Remains of a revered French nun who died more than 100 years ago have traveled the world, ventured into outer space and been worshipped by hundreds of thousands of Catholics. Now the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux are making their way through the Holy Land.
St. Therese's remains arrived in Israel on Monday on a flight from Brussels, greeted by the Vatican's ambassador to Israel, a delegate from the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and other Catholic dignitaries.
"This is an event of faith and an event of devotion that aims at helping the people to become better and to live in a better way, in their social life, in their community life, in their spiritual life," said Apostolic Nuncio Antonio Franco.
After staying three days in Jerusalem, St. Therese's relics will tour Catholic parishes throughout Israel, allowing devotees to worship in the presence of the saint nicknamed the "Little Flower."
In the Catholic faith, relics refer to the bodily remains _ bits of bone, hair and blood _ of beatified religious figures. Devotees pray publicly to the remains of the venerated to ask for help or spiritual guidance, a tradition that may stem from medieval practices of using imagery and symbolism to communicate biblical messages.
St. Therese is one of only a few Doctors of the Church, a designation granted to distinguished Catholic thinkers. Catholic churches, schools and hospitals all over the world bear her name, and Mother Teresa was named after her.
At a ceremony at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport Monday, about 60 nuns, priests and local Catholics gathered to welcome the arrival of the saint's relics, singing and chanting beside a massive banner bearing her likeness. From an unmarked white jet, church officials unloaded the reliquary _ a gold-adorned wooden box containing the remains.
Israel is the latest stop on a global tour for St. Therese's relics, which spent more than three months in South Africa last year coinciding with the 2010 World Cup. The relics toured England and Wales in 2009, and before that, St. Therese's relics were in the Philippines.
The tour also brought the relics to outer space in 2008 when astronaut Ron Garan took her aboard the Discovery space shuttle, the Catholic news service Zenit reported. It's unlikely the relics from that cosmic voyage are the same ones now in Israel, since the reliquary that arrived Monday would be too large for space travel. Another set is currently in France.
St. Therese was born in France in 1873 and baptized at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, according to the Vatican. At the unusually young age of 14, she sought permission to become a Carmelite nun.
When she was rejected, she approached Pope Leo XIII directly for permission. The Carmelite superior relented and at age 15, St. Therese entered the Carmel of Lisieux, part of a Catholic order founded at Mount Carmel near the modern city of Haifa, Israel.
"She trusted totally in God, like a little child at the breasts of its mother," said Flavio Caloi, the vicar general of the Carmelite order.
St. Therese's death at age 24 is believed to have been caused by tuberculosis. She was canonized 28 years later by Pope Pius XI in 1925.
Patriarchal Vicar William Shomali said the Latin Patriarchate waited seven years for the opportunity to host St. Therese's remains. The relics will be transferred to Spain in May for the next leg of the world tour, Shomali said.