Bishop Patrick Ahern, author of Three Gifts of Thérèse of Lisieux: A Saint for Our Times, passed away on March 19, 2011. He served as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York from 1970 to 1994. He was widely regarded as one of the foremost experts on the spirituality of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Father Donald Kinney who personally knew Bishop Ahern and knows a good bit about Saint Thérèse himself. What follows is our exchange on Thérèse, Bishop Ahern and the book Three Gifts of Thérèse ofLisieux.
PETE: Can you tell us a little about your own experience of how St. Thérèse has impacted your life?
FATHER DONALD KINNEY: I converted to the Catholic Church when I was 30. I was raised Methodist. In college I majored in French, spent my junior year in Paris and then spent two more years in Paris for graduate work. Then I studied French for four more years in this country. Yet during all this time, I never heard of St. Thérèse!
Shortly after my conversion, a new Catholic friend gave me a copy of Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse’s autobiography—the religious book which has sold more copies in French than any other book after the Bible. After reading just two of three pages, I knew without a doubt that God was calling me to be a Discalced Carmelite Friar. He arranged things so that just six months after I entered the Catholic Church, I was able to enter the Discalced Carmelites in the California-Arizona Province. I have been very happy in my vocation ever since!
As a novice, I took the religious title “Donald of St. Thérèse”. For my deacon year, I was assigned to our Province’s St. Thérèse Church in Alhambra, California. Providentially, it worked out for me to be ordained there on her feast day, October 1, 1988.
PETE: What do you think is so appealing and draws so many to St. Thérèse even to this day?
FATHER DONALD KINNEY: As Bishop Ahern writes in his book, St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul and her other writings are “authentic.” “She captures many hearts because she is so completely, warmly human.” Her appeal transcends the culture she lived in. Since her book was published in 1898, people from all walks of life, in every culture have felt close to her and have been drawn closer to God because of her.
Pope Francis is one more great fan of St. Thérèse. In the interview on his return flight from World Youth Day in Rio last August, a reporter asked him what was in the suitcase he was carrying. He said he had brought a book to read on St. Thérèse.
Here is a nice quote by Fr. François de Sainte-Marie (1910-1962) from his book L’Ineffable chez sainte Thérèse de Lisieux (The Ineffable in Saint Thérèse de Lisieux): “The study of the saints is never complete. For holiness is not only a life but an after-life… A certain affectionate and concrete knowledge of the saints, drawn from prayer and spiritual contact, lets us discover them and live with them as very near and very mysterious friends.” This is what so many people, including Bishop Ahern, have found in St. Thérèse. This is what people will experience in his book.
PETE: As someone very knowledgeable on St. Thérèse, is there anything you would like to share about her that some may not know?
FATHER DONALD KINNEY: The interest in St. Thérèse has never waned since she died in 1897. On the contrary, the more the world has learned about her, the more it has wanted to know. After she was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1997, people wondered what more “attention” she could receive. Then her parents, Louis and Zélie Martin, were beatified in 2008. It looks very good that they will be canonized in 2014—the first married couple in history to be canonized together as a couple. Bl. Zélie died of breast cancer at the age of 45. Bl. Louis suffered from advanced dementia and died at 70. Both their lives offer great inspiration for people who face similar situations in their families today.Now the complete archives of the Carmel of Lisieux on St. Thérèse has been put on the internet: www.archives-carmel-lisieux.fr. This too is unprecedented for any other Saint.
PETE: What can you tell us about Bishop Patrick Ahern, author of Three Gifts of Thérèse ofLisieux: A Saint for Our Times?
FATHER DONALD KINNEY: Bishop Ahern was an exceptionally warm and loving person. Everybody loved him. With all his big and pressing responsibilities as an Auxiliary Bishop of New York City, what was most important to him was living a life of love after the example of Christ and the Gospel. He truly exemplifies what Pope Francis describes as the ideal Christian in his recent Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).
When I heard that Bishop Patrick Ahern’s book, Three Gifts of Thérèse of Lisieux, would soon be published, I was amazed. I knew that he had been writing a book during the last years of his life and that he had worked on it as long as his health held up. But after he died at 92 in 2011, I heard no more about the book. I just assumed that it wasn’t finished. The news that this book is now in print is wonderful news!
I first met Bishop Ahern in February 1997 when he came to speak at a conference on St. Thérèse at St. Thérèse Church, our Carmelite parish in Alhambra, California. While he was there with us, he received word from his Belgian Carmelite friend Fr. Conrad De Meester that Pope John Paul II would proclaim St. Thérèse a Doctor of the Church. Bishop Ahern was jubilant, and with good reason. For years he had been instrumental in promoting her doctorate. He had personally spoken to the Pope about it, and he had written to every bishops’ conference in the world to ask them to petition the Pope for it.
PETE: What are your thoughts and impression on the book Three Gifts of Thérèse of Lisieux?
FATHER DONALD KINNEY: The book itself is a gift. As I was reading it, I felt I was holding a treasure. He says, “She captures many hearts because she is so completely, warmly human.” His book will do the same. He writes, “She wanted to persuade everyone to love Jesus with the love that filled her heart.” That will happen through his book too.
On a deeper level, this book is not just about St. Thérèse. It is about what she did for Bishop Ahern. It’s really his autobiography. He called his first book Maurice and Thérèse: Story of a Love. This book could be called Patrick and Thérèse: Story of a Love. There are beautiful comparisons between her Christmas conversion and his Ash Wednesday conversion, between her cure of scruples and the cure of his fear of preaching, between her Oblation of Merciful Love and his prayer for the present moment in the little chapel in the Catskills.
In his book, Bishop Ahern tells us that God longs to give each of us a life of love. It’s obvious that St. Thérèse helped bring him there. Reading his book will help you long for a life of love too.
PETE: Time for my signature ending question. This is a blog about books. What is currently on your bookshelf to read?
FATHER DONALD KINNEY: First the Bible! Also I mentioned Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). I’m reading it over and over each day. As soon as it was published I ordered thirty copies to give to others. Another book by another Pope which I read very often is Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week. I also love The Way ofPerfection by St. Teresa of Avila, who founded the Discalced Carmelites.