Homily by His Excellency, Mgr Luigi Ventura,
Papal Nuncio to France, at the
Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption in Alençon
Saturday evening, July 9, 2011
translated by Martha Zumack
15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A
It is with joy that I find myself among you. I would like to thank Father Thierry Hénault-Morel and Mgr Bernard Lagoutte for the opportunity to participate in the pilgrimage in honor of the Martin family, a household of holiness. I would like to thank the vicar-general, Father Christian Roullé, for his kind remarks, and ask him to pass along my fraternal greetings to Mgr Jacques Habert, bishop of Séez, who is unable to be with us tonight. I greet Mr Joaquim Pueyo, mayor of Alençon, who honors us with his presence at this celebration.
Yes, I come among you today as the representative of the Holy Father in France, to express the affection and spiritual participation of Pope Benedict XVI. But I also come as a pilgrim, as one who was deeply touched by the simple and yet profound message of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, the youngest doctor of the church, and by Zélie and Louis Martin’s daily testimony of holiness.
This evening we give thanks to God in this parochial church of Our Lady, dedicated to Mary in her assumption and raised to the rank of minor basilica by Benedict XVI on June 6, 2009. This elevation to the rank of basilica demonstrates international recognition; the church has symbolic value for the Christian community, in light of the collective memory that it contains. This honor represents the church’s particular link with the seat of the Bishop of Rome, expressing the unity and communion of the profession of faith, proclaimed by the Apostle Peter at Capernaum.
This basilica of Our Lady in Alençon is an important center of prayer, especially for families. Many pilgrims and visitors come to reflect and work out a spiritual walk in the steps of the Martin family, like the participants of the two marches of mothers and fathers that I greeted this morning. In fact, it was in this church that the Martins were married, that little Thérèse was baptized, and that her mother’s funeral rites were held. Beatified on October 19, 2008, Zélie and Louis Martin serve as a model for couples. Many couples, whether already married or preparing to marry, visit Alençon to ask the blessed Martins to accompany them on their journey.
First Reading (Is. 55:10-11)
Before considering the example given by Louis and Zélie, I would like to share some reflections on the magnificent readings of this 15th Sunday of the liturgical year, biblical readings that speak clearly of the fecundity of the Word of God. The Word of God, says the prophet Isaiah, is like a nurturing rain that waters the earth to fertilize it. It is this rain that allows vegetables to grow and wheat to ripen. When it falls on good soil, the harvest surpasses all expectations.
The Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-23)
In the Gospel text for today, the evangelist Matthew refers to one of many occasions when Christ spoke his teachings in the form of parables. There are three aspects of particular interest in the text: not only is it a very famous example of a parable, but it is also an occasion for Christ to explain why he chose this means of expression. Finally he explains the parable itself.
The rural world runs through this gospel scene, its theme obvious to the listeners, the majority of whom earned their living by cultivating the earth. The agrarian environment is fully represented. and nature is portrayed as being hostile: the rocky areas, the burning sun, and the weeds that suffocate. The different kinds of soil were well known to the audience: the path, the “rocky” soil, the “shallow” soil, and the “good soil. ”
Which kind of soil are we?
The seed sown in the soil is the Word of God. It is full of life, joy, and irresistible force. But it needs to fall on good soil. We must ask ourselves several crucial questions when confronted with this Gospel. What kind of soil am I when receiving the Word? Am I like the hard path, shying away, indifferent to religious hope? Or am I like a thin, superficial layer of humus, easily touched by a reading, or a film, or an encounter, but quickly forgetting the grace that was given? Or am I like a field invaded by the weeds of envy, bitterness, and jealousy that prevent me from hearing the voice of God? And, even if I am the good soil, is there not more work I can do to prepare myself to receive the seed?
The good soil of Christian families
The Conference of Bishops of France has dedicated this entire past year to the family. We cannot celebrate the Eucharist in this basilica of Alençon without thinking of the Martin family, who knew this church well. The family was the fertile soil that germinated the abundant harvest of holiness. Through their conjugal, familial, and professional lives, Louis and Zélie Martin made their daily life something heroic, and made heroism a part of their daily life. They serve as a landmark for couples and for every Christian family.
When Thérèse Martin was born on January 2nd, 1873, her mother Zélie was already 41 and her father Louis 49. Thérèse knew that she had exceptional parents, to whom she owed her vocation. Zélie became well known only much later, when the family correspondence was published bit by bit. The letters reveal a very rich personality, with humorous descriptions of the social life of Lisieux’s administrative center.
The letters she and Louis, her husband, exchanged reveal the profound affection uniting the couple. The pair put aside time every day to pray together. She gave birth to nine children while maintaining her professional commitments. One letter reads, “I love children like crazy, I was born to be a mother…” Husband and wife were faced with the premature loss of four of them. To their five remaining daughters they passed on their peaceful, humble, and intense faith. Working together with the girls, the couple spent a good amount of their time and money to help those in need. Zélie spoke in her letters of the painful battle with cancer that took her at age 45, on August 28, 1877. After the death of his spouse, when speaking to his children, Louis referred to her as “your saintly mother.”
Louis, who had been a clockmaker and jewelry-maker in Alençon, was part of a social circle that took seriously the social obligations of an employer. After his wedding, he quit his work as a clockmaker to help Zélie manage a lace-manufacturing business. As a widower at 54, he showed himself to be an attentive father to each of his girls; soon he was willing to consent to their plans for a monastic life. After Thérèse entered the Carmel, he faced the trial of illness at age 65. During periods of remission, he took care of the ill around him. His illness played an important role in Thérèse’s spiritual journey. It was at this time that she added to her religious name: “Thérèse of the Holy Face.”
Before the family moved to Lisieux, those who knew Louis spoke of freely of “Mr. Saint Martin. ” He had an influence and a testimony that left none indifferent. For many from Alençon, the Martin couple lived like saints in the humble reality of their daily life. Their faith was rooted in family prayer, the daily Eucharist, the love of God and the people, and faithfulness to the Church. Their girls exemplified their parents’ love for the poor and those in need. Louis and Zélie’s holiness did not begin with the birth of their youngest daughter. Their parental and family example nurtured it in her. The soil of the Martin family was fertile and good from the beginning.
The only truly new thing
Today, in coming to Alençon, the center of the family’s life, I repeat the beautiful words of the bishops of France, in their November 2006 sermon.
The family is the most basic cell in the human community. It can change size and face, but for all that it remains essential. Man and woman need to love, to be seen and loved as they are. The family is the first place where men and women learn confidence in themselves and confidence in others. The family allows each one to discover his or her place in a story, in a network, without having to earn it, where particular differences such as age, gender, strengths or weaknesses are respected.
(Permanent Council, CEF, November 2006).
The parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux, Louis and Zélie Martin, made their Nazareth a daily path toward holiness. Today our hearts thank God for their exemplary testimony of conjugal love, which is capable of urging other Christian homes on to the complete practice of the Christian virtues, just as it prompted a desire for holiness in little Thérèse.
A couple’s love is not just a succession of emotions: it is a source of life, and it creates the world. The family is the fundamental cell of society, and if that cell is sick, the whole body is sick. The family is the place God designated to welcome life through an act of creation, a love that unites couples.
Tonight we think of the great gift of fatherhood and motherhood, thinking especially of our own fathers and mothers. We direct our thanksgiving to God for our parents, who gave us life through their conjugal love and who passed on to us their faith. They gave us an ideal that fills our relationships, our work, that gives meaning to our many activities and to life’s joyful and painful moments. To receive life is a wonderful thing, but, for us, it is an equally admirable thing that our parents introduced us to the Gospel and the Church, which is the “Mater and Magistra” [the “Mother and Teacher”] on the path the leads us to God.
In his recent apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI spoke in a prophetic way about the Word of God, marriage, and the family: (#85)
Consequently, it must never be forgotten that the word of God is at the very origin of marriage (cf. Gen 2:24) and that Jesus himself made marriage one of the institutions of his Kingdom (cf. Mt 19:4-8), elevating to the dignity of a sacrament what was inscribed in human nature from the beginning.
Fidelity to God’s word leads us to point out that nowadays this institution is in many ways under attack from the current mentality. In the face of widespread confusion in the sphere of affectivity, and the rise of ways of thinking which trivialize the human body and sexual differentiation, the word of God reaffirms the original goodness of the human being, created as man and woman and called to a love which is faithful, reciprocal, and fruitful.
The great mystery of marriage is the source of the essential responsibility of parents toward their children. Part of authentic parenthood is to pass on and bear witness to the meaning of life in Christ: through their fidelity and the unity of family life, spouses are the first to proclaim God’s word to their children.
May God, through the example and the intercession of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, make our families fertile soil for faith and prayers, welcome and generosity, understanding and forgiveness, joy and love! May He come to the rescue of all who search for an answer to their questions; may He help families, engaged couples, and young persons preparing for marriage to be witnesses to faithful love, that they may be signs of hope in our era, and may their blessed love be a song of praise to the Lord of Life!
Please see the French text of this homily on the Web site of the Shrine at Alencon. Our thanks to the Shrine at Alencon for its gracious permission to translate and post this homily and to Martha Zumack for her translation.