“Married and saints: why not us?”
A Conference Presented by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri,
Secretary-General of the Synod of Bishops
Basilica of Our Lady of Alençon
Feast of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin
July 12, 2014
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
It is a great joy for me to be here among you, in this beautiful Basilica of Alençon, in order to share some reflections with you on a theme of great moment: “Married and saints, why not us?”
It is of great moment because our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has taken the initiative to inaugurate a Synod about the family on the scale of the universal church, to be enacted in two phases. What exactly is the program? To begin, a first phase constituted through the convocation of an Extraordinary General Assembly. The only ones taking part are the leaders of sui iuris (Latin for “independent” ) Eastern Catholic churches, the presidents of Episcopal conferences, the delegates of the Union of Superiors General, and some members by pontifical nomination. It speaks of how much the Assembly will be composed of members qualified at the ecclesial level.
This first phase will examine the many challenges ‘the family’ must face and the things which endangers the family. A second phase will gather the fruits of the first assembly and will seek to broaden the area of debate in order to propose paths of reflection. and, why not, solutions for the attention of the Holy Father. This phase will materialize in the Ordinary General Assembly, which. different from the Extraordinary Assembly, will have a much broader and varied representation since the majority of its members are elected either by the Episcopal Conferences or the Organizations of Eastern Hierarchy, this or by the Union of General Superiors.
But to speak of the family is above all to confront the theme of the couple united by the bond of marriage. It is why our conversation this evening is joyfully integrated into the framework of spiritual and intellectual preparation for the Synod. Quite recently, the Holy Father, during one of his Wednesday audiences for the pilgrims gathered in Rome, declared:
The image of God is the conjugal couple: the man and the woman: not only the man, not only the woman, but both of them. That is the image of God: love, the alliance of God with us is represented in this alliance between the man and the woman. And that is very beautiful! We are created for love, as the reflection of God and his love. And in the conjugal union, the man and the woman achieve this vocation under the sign of reciprocity and of communion of life, full and permanent.
And he concluded with these very strong words: “Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us” (Francis, General Audience of April 2, 2014).
The Holy Father speaks of the “vocation” for marriage. Now the first vocation of all the baptized is sainthood, thus recalling to mind chapter V of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium (“Light to the nations”), consecrated to the “universal call to sainthood.” If the council Fathers have given so much importance to this subject, it is not to confer a spiritual touch to ecclesiology, but rather to bring out a characteristic intrinsic dynamism. The rediscovery of the Church as “mystery,” that is, as a “people united by the unity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Lumen gentium, 4), cannot fail to lead also to the rediscovery of “sainthood,” understood in the basic sense of belonging to the One who is the Holy One par excellence, the “three times Holy” (cf. Is 6, 3). To say that the Church is holy means to present its face as the Spouse of Christ, to whom it has surrendered itself, precisely to sanctify itself (cf. Ep 5, 25-26). This gift of holiness, as it is objective, is offered to each baptized person. But the gift translates into a task, which must govern all Christian existence: “The will of God is that you live in holiness” (1 Th 4, 3). It is an engagement that does not concern only certain Christians: “All the faithful of Christ, whatever their state or their rank, are called to the plenitude of Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Lumen gentium, 40).
Saint John Paul II, with his pastoral sense of the concrete, defines it by specifying: “that means to express the conviction that, if Baptism really makes us enter into the holiness of God by means of absorption into Christ and by the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a misinterpretation to satisfy oneself with a mediocre life, lived according to a minimalist ethic and a superficial religiosity. To ask a catechumen: “Do you want to receive baptism?” means to ask at the same time: “Do you want to become a saint?” That means to set foot on a path of the radical character of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5, 48) (John Paul II, Novo millennio ineunte, 31 (The New Millennium)).
As the Second Vatican Council has explained it, do not misunderstand this ideal of perfection as if it presumed some kind of extraordinary life that only a few "geniuses" of holiness could practice. The ways of sainthood are many, and they are adapted to the vocation of each person. In recent years, many ordinary lay people have been beatified and canonized because they sanctified themselves in the most ordinary circumstances of life.
Marriage responds, therefore, to a specific vocation, and it must be considered as a consecration (cf. Gaudium et spes (Joy and Hope, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”), n. 48; Familiaris consortio, n. 56 (Family partnership), n. 56. It is a consecration: the man and the woman are consecrated in their love. In fact, the spouses, by virtue of the sacrament, are invested with a real mission to make visible in ordinary, simple things the love with which Christ loves his Church, by continuing to give their lives for it through faithfulness and service.
It is a question of a marvelous design inherent in the sacrament of marriage! And it is accomplished in simplicity, as well as in the fragility of the human condition. We know perfectly how many difficulties and trials are known in the lives of both spouses. The important thing is to sustain the living bond with God, who is at the base of the conjugal bond. And the true bond is always with the Lord. When the family prays, the bond is preserved. When the husband prays for the wife and the wife prays for the husband, this bond becomes strong; one prays for the other.
(Francis, General Audience of April 2, 2014).
The mention of our theme today already gives us an initial indication and a cross-reflection by placing the term "married" before that of "saints.” Indeed, it is to encounter the faithful who have become saints because they were married, not saints who were, in addition, married! Sacred history is full of narratives of these holy people who were also married: that is not our purpose tonight. Today, more than ever, we must realize that it is marriage itself as such that is a path to holiness offered by the Church to her children.
It is why both spouses are called to sainthood in marriage, and this vocation is accomplished in the measure in which the human person is capable of responding to the divine precept, animated by a peaceful trust in God's grace and in the person’s own good will (cf. John Paul II, FC 34).
The path of the spouses will be facilitated to the extent that, filled with respect for the doctrine of the Church and trust in the grace of Christ, aided and accompanied by pastors of souls and the ecclesial community as a whole, they will try to discover the value of freedom and of the promotion of true love offered by the Gospel and proposed by the Lord's commandment.
In the popular mindset, the Martin couple seems to have been an exception, whereas a careful review, limited to our era only, has produced an impressive list of exemplary spouses, from different continents, who have sanctified themselves in marriage. They have not founded religious congregations; they have not gone as missionaries to distant lands; they have not retired from the world to the silence of some hermitage; they have simply lived their marriage as a path to God in becoming saints. Different from the holy couples of apostolic times, Priscilla and Aquila or even Junia and Andronicus, these married couples are blessed not “in spite of” their marriage, but precisely “because” of it.
The first couple of modern times to open the way for the recognition of this kind of marital sanctity is the spouses Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi. Their beatification took place in a significant way, on the occasion of the World Day of the Family (October 21, 2001), marking an “historic” turning point in the usual way of thinking about holiness: no longer only the prerogative of nuns, of priests, and of faithful souls alone, but an open and workable way for all Christian spouses in the wake of the new blesseds: a couple who were members of the affluent middle class, who lived in Rome in the first half of the twentieth century. Thus other couples whose causes are open or in progress have followed. Although their social and geographic origins may be different, they all have the same characteristics: men and women of prayer, they live their Christian faith with coherence. They dedicate themselves to the service of others; find their inspiration in the social doctrine of the Church; fight for justice and peace. These servants of God, unknown to the general public since goodness does not make noise, are named Aristides Calvani and Adela Fontana; Eduardo Ortiz de Heredia and Laura Otaegui; Eugenio Balmori and Marina Francisca Cinta, to name a few. A holy couple, it is true, a little more known for their charitable work than for their holiness of life, which is the strength of their work, is Raoul Follereau and Madeleine Boudou.
But back to those who interest us today, the Martin spouses. They know the four main duties of the family: the formation of a community of persons; the service of life; participation in the development of society; and participation in the life and mission of the Church. This will become their life program.
If the marriage of Louis and Zélie was a true path of humanity and fraternity, it was also and above all an authentic path of holiness. Both lived in the simple desire of accomplishing the will of God in everything. Indeed, they understood that they would go to God, not the one beside the other, but the one by means of the other, that this other is a gift of God. It is why they are primarily a couple united in Christ, seeking to live their faith, and to transmit with passion this faith, which they consider a treasure, primarily to their children. In fact, faith to the Martins is a lived faith, not a series of rules to be respected. Thus they teach their children to pray, not just by telling them to pray, or by talking to them about prayer, but by transforming their home into an authentic “school of prayer.” It is also prayer that unites this couple and this family. Aware of their role as parents, first educators in the faith, they initiate their children very early into prayer, into the love and the knowledge of God, by showing the children that the parents were praying alone and together, by accompanying them to Mass or on visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Each day is thus offered to the Lord through the “morning offering of the day." They understood that they were to educate their children for heaven, not because of any contempt of the world, but because in effect they were already living that which the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (n. 48) of Vatican II later proposed for all Christian couples:
"Preceded by the example and the prayer together of their parents, children, and even those who live in the family circle, will thus open themselves more easily to the feelings of humanity and more easily find the way to salvation and holiness. As for the spouses, matured in the dignity of their roles as father and mother, they will conscientiously accomplish the educational duty that is primarily their own, notably on the religious level."
Still more recently, the Instrumentum laboris of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (n. 140), which will be celebrated next October [October 2014], reaffirms the timeliness of this concept of the family of the third millennium:
Christian education in the family is realized, above all, through the witness of the life of the parents vis-à-vis their children. Certain arguments recall that the method of transmitting the faith does not change over time, all the while adapting to circumstances: the path of sanctification of the couple; personal and familial prayer; hearing the Word and witnessing by charity. There where this style of life is lived, the transmission of faith is assured, even if the children are subjected to pressures from the opposite direction.
In his first encyclical Lumen Fidei (no. 53), Pope Francis has taken into account this fundamental principle of spreading into all phases of life: "In the family, faith accompanies all ages of life, beginning with childhood: children learn to confide in the love of their parents. For this reason, it is important for parents to cultivate in the family common practices of faith, that they may accompany the maturation of the faith of their children. In experiencing a time in life so complex, rich and important for the faith, young people must especially feel the closeness and attention of their family and the ecclesial community in their process of growing in faith.”
Not content merely to have been able create warmth in the home, a cozy nest, where it is good to be with family and enjoy the mutual love of its members, the Martin couple, while each remained profoundly different, knew how to adjust one to the other, day after day, during their 19 years of married life. Facing together the joys and sorrows, such as the deaths of four of their children, they acquired harmony of hearts and minds. This couple was far from the simple addition of two "I’s" learning how to say "we," that “we” which is open to the arrival of children and others. "We live only for them," Zélie said, in speaking of her children. Putting into practice the words of the Apostle Saint James: “Faith without works is a vain faith,” Zélie and Louis actually put into practice the works of Christian charity in their everyday life: shared concern for the poor or homeless for Zélie and Louis who was a member, among others, of the Conferences of St. Vincent de Paul.
It is interesting to note that among the various familial apostolic works that the Martins practiced, individually, as a couple, or as a family, a certain number have been cited as examples by the Decree of the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, of Vatican Council II: "to adopt abandoned children, to host strangers with kindness, [...] to advise and assist adolescents, to help fiancés to better prepare for marriage, to give assistance to the teaching of catechism, to support spouses and families in their material or moral difficulties, to provide for the old [...] the essential” (n. 11). This charity in action, they will transmit to their children by the education in charity which thus crowns their human and Christian education.
The Martin spouses therefore have not been mere instruments that transmitted the faith as an aqueduct carries water, but they transmitted the depositum fidei, the deposit of faith, and enriched it by their own personal experience of faith, of hope, and of charity. They did not transmit the faith as something uniquely traditional or notional, but as something alive. It is therefore not a question of transmitting a simple inheritance such as that property left by the dead to those who survive them, but truly a living patrimony, that of the Church which announces to all creatures that "Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever "(Heb 13, 8), Savior and Redeemer of humanity.
Today as yesterday, but perhaps more than ever, to pass on the faith to our contemporaries and to new generations is one of the major challenges faced by the Church. Indeed, how can it happen, parents say to us, that we could work to educate our children in the faith as intelligently as possible and that the result be so mediocre, if not negative?
Two answers intersect: one that amounts to saying the wrong was done by all those educators who, in order to adapt to their time, did what resulted in an alleged “permissiveness;” the other built itself with some relief on the key principle that faith is by nature--and must be understood today more than ever as--a matter of freedom. The family, in this case, is naturally the prism through which those elements that constitute a Christian existence are transmitted from one generation to another. What is important for parents, often worried, but also, more generally, for the Christian communities, is to put the facts into the context of the question posed to our entire society about the transmission of its knowledge, its culture, and, therefore, its values. We are facing a phenomenon of rupture in the transmission of values, whether civic, cultural, or evangelical.
“To transmit” is often replaced by “to testify.” This substitution is not a matter of relatively harmless semantics. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi (Proclaiming the Gospel), Pope Paul VI, who will soon be beatified, put before us the figure of the witness as a figure particularly indispensable in our time: "Contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to masters, or, if he listens to masters, it is because they are witnesses." (No. 41) Into the testimony enters an existential implication that is not necessarily part of the transmission itself. Two experiences meet: and they only meet each other in this true reciprocity where, in one way or another, people explain themselves more than they explain something. For transmission to occur, there must be an authority, it will be first the personal and spiritual authority of a witness, before being the authority that confers a function--that of the priest, but also, all proportions preserved, that of the parents.
But a deep exploration of these considerations would carry us far beyond the topic of this conversation. Rather let us return to that which can teach us about the Martin spouses in order to meet the challenges of today's society. First of all, what are the pressing and heated issues concerning married and family life?
On the occasion of the preparation of the Extraordinary General Assembly, some urgent and current global issues concerning the family were put forward. Indeed, today situations unheard of until recent times present themselves, from the increase in common-law couples who do not marry and sometimes even exclude the idea, to unions between persons of the same sex, who are often permitted to adopt children. Among the many new situations that require the attention and the pastoral engagement of the Church, it will suffice to remember: mixed or interfaith marriages; single-parent families; polygamy, arranged marriages with the problem of dowries that follows, sometimes equated with an amount of purchase of women; the caste system; the culture of non-engagement and the presupposed instability of the union; forms of feminism hostile to the Church; phenomena of migration and the reformulation of the very idea of the family; relativist pluralism in the concept of marriage; the influence of media on popular culture in the design of weddings and family life; currents of thought that inspire legislative proposals that devalue the permanence and fidelity of the matrimonial covenant; expansion of the phenomenon of carrier mothers (renting a uterus); new interpretations of human rights. But above all. in a more strictly ecclesial environment, the weakening or abandonment of faith in the sacramental nature of marriage and the therapeutic power of sacramental penance. All this forms obstacles, sometimes insurmountable, on the way to holiness to which all the baptized are called. This is why the Church exhorts, supports, and encourages its sons and daughters so that they have the strength and the evangelical courage to live fully, completely, and joyfully their faith and the commitments that go with it. The Church has something to say to humanity and to today’s society and even more to its children in order to give them hope and perseverance in adversity: the beauty of life as a couple and as a family as a reflection of the love of God for humanity.
Pope Francis again reminded the faithful present at the public audience in Saint Peter’s Square last April that
the image of God is the married couple: man and woman, not just the man, not just the woman, but both of them. That is the image of God: love, God's covenant with us is represented in this covenant between man and woman. And it is very beautiful! We are created to love as a reflection of God and of his love. And in the conjugal union man and woman carry out this vocation under the sign of reciprocity and communion of a full and definitive life [...] Marriage is the icon of God's love for us [...] And it is precisely this that is the mystery of marriage: the love of God which is reflected in the couple who decide to live together.
About this culture of non-engagement and this presupposed instability of union in couples, it is one of the evils that undermine our society; it is important for future spouses to ask each other if it is possible to love each other "forever." Today, many people are afraid to make definitive choices. It is a widespread fear, unique to our own culture. To make choices for life seems impossible. Today, everything changes rapidly; nothing lasts long. And this mentality then drives many of those who are preparing for marriage to say: "we will stay together as long as love lasts," and then? Goodbye! But if, in fact, love is a relationship, then it is a reality that grows, and we can say, by analogy, that it is built like a house. And the spouses build the house together, not each all alone! To build here means to promote and to assist growth. Let us not be overcome by "the culture of the temporary!"
So how does one treat this fear of "forever?" One heals it day after day, by trusting in the Lord Jesus in a life that becomes a daily spiritual path, of steps, of small steps, of steps of growth together, made of a commitment to become women and men mature in faith. Because this "forever" is not simply a matter of duration! A marriage is not only successful if it lasts, but it is its quality that is important. The challenge of Christian spouses is to be together and to learn to love each other always. At the public hearing he granted to the engaged, Pope Francis illustrated the source of spousal love like this:
The miracle of the multiplication of loaves comes to my mind; for you too, the Lord can multiply your love and make it fresh and good every day. He has an infinite reserve of it! It is He who gives you the love that is the foundation of your relationship and renews it, strengthens it each day. And He renders it even bigger when the family grows with children. On this path, prayer is important; it is necessary, always. Him for her, her for him, and both together.
(Francis, Audience to the Engaged, February 14, 2014).
Faced with so many challenges, where can the disciples of Christ find the strength of perseverance if not in the One who said, "Come to me, you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt 11, 27-30). Indeed, faith is not a refuge for those without courage, but a blossoming of life. It makes us discover a great call, the vocation of love, and assures us that this love is reliable: it is worthwhile to engage in it, because its foundation is based on the faithfulness of God who is stronger than our fragility (cf. Lumen fidei 53). St. Thérèse has confided to us a pearl that she gathered from her dear parents: "to progress to the Lord one must be humble, poor in spirit and simple." Humble and simple, but neither weak nor stupid!
There is in the Church a diversity of ministries, but a unity of mission. The laity likewise are made participants in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly charge of Christ assumed in Baptism; in the Church and in the world, they share in this mission of the whole People of God. To this end, Vatican II reminds us that "they concretely exercise their apostolate by giving of themselves for the evangelization and sanctification of humanity, and the same is true when they permeate the temporal order with an Evangelical spirit and work for its progress in such a way that, in this manner, their action gives clear witness to Christ and serves the salvation of humanity. The characteristic of the laity is to live their lives in the midst of the world and secular affairs; they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, thanks to the vigor of their Christian spirit"(Apostolicam Actuositatem 2).
That is why one cannot insist too much on the importance, for the Christian, of belonging to this people of God which is the Church. We are not isolated, and we are not Christians individually, each on his own account; no, our Christian identity is belonging! We are Christians because we belong to the Church. Quite recently during a Wednesday audience, Pope Francis used a very vivid picture in this regard:
"It's like a family surname: if the first name is 'I am a Christian,' the family name is 'I belong to the Church.’ It is beautiful to note that this belonging is expressed also in the name God attributed to himself ... it is defined as indeed the God of our parents ... In this way, He manifests Himself as the God who has a close alliance with parents and remains faithful to his covenant, and he calls us to enter into this relationship that precedes us ... That's why our thoughts goes first of all, with gratitude, to those who have preceded us and welcomed us into the Church. No one becomes a Christian alone! Is that clear? No one becomes a Christian by himself. We cannot make Christians in the laboratory. The Christian is part of a people from afar. The Christian belongs to a people called Church, and this Church makes one a Christian on the day of baptism, and from that moment forward through the program of catechesis, and so forth. But nobody, nobody becomes Christian alone. If we believe, if we know how to pray, if we know the Lord, and if we are able to listen to His Word, and we recognize Him in our sisters and brothers, it is because others, before us, have lived the faith and then transmitted it to us. We have received the faith of our parents, from our ancestors, and they taught it to us. If we think about it really well, how many dear faces will pass before our eyes at that moment: : they may be the faces of our parents who requested baptism for us; those of our grandparents or of a relative who taught us to make the sign of the cross and to recite the first prayers … There it is... that is the Church: a great family, into which one is welcomed and in which we learn to live as believers and disciples of the Lord Jesus”
(Francis, Wednesday Audience, June 25, 2014).
We can live this way, not only thanks to other people, but with other people. In the Church "by oneself" does not exist; one cannot "go it alone." How many times has Pope Benedict XVI described the Church as an ecclesial “us!” One sometimes hears someone say, "I believe in Jesus, but the Church does not interest me . . .” Some consider that they can have a personal connection, direct, immediate, with Jesus Christ, outside the communion and the mediation of the Church. These are dangerous and harmful temptations. These are, as Pope Paul VI said, absurd dichotomies. It is to desire the Head of Christ, but to reject His Body, which is the Church.
And Pope Francis specifies:
It is true that walking together is challenging and can sometimes seem difficult: it might happen that some brothers or sisters cause us problems or create scandal ... But the Lord entrusted his message of salvation to human beings, all of us, to witnesses, and it is among our brothers and among our sisters, with their qualities and their limitations, that He comes to meet us and reveals Himself to us. And this is what is meant by belonging to the Church. Remember well: being a Christian means to belong to the Church.
(Francis, Wednesday Audience, June 25, 2014).
Louis and Zélie had so well understood and meditated on this truth that they lived their lives totally in union with the Church, their Mother. Even the toughest tests of life and the loss of four of their nine children did not distance them from her. Living this loss with faith in the Resurrection, Zélie even affirmed that “they are not lost forever; life is short and full of miseries; we will find each other again up there.” Although at that time, like today but to a lesser extent, children were the support of parents in their old age, in total surrender to the divine Providence, Louis and Zelie also offered their five daughters to the Lord (four to the Carmel of Lisieux and one to the Visitation Monastery in Caen).
Marriage is a work of every day, a jeweler’s craft, because the husband has the task of rendering his wife more a woman and the wife that of rendering her husband more a man. Of growth also in humanity because, before being able to grow in the faith, it is necessary to be authentically husband and wife. And it is within the couple that it is done. It is known as growing together. The Lord blesses it, but it comes from their hands, from their attitude, from their lifestyle, from their way of loving each other. That is what is meant by helping each other to grow together. And their children will inherit this, happy to have had a daddy and a mom who have grown together, bringing themselves to be ever more man and wife, ever more children of God, ever more holy people!
May the Lord encourage in us the desire to follow in the steps of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin and to inspire many cohorts of holy couples and holy families, in order to inject a continuous flow of new and vivifying energy into His Church, which makes its way in the world of this Third Millennium.
Finally, for the record, and as an open conclusion, a few recent examples of the international influence the Martin spouses have today. Last June, Giulia Paola di Nicola and Attilio Danese published a book that is totally dedicated to them: One month with Zélie and Louis. A thought and a prayer a day with the blessed Martins, parents of St. Thérèse. (Un mese con Zelia and Luigi, un pensiero e una preghiera al giorno con i beati Martin genitori di Santa Teresina [Italian title]).
In conclusion, in the city of Angri, Italy, a sanctuary of the family was built which is located in the Citadel of Charity in Campania, between Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. It is the only church in the world dedicated to the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. It is a unit of over 6,000 square meters, desired and managed by the brotherhood of Emmaus. The church is quite exceptional: in addition to the presence of the relics of the Martin spouses and those of their holy daughter, patron of the Brotherhood, the altar is carved, in a quite significant way, with the features of both spouses. The sanctuary is rich in many architectural and iconographic reminders that celebrate the family. In this sacred enclosure daily rises to God a prayer for spouses, parents, children, and homes.
Translated by Dr. Maria G. Traub, Associate Professor of French and Italian at Neumann University, Aston, Pennsylvania, for “Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin, the Parents of Saint Therese of Lisieux.” We thank Dr. Traub for her generous contribution. We are grateful to the Shrine at Alençon for its kind permission to translate this conference. Please see the text in French or the video of the conference in French on the Web site of the Shrine at Alençon.