, for heroic and credible acts of witness. For this reason she is also loved and accepted by brothers and sisters of other Christian communities and even by non-Christians.
John Paul II was clear that the one saint the modern world needs is St. Therese of Lisieux. If you don’t know her, read her ground-breaking autobiography, Story of a Soul!