Homily of the Most Rev. Dr. Oswald Gomis, Archbishop of Colombo, for the Mass in honor of the newly beatified Louis and Zelie Martin at St. Theresa's Church in Colombo, Sri Lanka, November 30, 2008
[I thank His Grace, Archbishop Gomis, and Father Neil Dias Karaun for the privilege of making this homily available on thereseoflisieux.org].
My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
We are gathered here this evening to celebrate an event that is rare, if not unique, in the history of the Catholic Church. It may surprise you to know that this is the first time a Christian couple is being beatified together and declared Blessed, adding them to the galaxy of Saints. This event is unique not only for that reason but also for the special reason that their own daughter is also a Saint, and a well-known and popular Saint at that. And she is St. Therese of Lisieux – the patron of our church.
We are talking of Louis and Zelie Martin - the parents of St. Therese. To begin with, Louis and Zelie Martin was a couple truly faithful to each other. They lived their Christian life in an exemplary manner through their duties in life and practice of Gospel teaching. In bringing up a large family, in spite of trials, bereavements and suffering they showed immense trust in God and obedience to His will.
Coming to the mother, Zelie Martin - she had been a woman of strong faith and incredible energy and capacity for work. This is noted in most of the testimonies we have about her. This is perhaps the reason why Therese has written in the opening pages of her childhood memories that “God granted me the favour of opening my intelligence at an early age and of imprinting childhood recollections deeply on my memory. Jesus in His love willed perhaps, that I know the matchless mother He had given me, but whom His hand hastened to crown in Heaven.”
Therese was only 4 ½ years when her mother died. But she remembered her throughout her life. She acknowledged her mother’s influence, especially during those early years of her life. She remembered particularly her mother’s final sickness, and how she suffered her terminal sickness with faith and courage. Zelie was born of the 23rd of December and baptized on Christmas Eve. In her early life she wanted to be a nun, but her poor health prevented this. She then prayed and accepted God’s will be become a good and faithful wife. She took lace-making as a profession and, being an astute businesswoman, worked very successfully with a group of ladies under her. She even dealt with investments and read the stock exchange journal.
From the time she failed to be a nun, her ambition was to raise a large family so that she would raise more children for the Church. But this itself became a cause of great sorrow and disappointment for her when she had to witness the death of a number of her children in early life. Finally, it was her own turn. She died of a fibrous tumour. She accepted this with tremendous faith, as is clear in the letter she has written to her brother on the 16th of August 1877. She wrote – “If the Blessed Virgin does not cure me, it is that my time has come and that God wishes me to find my rest elsewhere than on earth.” She died on the 28th of August, with her husband, her three older girls and her brother beside her. The two younger girls were asleep. Her youngest, Therese, was shown her mother for the last time the following morning.
Therese’s father was Louis. Though the family lived in Normandy, this son of an army Captain was born in Bordeaux on 22nd August 1823. Though he did not have much of a secondary school education, he seems to have had a good grounding in French literature and classics. He too wanted to become a priest, but when he tried to join the Augustinian monastery of St. Bernard he was rejected because he did not know enough Latin. He was advised to study more and return, but, coming home, he got sick and never returned.
Realizing that God had other plans for him, he qualified as a master watch-maker. Well qualified in this craft, he opened up his own shop to which he attached also a jewelry shop. His business flourished in Paris. However, with his great sense of honesty, he never exploited the many rich customers who visited his shops. Being a regular churchgoer, he observed his Sunday obligations very carefully and never kept his shop open on Sundays.
Having married Zelie, the two of them began a very devout life. Since both of them had wanted to pursue religious vocations in their early life, they decided to live a life of abstinence until their spiritual director advised them to commence normal family life. Thereafter they had their many daughters, among whom the youngest was Therese. While Louis was at his own trade, he often helped his wife to trade her goods, transporting and selling them.
In family life he also had to suffer the great disasters of seeing a number of their children dying, and finally his own wife. After the death of his wife, he had to live with and look after his daughters. And he did this as a very faithful father. He is a person who loved history and travel. At this stage of life, he enjoyed pilgrimage,s and made several visits to the shrines of Our Lady, not only in France but also in other parts of Europe, including Rome. While in Rome he visited St. Peter’s several times. You will be interested to learn that on one of his visits to the basilica of St. Peter he, Therese and her sister were conducted around by one Fr. Nicola, who later came to Sri Lanka as a missionary and was the Rector of our St. Joseph’s College, Colombo.
In his latter years, Louis had to part with his daughters, as one by one they were requesting his consent to enter religious life. He did this very gladly as accepting the will of God. But, strangely, this strong man started falling sick. It all began when he got stung by a poisonous fly behind his ear while fishing. Then he got a stroke and started losing his memory. Even the date of Therese’s Clothing had to be delayed because of his ill-health, until finally they had it on 10th January 1889. He led her in bridal clothes to the convent chapel, but soon after he suffered several strokes. Having got paralyzed, he was taken to the Carmel to see his daughters for the last time on May 12, 1892. After a long period of illness he passed away in the morning of Sunday, 29th July 1894.
My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ. What I have placed before you is a short biographical sketch of a saintly Catholic couple. The most interesting factor in the life of these two is that they always lived a devout life. They believed in God and always sought to do His will. They were regular in their prayer life and always endeavoured to find out what God expected of them. They devoted themselves to help others and to bring up their children rich in virtue and grace. Much as there were several trials in their family life, especially with the untimely death of their children, their faith in God never faltered, nor did their fervour dwindle. They believed in God and knew that all what matters is God. They had an otherworldly dimension in their lives. They did not ask God to do their will; rather, they did the will of God. That is why they still persevered when their prayers (for instance, for healing) were not granted.
This is a family that loved children and brought them up according to Gospel values. They taught them first by the example of their own lives. They prayed, and the children prayed with them. As the psalmist says, they had “children like olive plants around their table.” When God took away some of their children in early life, they did not get dejected – they accepted it as the will of God. Similarly when their children’s number increased, they did not want to prevent it by resorting conveniently to abortion or some such other sinful means. Today’s parents record 40 million abortions annually around the world. Sri Lanka makes her own contribution, and some of our Catholics are no exception. If I may add - recent research has shown that abortion is psychologically harmful not only to women but also to men.
They were a devout family. They loved each other and remained faithful to each other and shared that love with their children whom they loved intensely. How many of us do that today? Are we truly faithful to one another? Do we really care for the terrible impact on our children, even in their early childhood, when we break or even violate our marriage bonds?
This beatified couple taught their children how God mattered in their lives. How many of us do the same? In the first place, do we ourselves know who God is? Do we know what spiritual life is, except that our visit to church or our prayer means asking God to give us some material benefit rather than find from God what His will is for us?
Wealth did not tempt this family to avarice, pride or corruption. It rather led them to intensify their service to humanity, thereby bringing them closer to God. The charity they showed to their neighbours in need provide ample evidence of this.
My dear brothers and sisters, let the example of their life give us a message – It is said that the lives of great men oft remind us that we should make our lives sublime. Then let this blessed couple be to us a model inspiring us to love Christ and to live Christ. Amen.