This year the relics of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and of her parents Louis and Zélie Martin, canonized by Pope Francis on October 18 2015, during the Synod on the Family, will go on a pilgrimage beyond the Arctic Circle. It will be the first time they visit the northernmost regions. This deeply meaningful event will bring together five different Countries around a unique spiritual experience. “The common trait of the pilgrimage is that the Martin family goes on pilgrimage across all of these countries for two months to support families”, Fr. Syméon, member of the Congregation of Saint John, told SIR. He has been travelling to Sweden on a regular basis for the past ten years as part of his service, appointed by the bishop of Stockholm, card. Anders Arborelius, to accompany the pastoral care of the families.Fr Syméon is now in charge of the visit of the relics. He acted as a liaison between Lisieux and the Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference since the idea started taking shape two years ago. In Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland there is a person tasked with accompanying the passage of the saints, while in September the bishops will publish a pastoral letter on the meaning of this event, aimed to “strengthen the Catholic faith of the religious communities in our respective Countries”, Sister Anna Mirijam Kaschner, Secretary General of the Bishops’ Conference, told SIR. Saint Theresa is the “Patron Saint of our missions and our Countries are lands of mission, thus it is our hope that she may have an impact on the Catholic faith. In our Countries a large part of the population that arrived from many different world countries are very closely bound to this form of spirituality. Furthermore, there are many monasteries and Carmelite sisters, and they too are looking forward to the event.” In fact Theresa lived in the convent of Lisieux from the age of 16 until her death, at 24.
It is rather unexpected that in such a secularised environment such as Northern Europe, which is also modernist under many aspects, there is room for such a tradition-bound religious expression.
“Our Catholics are deeply attached to the tradition. I experienced it in person upon my arrival from Germany. They show deep respect for what is holy and for these heartfelt forms of veneration”,
said Sister Anna Mirijam. “Indeed, it is in stark contrast with the surrounding secularised society. I learned that in Countries visited by the holy relics many non-Catholics who perceived something special in this experience decided to convert to Catholicism. We don’t know what could happen. We accompany this journey with our prayers. No one knows the works of God.” The first person who was conquered by the relics was Fr Syméon: “Initially I was somewhat sceptical”, he said. But then he witnessed a strong degree of sensitivity, affection and faith pouring out from the veneration of the relics to the extent that what he is experiencing today, as he organizes the visits, has turned into a “deep spiritual experience.” Moreover, he recalled,
“the veneration of relics is found throughout the history of the Church and it is an essential part of the Catholic religion. There is no altar without relics, a Church cannot be consecrated without relics. The veneration of Saints in their bodily remains means remembering them as if they were still living. Thus we receive this great Saint because she continues to live in the Heavens.”
In fact the “motto” that will accompany the visit of the relics is “Welcome Saint Teresa!”, as if a personality were arriving in flesh and blood.
“The special thing is that everyone knows the ‘small way’ indicated by Theresa of Lisieux”, namely, the possibility to seek holiness not in great enterprises but in everyday deeds, carried out for love of God. “Theresa is a very concrete Saint that all Catholics can bond with, including those with different cultures or religious traditions. We hope to discover our common grounds also through the visit of the Saint”, added Sister Anna Mirijam. Also the preparatory phase leading up to the event is a shared experience, with common prayers and chants, albeit translated in various languages. “Some of the Masses we celebrate, the rite of veneration, will be the same and will thus will contribute to uniting our peoples.”
However, this visit is odd also with respect to the ecumenical context: “Indeed, I am wondering how it will be received by the non-Catholic population”, said Sister Anna Mirijam. She remarked:
“I believe that the ecumenical journey is truly effective only when the two parties (Catholics and Lutherans) have a clear understanding of their own faith and carry out their very own religious practices. The veneration of saints is a special practice enshrined in the Catholic faith, although in Sweden, for example, the Lutheran Church shows deep signs of devotion to Saint Brigid and consider her a Saint “of their own.” In fact there is great proximity with the Catholic Church. The situation in Iceland or Finland, where only 0.2% are Catholic, is expected to be different. It will be an adventure.”
Also Fr Syméon said he hopes that “also the Lutherans may share this experience”, for “not only Catholic families are facing difficulties in Scandinavian countries, all families are.” The fascinating story of the Martin family can encourage, enlighten and accompany the difficult life of many families today. Father Syméon supports the idea of a pastoral care that “does not separate these two areas”, since “in place where there are families there are also youths and viceversa.” Thus in the past months efforts have been made to involve youths in the veneration of the relics, starting with the definition of the logo and in the recording of videos. “Young people who are interested and involved in the life of the Church don’t see the arrival of the relics as something odd”, said Sister Anna Mirijam referring to youths who represent one of the many levels involved in this “challenge.” “Based on our experience, if people are faced with challenges they start to reflect, and through reflection they start overcoming prejudices, and those against Catholics abound in our Countries.
The arrival of the relics will give us the opportunity to explain to people what we do along with our understanding of the veneration of the relics.
We will explain that we do not worship Saints as is commonly believed, since the Catholic faith is not deeply known.”
Thus the reliquary will be arriving by plane in Stockholm on September 28. The solemn celebration will be held in the afternoon in the Swedish Cathedral. After having toured six different cities the relics will be brought to Norway on October 6 and to Denmark on October 19. They will remain in Finland from October 24 until November 3, when the pilgrimage in Iceland begins, a highlight of the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the diocese of Reykjavík. The relics will return to Lisieux on November 12. The landmark moment of the pilgrimage will occur in Vadstena on October 6: in a solemn Eucharistic celebration presided over by the bishop of Copenhagen Czeslaw Kozon, President of the Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference, the Scandinavian Countries will be consecrated to the holy Martin family. On October 1st, feast day Saint Theresa, Doctor of the Church, Patron Saint of France and of the missions, the relics will be brought to the convent of Glumslöv.