October 1st is the Feast Day of St. Therese of Liseux, a 19th century French Discalced Carmelite nun, popularly known as the Little Flower of Jesus. St. Therese is dear to me because she is the first saint that I knew and she is one of the saints who constantly prays for me in my life journey, especially in my journey as a Jesuit.
I got to know St. Therese for the first time in primary school. Although I was not Catholic at that time, my parents decided to send me to a nearby Catholic school for my primary education, thinking that it would provide good education. The patron of the school is St. Therese of Lisieux. Every year on October 1st, all the students were required to go to the local church for the Mass dedicated to St. Therese, but I never knew what it all meant. My impression about the Mass was merely that we had to kneel for a long time. When I was in the fifth grade, my mother pushed me to join the catechumen program. My mother made that decision for me for pragmatic reasons: to secure a position in one of the best Catholic Middle Schools in my hometown for my secondary education. I was very reluctant to join the program, and began to ask why I have to become a Catholic. I refused to join the first catechumen class. My mother was very angry with me and punished me for my contempt. Later, I came to the class just to avoid further punishment from my mother. Having gone through the period of catechumens, I was baptized on the Easter vigil of 1986. Not long after my baptism, I successfully secured the position in one of the best Catholic Middle Schools in my home town, which also took St. Therese as its patron saint.
Fast forward to my years in college, I began to question my Catholic faith because found I found that being a Catholic student was very boring. Our faith seemed no more than Mass, pilgrimage, retreat and feast. Meanwhile, outside the Catholic circle, I found that the secular student activism on campus was much more interesting. There was so much discussion about social and political issues among the student activists. Through my interaction with the secular student activists, I had come into this conclusion that the Church and Catholicism never provided an adequate answer to the cause of issue of human suffering. At that time I stopped attending the Church regularly and slowly I began to change my creed into “I believe in Marx, Freud and Darwin; I believe that everything is OK as long as you don’t hurt anyone, to the best of your definition of hurt, and to the best of your definition of knowledge.”
Having spent five years in the wilderness of faith, on one Sunday morning, my then-girlfriend invited me to go for Sunday mass with her. I decided to attend Sunday mass simply because I wanted to please her. Having spent many months attending mass with my girlfriend, I began to re-think about my Catholic faith. At that time I was working in an international financial institution in downtown Jakarta, Indonesia. There is an old and small Catholic Church that is located around two blocks from my office. The Church is named after St. Therese of Liseux. One day, I decided to attend a daily mass in that Church, and perhaps it was one of the first moments that I decided to go to the Church on my own instead of pleasing my girlfriend or mother.
As God brought Joseph from desert to Palace and Moses from palace to desert, He brought me from a small mining town in Indonesia to Seattle, Washington. In the Emerald city, I experienced a deeper conversion and later decided to enter the Jesuit Novitiate. I submitted my application to the Society of Jesus on October 1st.. Little did I know that this was not only a simple coincidence, but rather, a sign of abiding grace in which St. Therese had been praying for me long since my time in primary school and she would continue to pray for me in my journey on the religious path.
Every Jesuit has to make the Spiritual Exercises, a thirty-day, silent retreat developed by St. Ignatius Loyola. During my silent retreat in the Novitiate, I had a chance to reflect more about my faith journey: one day, I prayed over my relationship with St. Therese of Liseux. The Holy Spirit helped me to see that St. Therese is one of the greatest Saint of modern times, because the beauty of her spiritual childhood was a testament to how a saint can change the world. Through my faith journey, I realized that secularism is not as powerful as we thought. I ran away from God and tried to live a life without meaning, but the beauty of St. Thérèse’s spiritual childhood rescued me from such despair and nihilism.
Stefanus Hendrianto, S.J. is a Jesuit Scholastic. He taught at Santa Clara University Law School and Political Science Department.