The ‘Landmark of Christian Families’

This is the text of the homily by Cardinal Saraiva Martins, prefect emeritus of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, delivered in Lisieux on July 13, 2008, the 150th anniversary of the wedding of Louis and Zélie Martin.

Céline …. “lift your eyes to the Celestial Father,
And you will see on the seats of honour
A loving Father … A dear Mother …
To whom you owe your immense happiness! …”

I wanted to begin this reflection with the words from Thérèse herself, describing the family atmosphere in which she grew up.

The Martin family

When the skies are without God, the earth fills with idols. From 19th century, when the Martin family lived, and at the beginning of the 20th century people progressively lost interest in education in the family and were more so concerned with socioeconomic issues.

Charles Péguy, who was born five days after Saint Thérèse, underlined this point nearly prophetically: “A Christian child is nothing more than a child who read a million times the childhood story of Jesus.”

In the daily rhythm and daily words we can still find unconscious reflections from this Christian population “who went and sang” and who “reseated their chairs with straw in the same state of mind as they sculptured their cathedrals.”

However, we cannot say that little Charles responded to the description of the Christian child so dear to the adult Péguy. Around him, in his family and school, no one lived this way, looking familiarly and affectionately towards Jesus. But this was true for the Martin family.

This refusal of paternity followed through to the 20th century in a more complex way, essentially in the adherence to the great totalitarian models which intended replacing the family by confining education to the communist or national-socialist totalitarian state. This abdication and eclipse of the father figure continues in our consumer society where the career and outer image have taken the place of the children’s education.

Without long speeches, or with sermons, Louis Martin introduced Thérèse to the ultimate meaning of existence. Louis and Zélie were educators because they had no problems educating.

The family today - ‘Love has fallen ill’

At the beginning of this year a daily Italian newspaper, “Il Mattino di Napoli” of 14th January 2008, published an article from Claude Risé, under this significant title “Love has fallen ill in families.”

Love has fallen ill, more precisely, love has fallen ill in the place where each human being experiences love for the first time, being loved and loving others. In our families today there is competition between the love of parents and a number of other things for the affection of their children.

An exceptional family: as witnessed by the Martin daughters

Here is the experience of the Martin daughters:

“All of my life the Good Lord has surrounded me with love; my first memories are marked by smiles and tender caresses!” Here is the most lively portrait of the Venerable Servants of God, Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin, as noted by their most illustrious daughter.

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face described in the first pages of Story of a Soul the gentleness and the joy of life in her family life. Thérèse, the youngest doctor of the Church, described her family as the earth of a garden, a “holy land” where she grew up with her sisters under the skillful and expert guidance of the incomparable parents. She wrote to Father Bellière just a few months before her death. “The Good Lord gave me a father and mother more worthy of Heaven than of earth”. This deep conviction of the Martin daughters of the saintliness of their parents was shared by other members of the family, and also others, who talked about them as the saintly couple. Fourteen years after the death of Zélie, in a letter from 1891, Céline Guérin, her aunt, wrote to Thérèse who was already in Carmel:

“What did I do to deserve that the Lord would surround me with such loving hearts!  I only answered the last look of a mother who I loved a lot, a lot …”

Léonie herself, who created such difficulties for her parents, repeated to the Sisters of the Visitation in Caen: “Noblesse oblige, I belong to a family of saints; I have to be up to standard.”

The Martins are not saints for having given birth to a saint but for having aspired to saintliness as a couple. They were driven by a reciprocal desire, there was in both of them the willingness to look for the will of God in the life that they were living and the obedience to His commandment: “Be holy for I am holy.” Louis and Zélie Martin were the rich and fertile ground where Thérèse was born and lived for fifteen years before becoming “the greatest saint of modern times.” [Pius X]

Their secret: an ordinary “extraordinary” life

Louis and Zélie were luminous examples of married life lived in faithfulness, in welcoming life and in the education of their children. A Christian marriage lived in an absolute confidence in God that could be proposed to families today. Their marriage was exemplary, full of Christian virtues and human wisdom. Exemplary does not mean that we should copy, photocopy their life reproducing all of their doings and gestures, but that we should use, like they did, the supernatural means that the Church offers to each Christian to carry out his vocation to saintliness. Providence wanted their Beatification to be announced during the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of their marriage, 13th of July 2008.

Why after such a long time?  Is such a family not far removed from our time?

In what way are the Martin parents modern? Can they help our families to take on today’s challenges?

I am certain that a vast debate will begin around this couple at their Beatification. Conferences, debates, discussion groups, will try to analyze and compare their experience with our very complex times. On this, however, one must be very clear: The Church did not canonize a period of time, but examined their saintliness.

With the Martins, the Church proposes to the faithful the saintliness and the perfection of a Christian life that this couple achieved in an exemplary manner and, to use the language of the process, to a heroic degree. The Church is not interested in the exceptional but underlines how in their daily lives they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world [Mathew 5.13.14]. The Servant of God, John Paul II declared: “It is necessary that the heroic becomes daily and that the daily becomes heroic.”

The Church established that Louis and Zélie made something heroic out of their daily lives and from heroism something daily. This is possible for each Christian, whatever his/her state in life. I am pleased to quote here a passage from the famous letter to Diognetes on marriage and which the Martin couple knew exactly how to carry out:

Christians do not differentiate themselves from other men by their territory nor by their language, nor by their clothing. They marry as others do and have children, but they do not abandon the newly-born. They live in the body but not according to the body. They spend their life on earth but are citizens of heaven. They obey established laws, but their way of living surpasses the laws.

This letter traces a concrete model of a possible life, a route that all disciples of Jesus are called to follow, even today: to announce the beauty of a Christian marriage with its authentic experiences that are credible and attractive. To carry out this one needs couples and parents who are mature in love. Louis and Zélie embraced this form of married life to follow Christ.  Husband, wife, 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”: the humble love, love that spares nothing to start anew every morning, love capable of confidence and sacrifice.  This communion clearly emerges from the letters exchanged between the two.

In one of his brief letters, which is practically a synthesis of matrimonial love, Louis signs in the following way.“Your husband and true friend, who loves you for life.” To these words, Zélie echoes: “I follow you in spirit throughout the day, I tell myself: ‘He is doing such and such at the moment’.  I am so impatient to be with you, my dear Louis; I love you with all my heart and I can feel my affection doubling in your absence; it would be impossible for me to live far from you.”

What is the secret of this communion? Maybe the fact that before looking in each other’s eyes, they looked directly at Jesus. They lived sacramentally reciprocal communion, through Communion that they both cultivated with God.

This is what is new “Hymn of hymns”, not only must Christian couples sing it, but only they can sing it. Christian love is a “Hymn of hymns” that the couple sings with God.

Vocation in a family

Vocation is, above all else, a divine initiative. But a Christian education favours a generous response to the call of God: It is in the heart of the family that parents should be for their children by their words and their example, the first announcers of the faith, and they should favour vocations in everyone and in a special way the consecrated vocation [Catechism, 1656].

So if the parents do not live the evangelical virtues, young men and women cannot hear the calling, understand the necessity of the sacrifices and appreciate the beauty of the goal to be reached. In fact, it is in the family that young people experience evangelical values of the love that is given to God and to others. They must be educated to understand their responsibility in their freedom, to be ready to live, according to their vocation, the highest level of spiritual realities.

All of the Martin children were welcomed as a great gift of God to be given back to God. The mother, her heart broken with pain, offered to Him her four children who had died at an early age. The father offered to Him his five daughters, on their entry to the convent. For their children they not only suffered the pain of physical birth, but also the pain brought on in faith until Christ was formed within them.

They were truly ministers of life and saintly parents who engendered saints; they guided and educated saintliness. The Martin family, like the family in Nazareth, was a school, a place of learning and a place of preparation for virtue. A family who, today, will become the landmark for each Christian family.