"The human charm
   of Christian sanctity"

 

 

 A homily given by Jose Cardinal Saraiva Martins at Alencon on July 12, 2008
and at Lisieux on July 13, 2008
on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the wedding
of the Venerable Servants of God, Louis Martin and Zelie Guerin

translated by Susan Ehlert for Saint Therese of Lisieux: A Gateway  from the French text on the Web site of the diocese of Seez

 


"Céline...."Lift your eyes to the holy homeland, and on seats of honor you will see a beloved father... a dear mother...to whom you owe your immense happiness!...."

Very dear brothers and sisters,

I wanted to start this reflection with the words Thérèse used to describe the family atmosphere in which she grew up.

The family, from the nineteenth century through today


When heaven empties itself of God, the world fills itself with idols. In the nineteenth century, when the Martins lived, and in the beginning of the twentieth century, people became progressively less and less interested in the domain of education in the heart of the family, and more interested in the socio-economic field. Charles Péguy, born five days after St. Thérèse, underlined this almost prophetically: "A Christian child," he wrote in one of his works, "is nothing other than a child under whose eyes the childhood of Jesus has been placed thousands of times.” In the rhythms and daily words we still find unconscious reflexes of this Christian people "who went and sang" and who "rebottomed (re-caned the straw weaving) the chairs in the same state of mind that they sculpted their cathedrals." One cannot say, however, that the little Charles experienced the life of the Christian child described by the adult Péguy. Around him, in the family and school environment of his childhood, no one lived like that, with their glance familiarly and affectionately turned toward Jesus. But the Martin family lived that way.

This rejection of fatherhood continued in the twentieth century in a more complex fashion, essentially in the models of the great totalitarian systems, which intended to substitute themselves for the family in confiding education to the totalitarian, communist, or national-socialist state. This abdication, this eclipse of the father figure, continues in our consumer society, where careerism and preoccupation with image have taken the place of the education of children. Education is a question of bearing witness.

Without long discourses, without long sermons, Monsieur Martin introduced Thérèse to the ultimate sense of existence. Louis and Zélie were educators because education was not a problem to them.

The family today: love is ill in the family


At the beginning of the year, an Italian daily newspaper, the Naples Morning, on Monday January 14, 2008, published an article by Claude Risé with this meaningful title: "Love has fallen sick in the family."

Is love getting sick? Is it getting sick especially in the place where each human being experiences love for the first time, to be loved and to love others? [...]. In the family of today, instead of being the object of their parents’ love, children find themselves in competition with many other things.

An exceptional family: the testimony of the Martin daughters

 

Here is the testimony of the Martin daughters: "God was pleased all through my life to surround me with love, and the first memories I have are stamped with smiles and the most tender caresses.” (Ms. A, 4v). This is the liveliest portrait of the Venerable Servants of God Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin, drawn by the most illustrious of their daughters. In the first pages of Story of a Soul, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face describes the sweetness and joy of their family life. Thérèse, the youngest Doctor of the Church, perceived her family as the soil of a garden, "a holy soil" where she grew up with her sisters under the skilful and expert trowel of her incomparable parents. "God,” she wrote to Abbé Bellière several months before her death, “gave me a father and a mother more worthy of heaven than of earth." [1] This profound conviction of the Martin daughters about the holiness of their parents was shared by all the members of their family as well as by simple people who spoke of them as a holy couple. In 1891, fourteen years after Zélie’s death, Thérèse’s aunt Celine Guerin wrote to Thérèse, already in Carmel: "What have I done, then, that God has surrounded me with such loving hearts! I did nothing but answer the last look of a mother whom I loved very much, very much. I believed I understood that look which nothing will be able to make me forget. It is engraved within my heart. Since that day, I have tried to replace her whom God had taken away from you, but, alas! nothing can replace a Mother! . . . . Little Thérèse, your parents are among those we may call saints and who merit bringing forth saints.” [2]

Leonie herself, with whom her parents had so many difficulties, repeated to her Sisters of the Visitation in Caen: "Noblesse oblige: I belong to a family of saints; I have to be at their level."

The Martins are not saints because they gave birth to a saint, but because they aspired to holiness as a couple. They were animated by a reciprocal desire; they both wanted to seek, in the state of life they had embraced, the will of God and obedience to God’s commandment, "Be holy as I am holy." Louis and Zélie Martin were the mould, the fruitful earth, where Therese was born and lived for fifteen years before becoming "the greatest saint of modern times". (Pius X).

Their secret: an “extraordinary” ordinary life


Louis and Zélie are a luminous example of conjugal life lived in faithfulness, in the welcoming of life and in the education of children. A Christian marriage lived in absolute confidence in God and which can be proposed to families of today. Their matrimonial life was exemplary, filled with Christian virtues and human wisdom. Exemplary doesn't mean that we should imitate or photocopy their life by reproducing all their deeds and gestures, but that we should use, as they did, the supernatural means that the Church offers each Christian to realize her or his vocation to holiness. Providence wanted their beatification to be announced in the framework of the celebration of their 150th anniversary of their wedding, July 13th, 1858. Why after such a long time? Is such a family not far away from our epoch?

How are they timely, the Martin parents? Can they help our families to confront the challenges of today?

I am sure that a vast debate is going to begin around this couple at the time of their approaching Beatification. Conferences, debates, roundtables will seek to determine the present interest of their experience with our complex history. One thing must, however, be clear: the Church has not canonized an epoch, but it has examined holiness. With the Martins, the Church proposes to the faithful the holiness and the perfection of Christian life that these spouses attained as a couple in an exemplary manner and, to use the language of the Process, to a heroic degree. The Church doesn't interest itself in the extraordinary, but it has underlined how in their daily lives they were "the salt of the earth and the light of the world" (Matthew 5:13-14). The Servant of God, John Paul II, affirmed: "It is necessary that the heroic become daily and that the daily become heroic." The Church has established that Louis and Zélie made their daily life something heroic, and made heroism something daily. This is possible for every Christian, whatever her or his state in life. I am happy to cite here a passage of the celebrated letter of Diognetus on Christian marriage which the Martin spouses knew perfectly how to embody:

"Christians do not distinguish themselves from other people either by their land or by their language or by their clothing......They marry like others and they have children, but they do not abandon their newborn. They live in the flesh but not according to the flesh. They spend their life on earth but are citizens of heaven. They obey established laws but their manner of living surpasses the laws.”

This letter sketches a concrete model of a possible life, a road that every disciple of Jesus is called to travel, even today: to announce the beauty of Christian marriage with its authentic, believable, and attractive experiences. For this to happen, spouses and parents mature in love are needed. Zélie and Louis embraced the form of conjugal life to follow Christ. Spouses, partners, and parents in Christ, where marriage is welcomed as a call and a mission given by God. With their life they announced to all the good news of love "in Christ": humble love, love that spares nothing to start over again each morning, love capable of confidence, of sacrifice. That communion surfaces clearly in the letters exchanged between the two spouses.

In one of these brief letters, which is practically a synthesis of matrimonial love, Louis signs it this way: "Your husband and true friend who loves you for life." With these words are those of Zélie, echoing: "I follow you in spirit all day long; I say to myself, ‘He's doing this right now.’ I long to be close to you, my dear Louis; I love you with all my heart, and I feel my affection doubled by being deprived of your presence; I could not live apart from you.”

What is the secret of that communion? Perhaps the fact that, before looking each other reciprocally in the eyes, they kept their gaze fixed on the Gaze of Jesus. They lived sacramentally the reciprocal communion through the communion that both of them cultivated with God.

There is the new "Canticle of Canticles," proper to Christian partners: not only must they sing it but they alone can sing it. Christian love is a "Canticle of Canticles" that the couple sings with God.

The vocation in the family


The vocation is above all a divine initiative. But a Christian education promotes the generous response to the call of God: it's in the heart of the family that, by their words and their example, parents must be for their children the first forerunners of the faith, and that they must promote the vocation of each one, and, in a special way the consecrated vocation (CGC, 1656). Thus, if the parents don't live the evangelical virtues, young men and young women will find it hard to hear the call, to understand the necessity of sacrifice, or to appreciate the beauty of the goal to be attained. It's in the family that the young have their first experience of evangelical values, of love that gives itself to God and to others. It's necessary that young people be brought up to take responsibility for their freedom, to be ready to live, according to their vocation, the most elevated spiritual realities (John Paul II: Consecrated Life).

All the Martin children were welcomed as a great gift from God to be then given back to God. The mother, her heart torn with pain, offered to God her four children who died at an early age. The father offered each of his five daughters at her entrance into the convent. For their children Zélie and Louis suffered not only the physical pain of childbirth but also the pain of engendering the faith in each of them until Christ was born in them (Gal. 4:9)

Louis and Zélie Martin were real ministers of life and holy parents who bore saints; they educated and guided them to holiness. Like the family of Nazareth, the Martin family was a school, a place of apprenticeship and a place of training in virtue, a family which today will become a point of reference for each Christian family.

 

[1] Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Volume II, 1890-1897, tr. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1988), p. 1165.

[2] Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Volume II, 1890-1897, tr. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1988), pp. 745-46. Note that the last sentence of the quoted passage is inauthentic.