By PAUL A. BARRA
CHARLESTON — The bishop of Charleston has his own take on some sage advice given to St. Augustine by St. Ambrose 1,600 years ago. For Bishop David B. Thompson, his 33rd visit to the other Holy City last month occasioned an urge within him to replicate his latest Rome experience at home, so Ambrose’s proverb became, “When in South Carolina, do as the Romans do.”
The experience that engendered this adage adaptation was the papal Mass that celebrated the naming of St. Therese of Lisieux as a Doctor of the Church on Oct. 19 in St. Peter’s Square. The bishop was there, along with 180 other pilgrims from his diocese.
“I hoped that we could echo the ceremonies, the prayer and the liturgy of that glorious occasion,” Bishop Thompson said.
The spiritual leader of the state’s Roman Catholics also wished to honor the Theresians, a women’s group dedicated to good works and devoted to the Little Flower’s “little way” of spirituality, and to emphasize to the faithful of the diocese “the importance of St. Theresa, the Little Flower.”
So, the bishop celebrated a special liturgy at the diocesan cathedral on Nov. 15. A large statue of St. Therese sat in the sanctuary and Theresians proclaimed the Word of God, took up the offertory, bore the gifts to the altar and served as Eucharistic ministers. Catherine Combier-Donovan of Columbia dramatized Therese’s famous Manuscript B in its original French and each Theresian present was gifted with a long-stemmed rose. To complete the authentic reproduction, the Cathedral Choir sang many of the same hymns it sang to Pope John Paul in Rome on Oct. 19.
Dr. Pamela Niesslein of Hanahan, secretary to the National Board of Theresians, was enthralled with the beauty of the service and with the suitability of the bishop’s homily: “It amazed me how Bishop Thompson caught the whole spirit of what we’re trying to do.”
The bishop spoke of how the Theresians in their ministry emulate the qualities that brought Christendom’s honorary and prestigious doctorate to their patron saint.
“St. Therese of Lisieux was a powerful little lady and is the youngest Doctor of the Church. She taught the world by her human experience. Her great quality was to get to the heart of things that really matter,” Bishop Thompson said.
Other Doctors of the Church were saints famed for being learned, he said, or for being mystics. Therese was neither. She wrote the spiritual autobiography The Story of a Soul, which Combier-Donovan read from at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Nov. 15, and which has become one of the most widely read books of its kind. She finished Soul and died of tuberculosis 100 years ago. Therese of Lisieux was 25.
Theresians and millions of other people follow the way of St. Theresa, the Little Flower. Bishop Thompson is the episcopal advisor to the Theresians of the United States. He provoked laughter at the cathedral celebration when he told the story of how he tried to parlay that duty into a slot among the 18 cardinals and French bishops (Therese is the co-patron saint of France) who concelebrated the Mass in Rome at which the pope presided. The ploy failed, he said, but he was granted a front row seat; 50,000 people participated in the liturgy.
There are four fully formed Theresian communities in South Carolina today, according to Niesslein, and another in formation. The southeast regional conference of the Theresians of the United States will be held on Dec. 5-7 in the Charleston On the Beach resort on Folly Beach.
Kathleen Edmonds is the district coordinator for the Theresians. She can be reached at (803) 795-7701.