Santa Rita Parish in Milan, Italy, September 2017. / Credit: Béatitudes Community
Paris, France, Oct 1, 2023 / 04:00 am (CNA).
For more than 30 years, the Community of the Beatitudes has been hosting “rose petals” evenings dedicated to the French saint Thérèse de Lisieux (1873–1897).
The concept is simple: Devotees write a letter to the “Little Flower” (a common term of endearment for the saint) asking for graces through her intercession, and a year later their letters are returned to them. Many testify that they were granted graces even though they had asked God for “the impossible.”
The story of these vigils, now held on five continents, began in 1992 in Lisieux, in Normandy, France, where Thérèse spent her youth and years as a Carmelite. A member of the Beatitudes community, Jean-François Callens, who was then the head of a house near Grenoble, was also in charge of the spiritual program for a vigil held in the basilica on the theme of intercessory prayer.
That evening, he invited everyone to write a letter to Thérèse, and envelopes were handed out, with the promise of returning them a year later. “Thérèse had the nerve to promise that she would spend her eternity doing good on earth.” Callens recalled saying to those gathered, “Do you think, my friends, that she will keep her word and rain roses down on us?”
And to everyone’s astonishment, real rose petals fell down upon the group.
Was it a miracle? No, it was more of a sign.
Prior to the event, Callens had invited members of the community to visit local florist shops and collect all the rose petals they could find. Then they made a plan to drop them from the top of the catwalk in the nave of the basilica in order to “persuade the discouraged that their prayers are not isolated or lost.”
Encouraged by this first shower of blessings, the community continued the tradition in all its houses. Sister Marie-Liesse Bigot, who was present from the outset, helped to spread the initiative throughout the world — particularly in New Zealand and the United States, where she has lived. Even today, she hosts seven or eight evenings a year around Oct. 1, St. Thérèse’s feast day. And she has collected the letter from these evenings into a book, published in French, called “Je passerai mon ciel à faire du bien sur la terre; fioretti des Soirées Pétales de roses.”
Front cover of the book written by Sister Marie-Liesse. Sept 24, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Sister Marie-Liesse
‘Thérèse attracts whoever she wants’
Once again this year, Bigot is hoping to increase the number of rose petals vigils especially because 2023 marks a double jubilee for Thérèse of Lisieux: the 150th anniversary of her birth (Jan. 2, 1873) and the 100th anniversary of her beatification (April 29, 1923).
The aim of this initiative is to “restore hope,” Bigot explained to CNA. She wants people to “rediscover this popular faith that we have lost, which is often taken for granted,” Bigot said, adding that “the Lord works for the little ones.”
“The focus of the evening is not on Thérèse, it’s Jesus,” she said. During the vigil, the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for a time of adoration. In country churches, this is an opportunity to bring out the monstrance, sometimes long locked away in the sacristy.
It’s also an opportunity to offer the sacrament of reconciliation to people far removed from the Church.
“Once I was in the Jura [a region in France],” Bigot recalled, “and the parish priest made himself available for confessions. At the end of the evening, he was incredibly happy, having heard the confession of someone who hadn’t confessed for 30 years.” Still overwhelmed by the story, Bigot reckoned that “for that person alone, it was worth the 800-kilometer round trip.”
“Thérèse attracts whoever she wants,” Bigot said. “Once I was in Poitiers, in a very dechristianized region — there was no monstrance, the microphone didn’t work, nor did the lighting, and we thought there would be no one, that it wasn’t the style of the people here… and the church was full!”
Statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, Province of Verona, Italy, October 2013. Credit: Sister Marie-Liesse
‘We don’t see many miracles because we forget’
Bigot spoke about the graces she has witnessed. Writing a letter, she said, allows us to see God at work in the little things. “We don’t see many miracles in our lives because we forget what we’re asking the Lord for,” she said. “I myself forget what I’ve written in my letter, and every year I’m surprised.”
Bigot likes to tell a story that spanned three years.
“In 1998, I was on my way back from New Zealand, passing through France and going through a difficult time for my faith. I had to host a rose petals evening, and I was feeling very bad inside. I saw a couple of friends in the congregation, members of the community, who couldn’t have children. I prayed: ‘Listen Lord, I ask you for one thing, and that is to give a child to this family, to this couple.’ I returned to the United States and received my letter a year later. I hadn’t heard from this couple, I didn’t know what had become of them. A fortnight later, I received an announcement saying ‘Jeanne was born.’ I cried. It was as if the Lord was saying to me, ‘I’m taking care of you, too.’”
But the story didn’t end there.
“At a rose petals evening in the United States, I testified about this in my poor English, and a woman heard me. A mother herself, she was touched and decided to pray for her dentist, who had been married for 14 years and had no children. Three months later, she went to his office for a cleaning, and the dentist told her, ‘We are pregnant.’ The following year, they had twins. On hearing this testimony, a woman asked for the grace that her daughter, who kept having miscarriages, could have a child. The next month… she was pregnant.”
Holding back tears, Bigot marveled at this “contagion of witness.”
“People have found jobs and homes, and experienced reconciliation, healing, and other crazy things,” she told CNA. “These evenings have successfully spread to France, Italy, Germany, Kazakhstan, the USA, Alaska, Mali, China… Thérèse is loved everywhere. She has succeeded in reaching intellectuals, children, and all generations.”
A priest writing a letter to St. Therese of Lisieux during a “rose petals” evening of prayer in Vismara, province of Milan, Italy, September 2017. Credit: Béatitudes Community
Not a list to Santa Claus
So, what’s the difference between this letter to the Little Flower and a letter to Santa Claus?
“In the letter to Thérèse, I commit my faith, my hope, in a surge of trust, because Thérèse’s message is that God is Father and that he takes care of me,” Bigot explained. “It’s not magic; you don’t press the dispenser… You put yourself in God’s presence and ask him for ‘the impossible through the intercession of Thérèse.’ What seems impossible in my life today? It’s all the places where we beg: Lord, I need you. I entrust to him the important things, with all their weight. It’s not easy. You see people crying as they write their letters.”
Bigot also said we should never make “an idol” of Thérèse, because “it’s not her who hears, it’s Jesus,” she pointed out, saying that “the rose petal evenings always have a taste of heaven,” and we should all “take the graces when they come.”