It is a true privilege to be among you in Lisieux this morning, and I am most grateful for the honor of presiding at the celebration of the feast of the blessed parents of St. Thérèse. I especially thank Mgr. Jean-Claude Boulanger, bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, and Mgr Jacques Habert, bishop of Seez, for their guardianship of the memory and promotion of the sanctity of Zélie and Louis Martin. As the representative of the See of Peter, I assure you that Benedict XVI is with you in spirit and sends you his blessing with all his heart. I am also happy to join in pilgrimage to the places associated with the family of St.Thérèse, the friend and guide of my youth, when I was touched by her message, which is so simple, profound, and beautiful.
The liturgy for today includes the beautiful parable of the sower, Christ's call to wakefulness and conversion. Our "soil" is always complicated. We are all, at the same time or by turns, docile or rebellious; receptive, then refractory; open, then closed to the Holy Spirit. The wheat and the chaff co-exist in our "ground,” and the "field" of our lives sometimes resembles a battlefield rather than a garden. The gospel poses a question and invites us to answer, "What sort of 'soil' are we?" to receive the Word of the Lord, who has sown it so generously? With humility, the good soil appears, and the Word of God becomes in us something active and life-giving. The obstacles that gather on our path can make the pain of our apostolate seem vain, but Jesus invites us to live in the certainty that the glorious harvest will come. In the meantime. let us become receptive ground for the divine word. May the harvest come to cleanse and purify our overgrown field! In the life of the Church, the saints have given themselves entirely to sharing the Word, and to putting it into tangible practice in our communities.
The "Labour Pains"
I would like to continue with some reflections on our second reading, from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans (8, 18-23). “All of creation, “says the Apostle, after a painful transformation, is called "to know freedom, the glory of the children of God". To the individual, the text of Romans poses several fundamental questions: "What makes me suffer? From what do I hope to be free? To what do I aspire with all my strength? What is this 'revelation' that I await with such eager expectation? What is this 'being' that God is in the process of bringing forth within me?" For couples, the text of Romans poses something different: "For what do we strive as a couple?" For each other? For our children and grandchildren? And if for them, what must we do to "give birth" to them, so that they may become truly "themselves?” And in our work, how do we define "productivity?” What are the "labour pains" of our fellow workers and colleagues?
The Martin family, a Model of Daily Sanctity
Let us look toward the family of Louis and Zélie Martin to find some answers to these questions. The sanctity of the people of God belongs to none but God himself, and it belongs to him alone to reveal, at the appointed time, the witnesses of his love. In his apostolic letter at the dawn of the new millennium, John Paul II wrote "I thank the Lord, who has permitted me to beatify and canonize numerous Christians, and, among them, many of the laity who were sanctified in the most ordinary conditions of life. It is time to proclaim again to all, with conviction, the 'high degree' of this ordinary Christian life. All the life of the ecclesial community and of the Christian family must lead in this direction". This is why the family of the Martins will claim a large role in the spirituality of our time. In their nineteen years as a couple, they were an exemplary model of conjugal love. Despite sufferings and difficulties, they never turned in upon themselves, but always remained open and welcoming to all. One finds no trace of rivalry or jealousy in them. If they struggled to understand their difficult daughter Leonie, they never failed to love her or pray for her. They also prayed for vocations for their daughters and in their hearts they consecrated them all to God. The families of our age, diverse as they are, can find in the Martins an example and a support. Zélie and Louis reveal to us an authentic conjugal harmony and love. Zélie wrote of her husband: "I am always very happy with him; he makes life sweet. It is a saintly man that I've married, and I wish the same for all women". To Louis himself she wrote , "I can't wait to be with you, my dear Louis. I love you with all my heart, and my affection for you grows even more when I am away from you. It would be impossible for me to live without you." The Martins rejoiced in parenthood, despite the sacrifices. Zélie wrote, "I love our children to the point of folly." "We no longer live except for them, it is our whole happiness...and I would like to have many of them, to be able to raise them for Heaven."
The Martins were a model of engagement, acting always with tenderness and firmness, above all in their daily life. They attended Mass daily, prayed at home, and observed Sunday rest. Zélie maintained a lacemaking establishment, while Louis was a watchmaker and jeweler and helped Zélie handle extra work. Although they worked hard, they balanced the demands of work and family and created a climate of joy in the home. They gave proof of social and professional responsibility by helping the poor and respecting the rights of their workers. Louis and Zélie are also a light for those who confront sickness and death. Zélie died of cancer, while Louis ended his life stricken with cerebral arteriosclerosis. In our world that seeks to hide death, they teach us to look it in the face and to abandon ourselves to God. Becoming a widower is always difficult to accept. Louis went through the loss of his wife with faith and generosity, always choosing the good of his children over his own desires.
The Goal of the Martins' Life
For the Martins, the achievement of sanctity was one of their goals in life. Zélie wrote to her daughters Pauline and Marie: "I want to become a saint. But there's a lot of wood to chop, and it’s as hard as rock. Much better to start work sooner, when it’s easier, Anyway, better late than never." Louis and Zélie understood that sanctity is nothing other than the Christian life taken seriously. Its secret is summed up in three words: "serve God first.” They are for us today a call: the search for the love of God, is it not the sole compass of our lives? The conjugal love of Louis and Zélie is a perfect reflection of the love of Christ for his church. It is also a perfect reflection of the love with which the church loves its spouse: Christ. The Father has chosen us before the foundation of the world, that we might be saints, irreproachable in his eyes, in love. (see Eph 1,4)
Evil is vanquished only by sanctity, not by harshness and severity. Sanctity introduces into society an element that heals and transforms. Allow me to cite the words of the Holy Father, Benedict XVI, in a recent discourse to the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family: "The family, this is where our theological understanding of the body comes together with our theological understanding of love. It is in the family that one sees the essential goodness of the body, that it is good in its origin and purpose. We experience this goodness in the love that we receive from our parents, while each of our parents experiences it as conjugal charity, living together as one flesh. In the family, one has experience of the fruitfulness of love, as the life of one generation mingles with that of others. It is in the family that we discover our capacity to relate to others, not as autonomous individuals, but as sons, daughters, spouses and parents, whose identity is founded on the fact of being called to love, receiving it and giving it to others."
Thérèse, Fruit of Louis' and Zélie's Love
One can say that the spirituality of Thérèse is rooted in that of her parents. Thérèse learned to praise God and give her heart ot Jesus as a little girl; and her "little way" was lived by the Martins themselves, who were simply Christians engaging in the life of their world and manifesting throughout their lives the sanctity of God.
Dear brothers and sisters, this great basilica in Lisieux was built in honor of a person who, by worldly standards, was not significant. Yet she showed a sure way to all those who seek to follow Jesus and to live in communion with him. In the years after her death in 1897, her simple piety, that of doing small things in a spirit of charity and entrusting oneself completely to Christ, became the model for millions throughout the world. With the publication of her authentic manuscripts in 1956, the sentimental image of the early 20th century gave way to a more realistic picture: that of an ardent witness to the Gospel. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Mat 5,8). The young Thérèse had wanted to join a group of missionaries to Hanoi, but her dream was never realized. Nevertheless, God so ordered it that Pope Pius XI proclaimed her patroness of the missions, on a par with the great St. Francis Xavier. Then, in 1997, she was declared a Doctor of the Church by John Paul II. Therewith, she became the youngest theologian in history, who, by her writings and her life, had taught "eminent doctrine", and had placed a special accent on the love and grace of God. In his homily, John Paul II said: "She did not attend university and did not pursue a curriculum of studies. She died young. Yet, from this day forward, she will be known as a Doctor of the Church, a form of recognition that raises her in the eyes of the whole Christian community far beyond what an academic title could do . . . To a rationalist culture invaded by materialism, she opposes, with disarming simplicity, her "little way,” which, by returning to what is essential, leads to the secret of all existence: the divine love that envelops and penetrates the human experience."
We need this doctor, our little Thérèse. She, who lived a short life enclosed in a Carmelite monastery, continues to be a source of inspiration for our time. I have been surprised to see the immense crowds that fill the churches at the visits of her relics, a phenomenon that is repeated in every country that she visits. It is something inexplicable, that attracts the attention even of unbelievers. But there is a reason: it is the secret of sanctity - the presence of the love of God, expressing itself in the life of a simple soul. We need Thérèse, and into her hands we entrust ourselves with our human weakness and all our fear and suffering. She is a doctor, and the first role of a doctor is to heal. Let her heal us and teach us her little way of love and grace. We need her benevolent regard, and that of her saintly parents, Louis and Zélie. They teach us that sanctity is fruitful - fruitful in new flowers of sanctity.
Since my arrival in France nearly two years ago, I have been discovering the great richness of the symbols of her history. I am more and more touched to see what France owes the church, thanks to the missionaries and saints of the first centuries, and what the church owes to France, thanks to her numerous and great saints: doctors, pastors, martyrs of charity, missionaries, ascetics and pioneers of many paths of the Christian life. Dear brothers and sisters, we celebrate this morning the Eucharist of the Lord on the fifteenth Sunday of the liturgical year. By contemplating the life of the remarkable Martin family, we see that it was in prayer, in the Mass, and in attention to others that they gave, day by day, their gift of self to the Lord. They were witnesses of joy, of true joy, that of belief and life in Christ. We are also called to look away from ourselves, to humble ourselves, and to live a true gift of self. Zélie and Louis Martin show us the way. Their daughter Thérèse shows us how simple and beautiful is this way. May the Lord make grow in us the seeds of sanctity and righteousness, wisdom and virtue, that he has sown! It is there that we find always the secret that can transform the world, our world.