A Reflection Inspired By the 2019 Diocese of Pueblo Clergy Retreat

I have been a priest in this diocese for 16 years. I moved here as a layman in 1986 to work at the three main parishes in Trinidad as a confirmation teacher.  I was also a music minister at two of those parishes. Shortly thereafter I participated in my first Chrism Mass at the Cathedral, where I learned that the patroness of our diocese is Saint Thérèse of Lisieux.

As a child attending Catholic school in North Hollywood, I first heard the story of St. Thérèse of Lisieux when my class read a book containing vignettes of her life in first grade.  At that age I didn’t realize why she was commonly known as “The Little Flower”. I just thought it was because she was a ‘child saint’, having entered the convent as a young girl. 

Fast forward to my high school years where I encountered the books “The Little Flowers of St. Francis,“ and  “The Story of a Soul“.  I found both of these to be, using one of my mother’s phrases, “so sticky sweet as to cause cavities”.  Unfortunately, much of the Victorian period’s literature about the saints, and especially the Blessed Mother was also very sentimental, which long kept me from appreciating Mary’s amazing strengths and her power as an intercessor with her Son. 

My next encounter with St. Thérèse occurred when I was in seminary.  Having heard about a United States tour of her relics, and because she is the diocese’s patroness, I decided to attend this event. There I purchased a book about St. Thérèse, in which I enclosed a few rose petals from the floor of the church as a keepsake. I forgot about these petals until much later, when reading this book during my pre-ordination retreat, they fell out into my lap.  I interpreted this as a sign of Thérèse’s intercession. 

I finally began to appreciate this little saint when I heard the story about Bishop Joseph Wilging’s encounter with “The Little Flower” on a rainy night at the train station in Lisieux where he was looking for the monastery in her hometown.  Thankfully, Bishop Berg recounted this wonderful story in The Catholic Chronicle and talking about the artifacts that this first Bishop of Pueblo brought back from his pilgrimage.

Inspired by St Thérèse, Bishop Berg, the Presbyteral Council and the Diocesan Leadership decided to re-found this diocese under her patronage, largely because we are a small diocese—as she was a small girl.  He set out for us a process by which we would learn how to live her charism.  We are now the Diocese of the Little Way and are engaged in spreading the power of St. Thérèse across the parishes of Southern Colorado.  This brings us to the two offerings from the Diocese, Fr. Gaitley’s Thirty Days with Thérèse and our recent clergy retreat.

The retreat master compiled information over the past year, largely drawn from her only work, The Story of a Soul. He did not limit himself to her writings alone. Instead he gave us from the riches of many Catholic authors and theologians pertinent passages relating to the truths the Little Flower had experienced and related in her Spiritual Autobiography.  So, Father Riley brought a whole new dimension to my understanding of St Thérèse and her book.  Through his clear explanations of St. Thérèse’s upbringing and family life, and her extreme sensitivity to matters both natural and spiritual, he showed the effect these conditions had on her rather early awakening to the spiritual and mystical life.  From St. Thérèse’s example we also see the importance of a family life centered around God and His beneficence, the beauty of the sacraments, and the hope for eternal life.

I think it unfortunate that today pragmatism and our worldly ways have crushed the spiritual life out of many Catholic families and their children’s lives.  Although family life was not easy with such a sensitive girl, both she and her parents learned to cope with, and eventually surpass (grow out of?) her peculiarities.  She seemed to cry at every turn, weeping over the slightest crushed daisy, from missing her daddy and a myriad of other things. But her spiritual sensitivity was definitely fostered by her strong Catholic upbringing.

For me, Fr. Riley put meat, and skin on a life I barely knew, even though I had read it once before on retreat, and had retreated from it earlier in my life.  She was real, she was alive, and I got to understand more of what she offered us as the eventual Doctor of the Church she would become. The boiled-down summaries of her spiritual life I had received earlier did a grave injustice to its complexity and depth. Maybe I had to mature another few decades so I could hear and receive what she wrote. For example, to simply say that “the little way” was a means for her to cope with the difficulties of religious life is to totally miss the point. Instead, it was her deep prayer and her consideration of scriptural texts, especially those regarding charity, that awakened in her the understanding of her vocation to love greatly by doing little things. It was this same spirituality that gave birth to the powerful testimony and ministry of St. Teresa of Calcutta, who also did little things with great love.

Additionally, and most interesting was how Father Riley explored the three “dark nights” that Thérèse experienced in her prayer life: the “dark night of the senses”, the “dark night of the soul”, and what he called “the dark night of hope.” It was this last “dark night” that also assailed Mother Teresa of Calcutta for the last 40 years of her life. As I reflect on this, I am sure Mother Teresa drew from the Little Flower’s “dark night of hope” in choosing to doggedly love every single person Christ put in her path.  One wonders if the Little Flower had lived as long as Mother Teresa did, whether the dark night of hope would have persisted as long for her.

Because we live in a small, impoverished diocese, we think that we can’t have much effect in the larger world.  Thérèse, having been confined to her monastery and unable to do missionary work due to her illness, at least in my mind resonates with our smallness and lack of resources. Yet, despite being the poor among the poor, without a wealth of material resources, we can still accomplish much by the re-evangelization project we have before us.  And we do have tools: Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples give us a framework for understanding both what we are up against in terms of the spiritual life of the Church in the US, and how we can approach our fellow parishioners to help them to know Christ personally and grow deeper in a personal and dynamic relationship with Him.  The Amazing Parishes helps us to hone and focus our staff meetings to working only in terms of the mission we have rediscovered.   The retreat was focused on providing us priests and deacons with formation and understanding of the charism of St. Thérèse, and to increase in us a hunger for a deeper spiritual life. By means of a deeper prayer life, God’s grace and a newly found or deeper and sincere dedication to bringing about the reign of God, we can have a profound effect on the lives of everyone we encounter, just as St. Thérèse did with her “little way”. 

Father Don Malin is a priest of the Diocese of Pueblo. He came to Colorado in 1982 as a postgraduate student at the University of Colorado Boulder. Father Malin moved to the diocese in 1986 and worked as a music minister for twelve years while teaching at Trinidad State Junior College. He entered the seminary in 1998 and was ordained in 2003.