In 1997, Pope John Paul II named Saint Therese of Lisieux a Doctor of the Church. This was a startling decision. Perhaps since Saint John Paul II made many startling decisions during his pontificate—such as suddenly adding five mysteries to the rosary—it is easy to fail to notice how unusual this decision really was.
Other Doctors of the Church include Saints Thomas Aquinas, Jerome of Stridon, and Augustine of Hippo, brilliant thinkers who were also amazingly prolific and whose works could fill entire bookshelves. Therese of Lisieux’s writings, on the other hand, include only three short autobiographical documents and personal letters (although there are quite a few of those).
Other Doctors of the Church were noted as founders. Saint Anselm of Canterbury is generally considered the founder of a philosophical school called Scholasticism. Saint Bonaventure is often called the second founder of the Franciscan order because he codified the order’s rules after the death of Saint Francis. Even Therese’s namesake, Saint Teresa of Avila, was the founder of the order of Discalced Carmelites along with (another Doctor) Saint John of the Cross.
Popes Leo the Great and Gregory the Great were popes before they were acknowledged, posthumously, as Doctors of the Church. Therese only visited the pope, on one occasion, where she caused a minor scandal by breaking protocol and asking the pope to intervene with her bishop and allow her to enter the Carmelites at a young age.
Some Doctors experienced powerful visions, such as Saints Catherine of Siena and Hildegard of Bingen. But not Therese. Some Doctors faced personal danger because of their orthodox explanations of the faith, such as Saints John Damascene and John Chrysostom. But not Therese.
So perhaps we should turn to Pope John Paul II himself to understand the reasons behind this seemingly unusual decision. While his apostolic letter explains in detail why he, as pope, decided to acknowledge Saint Therese as a Doctor of the Church, he summarizes this action in a sentence found in no. 6 of the document.
Thérèse of the Child Jesus left us writings that deservedly qualify her as a teacher of the spiritual life.
May we all take the time to learn from this great spiritual teacher, Saint Therese of Lisieux.
Saint Therese, teach me about the spiritual life so that I too can become a saint.
Note: I have heard that early English translations of The Story of a Soul included a lot of flowery, “prettified” language. I have never seen a translation like that, but translations by Clarke and Beevers are excellent. The Institute of Carmelite Studies publishes all of her works.