Relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux, one of the most popular Roman Catholic saints, visit Washington next week to begin a four-month tour of the United States.

The U.S. tour of the Carmelite nun's relics is part of a worldwide mission of evangelism that began in 1995 and will continue through 2001. "Several million people" already have prayed alongside the traveling reliquary in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Russia and Kazakhstan, said the Rev. Donald Kinney, an Oregon-based Carmelite priest who chairs the St. Therese Relics Committee.

"Devotion to bones, as such, has diminished throughout the world," Kinney said of the ancient tradition of Christian pilgrimages to saints' tombs or to churches whose altars contain their remains. But the traveling exhibition of Therese's relics--a rarity for any saint--has "excited Catholics everywhere."

The reason? The nun's status as "one of the most influential people in spirituality and Christianity since the time of Christ," Kinney said. One person's life she touched was Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who took her name from Therese of Lisieux and appears destined for sainthood just two years after her own death.

To many Catholics, Therese--who died in 1897 at 24 and was canonized 28 years later--is better known as "the Little Flower of Jesus." It's a term the French nun used to describe herself in God's garden, and the term aptly speaks to the simplicity of her faith, said Sister Ann Rehrauer, associate director of the office of liturgy at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Sister Therese spoke of her life as a "little way of spiritual childhood," and her method of contemplating God in simple objects and mundane tasks makes her a Christian model for any people who see their lives as nothing special, Rehrauer said. "She took the stuff of life God gave her and [responded] with love and great devotion."

That Therese died so young, unyielding in her faith despite the ravages of tuberculosis, only increases her popularity, admirers and historians say. Therese's last words were as simple as her cloistered life had been: "My God, I love you!"

Yet the simplicity of her spirituality can be deceptive, said the Rev. Kieran Cavannaugh, prior of the Discalced Carmelite Monastery on Lincoln Road NE, one of the sites where the reliquary will be on public display after its arrival Tuesday. Beneath the plain words and pious style of her extensive writings is a "great depth of insight into the Christian mysteries," the priest said.

The monastery's publishing arm, ICS Publications, is the official producer of Saint Therese's works--seven volumes of poetry, prayers and letters. Her best-known work is an autobiography, written on instruction of her superiors and published a year after her death as "Story of a Soul," Cavannaugh said. A worldwide bestseller, the book has been translated into more than 60 languages and dialects.

In 1997, Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day in Paris declared Therese a Doctor of the Church, which means that her writings have great spiritual significance and offer insights into the fundamental teachings of the faith. Only 32 people have been awarded that designation, and only two other women--Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Catherine of Siena.

Therese had hoped to evangelize the world. "I want to preach the Gospel on all five continents," she writes in her autobiography, "until the consummation of the ages."

Later, despite intense suffering caused by her illness, she never lost faith, Cavannaugh said. Her love for God grew and she believed her desire to spread the Gospel would outlive her.

"My mission--to make God loved--will begin after my death," she told her sister nuns. "I will spend my Heaven doing good on Earth. I will let fall a shower of roses."

So it was that the Little Flower, canonized in 1925 and declared Patroness of the Missions two years later, planted the seed of her future travel. Her words seem prophetic.

In Brazil, the reliquary attracted 40,000 people to a single Mass at a soccer stadium, Kinney said. After the service, at which a thousand people were baptized, a helicopter flew overhead, sprinkling roses onto the crowd.

In the Netherlands, a country where Catholics "have stopped going to church the last 25 years," Therese's two-week tour attracted tens of thousands of viewers, he said. Sanctuaries that had been virtually empty saw a resurgence in attendance, a wave of people making confessions and "young people wanting to know more about Therese."

Kinney is "counting on millions" of Americans viewing the reliquary during its 117-day visit. Every day, he gets calls from another group wanting to squeeze in a viewing at its parish, even "at 2 or 3 in the morning," or from pilgrims who have charted buses to tour locations and need hotel accommodations.

The original schedule of 50 cities in 22 states has grown to 89 cities (128 sites) in 25 states, including Hawaii, Kinney said.

The reliquary is scheduled to arrive in the United States on Tuesday, flying in to New York from Argentina, and it immediately will be transported to the Carmel of Port Tobacco, a Carmelite monastery of nuns in La Plata. On Wednesday, it comes to Washington, where it will be venerated at Masses and prayer vigils at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and two Carmelite houses. On Friday, it travels to Baltimore for two days, then to Philadelphia and other locations.

The Rev. Walter R. Rossi, associate rector and director of pilgrimages at the Basilica, offered no estimate of how many people might attend midday Masses on Thursday and Friday or view the reliquary while it is on display. But several schools have requested seats, "a couple hundred at a time," and Therese's status "as perhaps the most popular modern-day saint" could attract thousands.

This is the first time a saint's relics have come to the Basilica, although each of the 60 chapels in the shrine--most representing different countries--has one or more relics in the altar, Rossi said. Altars built before Vatican II (concluded in 1965) were required to have a relic and would incorporate the relic or relics in a stone on top of the altar, Rossi said. After Vatican II, relics were no longer required in altars but, if used, were built inside the table.

The reliquary of Saint Therese, made of Brazilian jacaranda wood and silver gilt, is about five feet long and roughly three feet high and wide. It is encased in plexiglass, for security reasons, and mounted on a wooden tray carried by four or more people. It weighs 300 pounds.

Viewers will be able to touch the covering but not the reliquary itself, which for more than 70 years has contained the remains of Saint Therese under her effigy at the chapel of Carmel in Lisieux, where she entered the monastic life at 15 and never left.

Kinney said that the reliquary contains "some of Therese's bones" but that the precise contents are known only to the community of nuns of Lisieux, the bishop of their diocese and Vatican officials--each of whom has a key to a different lock on the box.

To prepare the reliquary for its world tour, all three keys were used to open the box for forensic scientists, who took out some of the bones--including the rib cage--and placed them in another reliquary to remain at Lisieux.

"Many people have asked what's in the [traveling] reliquary," said Kinney, adding that he had posed the question to the rector of Lisieux and was told that the information was "not public."

"We want to raise people's attention above body parts to something more spiritual," Kinney said.

The Rev. Giles Dimock, who teaches sacraments and liturgy at the Dominican House of Studies in Northeast Washington, said it is important to understand that people do not worship saints' relics. "Worship is given to God alone," he said.

Instead, they honor relics "the same way they might venerate the photograph of a wife or mother," the Dominican priest said. A saint "can act as an intercessor [for the living] through Jesus, the Great Intercessor." And being near relics "increases awareness of their presence and also the possibility of their praying for us, with us."

"Veneration is reverence for God's friends, if you will, who are the saints," Dimock said.

WORDS OF SAINT THERESE OF LISIEUX

Because I was little and weak, Jesus stooped down to me and tenderly instructed me in the secrets of His love.

Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing.

Time is but a shadow, a dream; already God sees us in glory and takes joy in our eternal beatitude. How this thought helps my soul! I understand then why He lets us suffer.

What compassion I have for souls who are going astray. It is so easy to lose one's way in the flowery path of the world.

Our Lord is more tender than a mother, and well do I know more than one maternal heart! I know a mother is ever ready to forgive the little involuntary failings of her child.

My whole strength lies in prayer and sacrifice, these are my invincible arms; they can move hearts far better than words, I know it by experience.

Ah! in spite of my littleness, I would like . . . to travel over the whole earth to preach Your Name and to plant Your glorious Cross on infidel soil.

-- From "Story of a Soul" and "Letters of St. Therese" (ICS Publications, Washington, D.C.)

THE RELICS IN WASHINGTON

Wednesday

3 p.m. -- Arrival of the reliquary at the chapel of the Discalced Carmelite Monastery, 2131 Lincoln Rd. NE. The relics will displayed for public veneration until 10:30 a.m. the next day.

7 p.m. -- Eucharist in the monastery chapel, followed by an all-night prayer vigil.

Thursday

11 a.m. -- Arrival of relics at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 400 Michigan Ave. NE. After a formal procession into the church, the reliquary will be on public display until 6 p.m.

Noon -- Solemn Mass, with the Rev. William E. Lori, auxiliary bishop of Washington, presiding.

5:30 p.m. -- Evening prayer at the basilica, after which the reliquary will be taken to the Carmelite Community at Whitefriars Hall, 1600 Webster St. NE.

8:30 p.m. -- Prayer vigil until midnight at Whitefriars Hall.

[A prayer service honoring Saint Therese will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Dahlgren Chapel of the Sacred Heart at Georgetown University, 37th and O streets NW, followed by a lecture on her life in the Bunn Intercultural Center Auditorium. The relics will not be at this service.]

Friday

7:45 a.m. -- Prayer at Whitefriars Hall. The reliquary returns to the basilica for another public viewing, beginning at 9 a.m.

Noon -- Solemn Eucharist led by Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States.

2 p.m. -- Reliquary departs for Baltimore.

A complete itinerary of the reliquary's U.S. tour is available on the Internet at www.thereserelicsusa.org