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Saint Therese and the Russian College in Rome

by Reverend Elias O’Brien, O.Carm.

Saint Therese of Lisieux was beatified in 1923, and canonized in 1925 and this was supported and encouraged by Catholics around the world. I understand that the process of beatification and canonization of saints is a very expensive one and the work of the staff in the Papal offices must be paid for by donations from those promoting the cause; therefore, in order to make the necessary contribution to the Holy See, a collection was taken by the Carmelite friars (both O.Carm. and OCD). The response was overwhelming, especially from the United States where the Catholics are known for their extraordinary generosity, which was evidently also combined with a great love for Therese.

The chapel interior

The O.Carm. Prior General had a sum of money left over after all the expenses of the process of canonization had been paid. Since it is not allowed to use money collected for one purpose for any other purpose, he asked the advice of the Holy Father, Pius XI.

Pope Pius XI was a remarkable pope, and a great scholar and he was known especially for his support for learning and higher education; as examples, he established the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, founded the Vatican Radio, and revolutionized Catholic teaching on Social Action, etc. He also was a great promoter of missionary activity, the fruits of which are now becoming manifest around the world where the seed he planted has taken firm root. He also wrote against fascism and socialism, having witnessed the rise of both after the Great War (i.e., World War !). He was a man of vision.

The Icon of Saint Therese in the chapel

He was not particularly ecumenical in the modern sense, but he was a strong supporter of the Eastern Catholic Churches. So when the Prior General came to the Holy Father with the problem of what to do with ‘Therese’s money’, he is reported to have said, “I know just the thing.” He instructed that the money be used to construct a college in Rome for the education of priests to serve as missionaries in Russia.

The College ‘Russicum’ was built near Saint Mary Major in Rome, and the Church of Saint Antony the Great was given over to worship in the Russian Rite, with a college for seminarians built next door. Today, the Pontifical Oriental Institute is on the other side of the Church from the Russicum College.

The College itself is known as the Russian College, or the ‘Russicum’, but its official title remains the ‘College of Saint Therese’, and in the chapel used for the daily Liturgy there is a powerful icon of her on the Iconostasis in the place reserved for the patron of the place. It is a remarkable icon which conveys something quite extraordinary of her spiritual vision. Of course, dedicating this missionary college to her is altogether in keeping with our image of Therese as co-patron of the missions (with St. Francis Xavier).

The Russian College, Russicum

However there are some problems which remain, not least of which is the rejection of ‘uniatism’ as a means of achieving Church unity. This has recently been agreed by the Catholic Church in the 1993 Balamand Statement of Agreement with the Orthodox. So a ‘mission’ to the Orthodox with a view to converting them to join the Russian Rite Catholic Church is no longer a popular idea. I suppose it is related to the dispute often spoken about in the context of the ‘conversion of Russia’—a minefield in the worse sense of that image. In fact, since the ecumenical movement and the approaches made to the Orthodox Churches as ‘sister’ Churches by Pope John Paul II, the Russian College is suffering something of an identity crisis, not sure of how it fits in to the new vision. It is having considerable difficulty re-inventing itself. At present the Jesuits have care of the college, but its future is not certain. However, the connection with Saint Therese is a very interesting one, and the story is possibly prophetic. The suffering Christians of Russia, and those in Russia who have yet to hear the faith preached to them, are well commended to Therese, whose intercession is needed now as much as during the years of communistic oppression.