"What if Louis and Zelie Martin had known about Vatican II?"

What if Louis and Zélie Martin had known about Vatican II?

A conference by Mgr Jacques Habert,
bishop of Seez, for the feast of Blessed Louis and Zelie.
Alencon, July 14, 2012

                                                                    Mgr Jacques Habert, bishop of Seez

[Note: We thank Mgr Habert for graciously allowing us to translate this conference into English and to publish it here.  Read the conference in French; it appeared first on the Web site of the Shrine at Alencon.  English translation by Gordon Henry, 2014].

The title of this conference is purposely a little provocative.  We have chosen this title to honor both the feast that we celebrate today: the anniversary of the marriage of Louis and Zélie, and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

The goal of the conference is not an historical or theological exposition of the Council, but to see how the texts of the Council are reflected in the lives of Louis and Zélie, to see how, so many years earlier, they themselves put its principles into practice.  The conference is, in essence, a way to present the Martins through the Council and an invitation to each of us to reflect upon them.

If Louis and Zélie had been born after 1965, that is, after Vatican II, how would their lives have been different?  Note that this question can be turned around.  If Louis and Zélie had never existed, how would this have changed what came out of the Council?  What did they contribute to it?

One must look at this question in these different senses because there is a profound relationship between the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church), the theology (represented by the Council), and the holiness of the people of God.  The Council must be seen as a guide for the progress of Christians.  John Paul II called it a “reliable compass.”  At the same time, the lives of the saints influence the magisterium of the Church.  Of course, Louis and Zélie were not yet beatified when the Council took place.  (They were declared blessed on October 19, 2008).  But well before the Council the idea of their beatification had been taken up.  So perhaps their mode of sanctity influenced the fathers of the Council to develop a certain aspect of the magisterium of the Church.

In order to discuss this, it is not necessary to review the entire Council.  That would require hours of conferences, and, in any event, of the sixteen published documents of the Council, there is not one that speaks exclusively of marriage and the family.  On the other hand, in 1981, fifteen years after the close of the council, John Paul II published the important apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio.  Then, in 2002, this document would be joined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which one might regard as a prolongation of the Council in more accessible language. Here the question of marriage and the family is dealt with explicitly.

I would like to call attention to four points: holiness; marriage; the family; and education.


On this topic I propose to look at one of the major texts of the Council: the constitution Lumen Gentium.  It is the premier document of Vatican II, and is presented as a great summation of the Council.  In Chapter V, one of the most important of the entire Council, one finds this great appeal, a universal call to holiness.  In short, the Council invites all Catholics, whatever their situation or calling, to a life of holiness.  The appeal is founded in the Bible, in the Old as well as in the New Testament.  “Be holy, as I am holy,” says the Lord (Leviticus 19.2).  Jesus tells us, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  (Matt. 5:48).

But we must recognize that in certain periods of the Church’s history, holiness might appear in a way reserved to the consecrated—to priests, monks, and nuns.  The Council repeats what is said in Holy Scripture: that holiness is a requirement addressed to all.

Of course, as Benedict XVI reminds us, before Vatican II there were many saints who were not among the consecrated.  Saint Louis, Saint Monica, Saint Dominic Gavio . . . . A saint, Francis de Sales, also spoke of this in his Introduction to the Devout Life—and we know that Louis and Zélie had a great admiration for Francis de Sales.  Nevertheless, this was one of the important tenets of Vatican II.  Let us look at what the Council says about holiness and how it applies to the life of the Martins.

Let us look then at Chapter V of Lumen Gentium, the universal vocation to holiness in the Church.

The text takes this as its point of departure: the Church is holy in the eyes of faith.  This holiness has its foundation in Christ.  He loved the Church as his spouse and delivered himself for her, in order to sanctify her (cf. Eph. 5:25-26).  He is united with her as one body, and he has filled her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God. It is the famous image of St. Paul, Christ is the head, and the Church is his body.  From this flows a requirement for all the members of the Church: whether we are called to belong to the priestly order, or are called to obey it, we are all called to holiness. Indeed, this holiness is the true hierarchy of the Church.

The Council elaborates: the faithful must apply themselves with all their strength, to the full measure of the gifts they have received from Christ, to obtain perfection.  Through the diverse forms of life, there is only one holiness, cultivated by all who are guided by the Holy Spirit.  Each must go forward untiringly according to her or his calling.  (Here one could cite the parable of the talents).

The sanctity of the Martin couple

One can say right off that sanctity was part of the Martins’ goal in life.  St. Thérèse says it herself:  “The good Lord gave me a father and a mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.”  One day Zélie wrote to her daughters Marie and Pauline:

I want to become a saint, and that won’t be easy. There’s a lot of wood to chop and the wood is as hard as rock. It would have been better if I’d tried earlier, while it was less difficult. Oh well, “better late than never.”

Louis and Zélie understood that holiness is nothing other than the Christian life taken seriously.  It is the experience of belief, an experience that is allowed to permeate one’s whole existence.  The secret of their Christianity is contained in these simple words:  “God must be served first.”  What is remarkable is that they both sought this sanctity in their youth.  Louis believed that he was called to the monastic life and sojourned on two occasions with the monks of the Great St. Bernard in Switzerland.  Zélie also desired the religious life and applied to the Daughters of Charity.

Perhaps, at the time, they too held the view that to be holy one must be consecrated.  But, when they understood that they were not called to a religious vocation, they were not discouraged, but continued to follow a thoroughly Christian way of life.  In this they gave proof of the virtue of perseverance, so that when they met, in April 1858, they were not two disillusioned persons, but two Christians who longed above all to do the will of God.  Soon they realized that they were invited to live this holy life together, in the sacrament of marriage.

Before considering the marriage of the Martins, let us look at some aspects of their spiritual lives.  Their life together was marked by the very assiduous observance of the Eucharist.  With very rare exceptions, they assisted at Mass every day at 5:30 a.m., and, after Madame Martin died, Louis continued the practice.  When his daughters asked him why he, a retired gentleman, went to the early morning service, he answered “Because it is the Mass of the poor and of the workers.”  The Martins also frequented Eucharistic adoration, which had been revived in many French parishes.  Louis himself belonged to the Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament, which established monthly nocturnal adoration.  We know that, throughout his life, Louis always refused to work on Sundays.  Then, as always, working on Sundays was common; then, as always, the Church tried to combat it.  A century before, the Curé of Ars (St. John Mary Vianney) had tried to re-establish the Lord’s Day after the French Revolution; a century after, John Paul II published his magnificent exhortation Dies Domini, encouraging Sunday rest.

Zélie would follow the way of holiness till the end of her life, both in her ardent desire for a cure, which she took with her on her pilgrimage to Lourdes a few months before her death, and in her trusting resignation to the will of God, which she maintained through great suffering till the end.

Louis also attested to his sanctity at the end of his life.  On February 12, 1889, he was interned in the asylum of the Bon Sauveur in Caen (he would remain there for three years).  He amazed the staff by the kindness and docility he showed during his periods of lucidity.  He accepted the situation with courage and resignation:  “I know why God has given me this trial.  In my life I have never had to endure humiliation, so it was necessary.”


Matrimony, then, was the path that Louis and Zélie would follow.  Let us see what Vatican II says about this sacrament.  Here we must turn to another constitution (Gaudium et Spes), which is not dogmatic but pastoral: that is to say, it deals with the concrete situations of the Church in the world at a particular time.  We are in the second part of the text, where the Council takes up the study of what it calls “several urgent problems.”

At the beginning of the decade of the 1960s, there were certain pressing questions that affected the whole human race.  Gaudium et Spes deals with some of these questions, and the first is marriage and the family.  The broadest possible view of this question is taken, and in this we see the influence of Pope John XXIII:

The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family. Hence Christians and all people who hold this community in high esteem sincerely rejoice in the various ways by which humans today find help in fostering this community of love and perfecting its life, and by which parents are assisted in their lofty calling.

Although the Council takes a broad view, its words are realistic.  It does not fall into naïveté:

Yet the excellence of this institution is not everywhere reflected with equal brilliance, since polygamy, the plague of divorce, so-called free love and other disfigurements have an obscuring effect. In addition, married love is too often profaned by excessive self-love, the worship of pleasure and illicit practices against human generation.

Great prescience in a text written in an epoch when the situation was more serene than today!

The causes of the crisis are numerous, and the Council points to several of them: “[S]erious disturbances are caused in families by modern economic conditions, by influences at once social and psychological . . . .”  To conclude, “this sacred synod wishes to offer guidance and support to those Christians and other persons who are trying to preserve the holiness and to foster the natural dignity of the married state and its superlative value.”

The Council here considers marriage under two aspects:  the natural, civil aspect, and the sacramental aspect.  It seeks to uphold both. Indeed, the Church defends the institution of civil marriage as a benefit to society.

After taking account of the state of things, the Council sets forth its doctrine, and its words are very forceful and very grave:

For the good of the spouses and their offspring as well as of society, the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone. For, God Himself is the author of matrimony, endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes.  All of these have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole.

According to Vatican II, what is the “sanctity of marriage?”

The text begins by speaking of the profound communion of life and of love formed by the couple in marriage.  It is founded upon their irrevocable mutual consents, an exchange that is essential to the character of marriage.  Next, the Council insists on three aspects to the sanctity of marriage:

First, the central place of Christ.  The savior of humanity, the bridegroom of the Church, is present at the joining together of Christian spouses.  He remains with them in order that they, by their mutual gift, may love each other in perpetual fidelity, as he himself has loved the Church and has given himself up for her.

Second, the importance of the sacrament. 

Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state.  By virtue of this sacrament, as spouses fulfil their conjugal and family obligation, they are penetrated with the spirit of Christ, which suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope and charity. Thus they increasingly advance the perfection of their own personalities, as well as their mutual sanctification

Third, the nature of conjugal love. 

This love God has judged worthy of special gifts, healing, perfecting and exalting gifts of grace and of charity. Such love, merging the human with the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual gift of themselves,

The word “gift” is here used, for it is in fact the very basis of the Christian life.

The sacrament of marriage for Louis and Zélie

The Martins progressively came to understand that marriage was the path that the Lord had given them to realize their ideals of sanctity.  When Zélie knew that she could not enter the Sisters of Charity (and her own sister had become a nun), she said this prayer:  “My God, since I am not worthy to be your spouse like my sister, I shall enter the state of marriage to accomplish your will.  I pray you, grant me many children, and let them be consecrated to you.”  When she first met her husband in April 1858, an inner voice whispered to her, “This is the one I have prepared for you.”  One can see from these words that the two received the sacrament of marriage as a divine call, and as the Lord’s gift, granted to them to help them grow toward holiness.  Their conjugal life would be sown with the tokens of tenderness, amity, gentleness, and mutual support.

They were of different, but complementary, temperaments.  Zélie, who was of a rather impetuous and lively temper, never ceases to praise the peaceableness and goodness of Louis.  “He is a holy man, the one I have married. I wish all women could have the same.”  Often cited is a letter written by Louis to Zélie, which he signs “Your husband and true friend, who loves you for life.”

There is a temptation here to idealize.  One could build a portrait of a family with no problems, no difficulties, and no tensions.  The Martin family has been the victims of this well-meaning but insipid caricature.  But the truth is quite the contrary.  The beatification of Louis and Zélie is therefore a prophetic gesture, for it shows that sanctity is accessible to and embraces ordinary people who are living the reality of marriage.  And frailties and infirmities there were, including Louis’s mental state (he had a neurodegenerative condition that affects the blood supply to the brain) and Zélie’s breast cancer.

The sanctity of the Martins consists not in the events of their lives, which were quite ordinary, but in the way in which they lived their lives.  Their example can be expressed in a single word: unity.  This unity they knew how to build within an active religious family and a social life.  In this, they can enlighten the families of today, when there is a tendency to divide and compartmentalize our lives.

Let’s consider what the Council says about what is surely the foundation of marriage, the constitution of the family.

There is a multitude of passages in the text on the essential and fundamental character of the family structure.  I must point out that the Council does not at all exclude or overlook couples who do not have children.  They can have a conjugal life in the fullest sense, in human and in Christian terms.  Their marriage can be truly fruitful.  In the Martin family, however, the place of children is quite evidently central. 

As living members of the family, children contribute in their own way to making their parents holy. For they will respond to the kindness of their parents with sentiments of gratitude, with love and trust. They will stand by them as children should when hardships overtake their parents and old age brings its loneliness. Thus the Christian family is the image and reality of the marriage of love that unites Christ and his church. 

Children in are in fact the chief symbol of the fruitfulness of marriage.  Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage . . . . God . . . . wishing to share with humanity a certain special participation in His own creative work, blessed male and female, saying: "Increase and multiply" (Gen. 1:28)

Now, about the Martins, there is something that might trouble us when we think of their initial approach to marriage.  We know that at the beginning they decided to live together in continence.  We are here confronted with a difficulty that might even disquiet us, and, during the beatification process, it was the subject of much study and commentary.  About this it is necessary to exercise discernment and historical objectivity.  The Church of the nineteenth century had a suspicious view of sexuality.  The sexual act was often called “the conjugal duty.”  One can also say that Louis and Zélie were affected by a certain Jansenism, which influenced them to make this choice of continence.  It would require the advice of their confessor for them to renounce their design.  Once they had accepted his advice, however, things took a rather different course.  Between 1860 and 1873 they had nine children, four of whom died at a young age.  These deaths were a source of great suffering to the parents, though they lived through them in a spirit of Christian hope.  Zélie wrote:  “[i]t’s a very good thing to have little angels in Heaven, but it’s no less painful to lose them. These are the great sorrows of our life.”  Zélie was devoted to her children.  “I’m crazy about children, I was born to have them.”  She said elsewhere, “[w]hen we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat. We lived only for them. They were all our happiness; and we never found any except in them.”  Over the course of their many years as parents, Louis and Zélie returned again and again to the issue of the education of their children.

The Education of Children

One of the lesser-known texts of the Council, Gravissimum educationis,  deals directly with this question.  Here again, let us begin our discussion by seeing what the Council says.  There is this simple declaration:  “In their duty to transmit life to their children (which they must consider to be their unique mission), spouses understand that they are cooperating in the love of the Creator.”  It goes on:

The Sacred Ecumenical Council has considered with care how extremely important education is in the life of man and how its influence ever grows in the social progress of this age.(1)  Indeed, the circumstances of our time have made it easier and at once more urgent to educate young people , , , , The Church has a role in the progress and development of education. Hence this sacred synod declares certain fundamental principles.”

I cite the following:

Children and young people must be helped . . . . to develop harmoniously their physical, moral and intellectual endowments so that they may gradually acquire a mature sense of responsibility in striving endlessly to form their own lives properly and in pursuing true freedom as they surmount the vicissitudes of life with courage and constancy . . . . Born anew, all Christians have a right to a Christian education . . . . that the baptized . . . . become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, and that they learn how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23) especially in liturgical action, and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth (Eph. 4:22-24); also that they . . . .  strive for the growth of the Mystical Body;

Having stated these objects, the Council relates with force another:

Parents . . . are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.  This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking. Parents are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and humanity.

The family is the first school of the social virtues that every society needs. It is particularly in the Christian family . . . . that children should be taught from their early years to find God and to worship him . . .  and to love their neighbor. Here, too, they find their first experience of a wholesome human society and of the Church.

When one considers the life of Louis and Zélie as parents, one sees that they took very seriously their task as educators.  Once they had married and become parents, their priority was the education of their children.  If in this Zélie, an active and energetic character, uncontestably held a preponderant place in the couple, that did not prevent Louis from playing a prominent role.  “It is such sweet work to take care of little children,” Zélie wrote. 

They would raise them for heaven, not out of any sense of contempt for the world, but because such is our final destiny. 

One of the things parents communicate to their children is the spirit of prayer.  This initiation into prayer is passed on by the celebration of the sacraments and by reading the lives of the saints.  These awaken in them a lively and personal relationship with the Lord, what Thérèse called “giving pleasure to Jesus.”

For Louis and Zélie, one dimension of education was the teaching of charity.  They were not content to be pious; their faith was expressed by a life of generosity.  One could say that they put into practice the worlds of the Apostle John:  “faith without works is an empty faith.”

Louis joined the Vital Romet Circle, a Catholic society that pursued charitable works.  Like the societies of St. Vincent de Paul founded by Ozanam, they visited the families of the poor.  They put charity into action in their daily lives.  Often cited as an example is their encounter with a homeless man one day in 1876, when they were returning home from Mass.  They looked after him, fed him a meal, and finally took him to a hospice.  Zélie also displayed great charity in the way she treated her workers.  Indeed, for the Martin children their parents provided a veritable school of charity, a training in being open to the poorest and most deprived.  Their parents were examples to their children in deed and in the truth of the word of the Lord: “Love one another.”  When Thérèse explains that she entered Carmel to save souls and above all to pray for priests, we can certainly see that her motive was mystical, but with a compassionate concern to intercede for others, a concern that she inherited from her parents.

The most important feature of Louis and Zélie’s education of their daughters was the way they helped them toward their religious vocations.  Their principle was freedom, in two respects; freedom in the sense that they did not impose one vocation or another, and freedom in the sense that they fully accepted the choices made by their daughters.  And here we must recognize that their daughters’ achievements were outstanding, though we almost wish that one of the girls had married, because this would have added weight to the idea that their parents’ marriage was exemplary.  But the fact is that all five became nuns:

-          Marie (Sister Marie of the Sacred Heart): Carmel of Lisieux

-          Pauline (Sister Agnès of Jesus): Carmel of Lisieux

-          Léonie (Sister Françoise-Thérèse): Visitation nuns of Caen

-          Céline:  (Sister Geneviève of the Holy Face): Carmel of Lisieux

-          Thérèse: (of the Child Jesus): Carmel of Lisieux.  Canonized 1925.

Evidently, the Martin family was fertile soil in which vocations could blossom!

Sunday observance, family prayer, love of the Church: these were that soil.

Because each vocation was unique and special, it would take too long to describe each one here.  One word to say: that the care of Léonie’s vocation was complicated, like her education.

Of Thérèse’s vocation Louis was a unique witness, and joy and sadness were mingled in his heart, as Thérèse herself relates.  On June 2, 1887, Pentecost Sunday, Thérèse presented her request to her father.  Louis argued that his daughter, who was not yet fifteen, was too young, but he quickly allowed himself to be vanquished.  He added that God had given him “a great honor by demanding all his children of him.”  April 9, 1888 was the day of Thérèse’s entry into Camel.  Before the enclosure door, Louis wept as he gave her his blessing.  From that day, the Carmel of Lisieux sheltered three of his daughters: Marie, Pauline, and Thérèse.  Soon Céline would join them.  Louis wrote to his friends:  “My little queen entered Carmel yesterday.  God alone could require such a sacrifice, but He is helping me so powerfully that in the midst of my tears my heart is overflowing with joy.” 

We see that we could say many other things on this subject.

What conclusions can we draw from our discussion?

What example? What call?  One thing is certain: that God is leading us, whatever the trials, whatever the darkness, we can get through the night.  For the lives of Louis and Zélie were not a tranquil stream.  Trials and troubles were at the heart of their experience, but also the simple, everyday joys through which the Lord led them on the road of perfection.  We receive this beatification, and, perhaps, tomorrow their canonization, as a sign for today, as a call to everyone in the contemporary world to promote their model of the family.  This is an aspect that the Council advocated, in a way, fifty years ago.  Given the uncertainty of society’s beliefs about the family, we must repeat the Council’s words:

It is in the bosom of the family that parents, by word and example, are the first witnesses of the faith for their children.  It is here that parents, children, and all the members of the family have the privilege of exercising their baptismal vocation.  The home is therefore the first school of the Christian life and of the richness of human experience.  It is here that one learns, and learns again, perseverance and joy in work, fraternal love, and forgiveness.    

What is at stake here is not special to the Catholic Church.  The family is the original nucleus of society, where man and woman are called to the gift of self.  The stability of the family, its authority, and the relationships within it are the foundation of the freedom and harmony of society.

Finally, a last call to understand one’s Christian life as a profound integration into the very mystery of the Church.  My Christian life cannot be understood apart from my belonging to the Church, the Church as it is, not as I might dream it should be.  I need the Church; the Church needs me.  The example of St. Thérèse, patroness of missions, is illuminating here.  The intimacy of her relationship with God bore, and still bears, much fruit for the Church.  She remains an outstanding support for Christians today.

To conclude, I will say: what is the Christian life?  It is a life given.  The lives of Louis and Zélie were lives given:

Given to God.

Given to each other.

Given to their children

Given to the Church and to the society of their day

May they help us along the path of God, where the Lord awaits us all.

Jacques Habert
Bishop of Seez