Homily of Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri,
Secretary-General of the Synod of Bishops on the Family,
at the Mass for the Feast of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin
in the Basilica of Notre Dame at Alençon
July 12, 2014
translated by Patricia Taussig of Raleigh, North Carolina
and Maureen O'Riordan of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
It is, for me, an immense joy and a great honor to be here among you today to honor our Blessed Zélie and Louis Martin. Indeed, to participate in such a solemn manner in the liturgy of the holy spouses in the very place of their everyday sanctification, even as the Church prepares to celebrate a Synod dedicated precisely to the family and its contemporary challenges, undoubtedly constitutes a formidable spiritual preparation. I am grateful to you, Excellency , who have been kind enough to invite me to share these intense moments of faith with your diocesan community.
Today's gospel presents us with the wedding at Cana as part of the liturgy of the Word for the Feast of the Blessed Martin spouses. It is a much-talked-about episode which found many echoes in art in general, but especially in painting, literature, and even music. It concludes with three short but essential sentences:
This was the beginning of the signs that Jesus performed.
It was at Cana in Galilee.
He manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.
So here we have the first sign performed by Christ during his public life. St. John, alternately a catechist and a theologian, but always a teacher, offers us a list of seven “signs” chosen as foreshadowing the “Sign” par excellence, the Resurrection of Christ Crucified. We find: the wedding at Cana, the healing of the son of the royal officer, the healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the walking on water, the healing of the man born blind, and, finally, the raising of Lazarus. These signs are a crescendo which gradually grows in intensity to lead us to the raising of Lazarus, which announces that of Christ. They also remind us of the words of Christ: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Contemporary humans would profit by meditating more often on these words, we who have a tendency to believe that we are “masters of the world” and “masters of humanity” and who are living all the cynicism of the Prometheus complex.
Before the completion of the “sign” by Christ, we witness a brief dialogue between the Mother and her Son. More than one person has been surprised by the apparent harshness of the response of the Son to His Mother: “Woman, what do you want from me?” But here we come to the eternal problem of translation, and never is the expression “traduttore, traditore” (“to translate is to betray”) more true than here. Indeed, literally, the Semitic phrase translates to “Has there ever been opposition [or: a conflict] between me and you?” Most obviously, the answer is “No!” Another motive for astonishment comes from the fact of seeing the Son call his Mother “Gynai,” “Woman.” Yet, far from being an expression of disdain or of self-importnace, this expression translates awkwardly the noble word “Domina,” which, instead, could be rendered as “Lady” or “Matron” in the Roman meaning of the term. All this brings us immediately to the episode at the Crucifixion, when the Son on the Cross entrusted his Mother to the beloved Disciple:” “Woman, behold your son” (John 19:26). Jesus reveals to us that his Mother is the Woman, the Mother of the King. This King reigns from this Throne of Glory which is the Cross, his head encircled with the crown of thorns. The function of the Queen Mother is to do everything so that the Messiah King can fulfill his Messianic function.
But what, then, is Mary to do to facilitate the beginning of the public life of her Son? She did what every woman and every mother does: fixes a gaze of love at events and on people. Indeed, “the dignity of woman is measured in the order of love, which is essentially an order of justice and charity” (Mulieris dignitatem, 29). Only the person can love, and only the person can be loved. This is primarily an affirmation of the nature of her being, which then leads to an affirmation of an ethical nature. Love is an ontological and ethical requirement for a person. The person must be loved, because only love corresponds to what the person is. Thus is explained the commandment of love, already known in the Old Testament (cf. Mt. 22: 36-40; Mk 12: 28-34) and placed by Christ at the very centre of the gospel “ethos” (cf. Mt 22, 36-40; Mk 12, 28-34). This also explains the primacy of love expressed in the words of Paul in the Letter to the Corinthians: “The greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). Without resorting to this order and this primacy, it is impossible to give a complete and adequate response to the question of the dignity of woman and her vocation (Dt 6:5; Lv 19:18). The dignity of woman is intimately linked to the love she receives by the very reason of her femininity, and, secondly, the love she gives in her turn. It is precisely the attention to others, a prominent sign of the love that is charity--in the case of the wedding of Cana, love toward the young bride and bridegroom--that moves the Blessed Virgin and spurs her on to intervene. So here she is again, the foresighted Mother, providing for the needs of her adopted children. Already, the Second Vatican Council reminds us of this by affirming that 'humans cannot fully find themselves except through the generous gift of themselves” (Gaudium et Spes, 24). The truth about the person and about love is thus confirmed. The affirmation of an ontological nature included here also suggests the ethical dimension of the vocation of the person. Woman can find herself only by giving her love to others.
It is already understood that Zélie Martin, this woman of the nineteenth century who led almost the life of a woman of today, divided her time between her family life and her professional life. A family life well fulfilled, since she had the grace and the joy, with her gentle husband, Louis, of welcoming nine children. Her love, she then generously distributed by turns to her beloved children and to her husband, the man who encouraged her to give the best of herself and to keep on moving toward Heaven. Undoubtedly Zélie is the inspiration for this beautiful Theresian maxim: ”To love is to give everything and to give oneself,” since she lived it intensely.
Her professional life, too, I say, which sees Zélie at the head of a small business of manufacturing the famous “point d’Alençon” lace. In her community, she is known for her professional competence and her integrity. But, even more, here, too, it is her sense of justice and her attention to others, the immediate fruits of her supernatural love of neighbor, which strikes us. The “spiritual gaze” she somehow brings to everything around her. Indeed, her ability to love is not limited, as is too often the case, only to the sphere of the family. It spreads like an oil stain, first to her workers and then to the needy whom Providence put in her path. Her acute sense of the duties of her state in life constantly reminds her of her own responsibility to her employees and their families. This “spiritual love” she feels for them strengthens her concern for work well done in order to keep the demanding Parisian clientele and also to ensure the subsistence and the financial autonomy of her daily workers, thus strengthening their human dignity. Even before the great social encyclicals of the Magisterium, Zélie foresaw this truth of our faith, “Labor is primarily 'for humans' and not humans 'for the job” (John Paul II, Laborem Exercens 6). That is, any work of a human being must be esteemed above all in the measure of the dignity of the subject of the work, namely the person, the human being who carries it out.
But let’s return for a moment in the dialogue between Jesus and his Mother which ends with this commanding sentence of Mary to the servants, “Do whatever He tells you.” One can “read” the intervention of the Virgin Mary at Cana and the act of Christ in response to her request only in connection with the last words of Jesus on the Cross. We can do “what He tells you” only in the light of this “Behold your Mother” (John 19:27)! Here again we find the intimate relationship that exists between the first and the last “sign,” between the episode at Cana and the Passion-Death-Resurrection of Christ. The Mother is present at both events to remind us of the centrality of Christ the Savior, who “is the same yesterday and today, and will be forever.” (Heb 13:8).
The Blessed Martin spouses are a reminder also to those of you who are married, and those who are preparing to marry, that marriage is a way of faith; they encourage you to rediscover for your married life the centrality of Jesus Christ and of growing in the Church. Mary teaches us that the good of each one depends on listening docilely to the Word of her Son. For the one who trusts Him, the water of daily life is transformed into the wine of a love that makes life good, beautiful, and fruitful. In fact, Cana is the announcement and the anticipation of the gift of the new wine of the Eucharist, the sacrifice and the banquet during which the Lord meets us, renews us, and transforms us.
Do not lose the vital importance of this encounter: that in the liturgical assembly of Sunday Mass you will be fully active and present. From the Eucharist, in fact, flows the Christian meaning of life and a new way of life (cf. Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, 72-73). And you will, then, not be afraid to assume the serious responsibility of the marital choice; you shall not fear to enter into this “great mystery,” by which two people become one flesh (cf. Ep 5:31 -32) (Benedict XVI, “Meeting with engaged couples,” 11 September 2011), in order to journey together, to reach the House of our common Father, and, as the family of God, to sing His praise together eternally. Amen.
†Cardinal Lorenzo BALDISSERI
[Cardinal Baldisseri presided at the celebrations of the feast of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin at Alençon on July 12, 2014. I am particularly grateful to the Shrine at Alencon, which published this text in French, for their generous permission to translate it into English and post it on "Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin, The Parents of St. Therese of Lisieux." Please visit the rich English Web site of the Shrine at Alencon].