The holy spouses Louis Martin and Marie-Azélie Guérin practiced Christian service in the family, creating day by day an environment of faith and love which nurtured the vocations of their daughters, among whom was Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. (From the homily at their canonization)
On Sunday, October 18, Pope Francis canonized Louis and Zelie Martin, parents of nine children, including St. Therese. What can we as lay people, as parents of families, learn from this holy couple?
The Mass readings for the day were appropriately about service. The first reading came from Isaiah’s famous passage on the Suffering Servant. The second reading from Hebrews spoke of the weakness of the High Priest, who was fully man and tempted just as we are. Yet instead of giving in to selfishness, He was selfless, giving Himself over to the Father’s will to the point of death. Finally, the Gospel told of how James and John sought places of honor in Christ’s kingdom. His response?
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant. (Mk 10:42-44)
Louis and Zelie Martin present us with a way of holiness that is refreshingly new, yet as old as the Gospel. They were not canonized for performing great deeds. They were canonized because they gave themselves completely to God and others out of love.
Thwarted by God
Before their marriage, both Louis Martin and Marie-Azélie Guérin as she was then, sought to enter religious life. In the culture they lived in, nineteenth century France, religious life was seen as the obvious vocation for those who loved God. Yet both of them were turned away.
We can imagine the spiritual darkness they must have gone through. This darkness was like a precursor to the darkness suffered by Therese when she was told she would have to wait years to enter the Carmelite cloister. What do you do when you thought you knew God’s will for your life, but you are unable to fulfill it?
What can you and I do in such circumstances? Now we can go to these new saints for understanding and support. We can ask them for trust, patience, and understanding. We can ask them to show as us the right path.
For the Martins, there was only one path other than religious life. If God was not calling them out of the world, he must be calling them to marriage.
Louis and Zelie married after a short courtship. Perhaps still of the mindset that celibacy was necessary for giving oneself totally to God, Louis persuaded Zelie to accept a Josephite marriage. That is, they would leave as brother and sister. By the time they had been married ten months, a priest friend had shown them that God’s plan for them was different.
Openness to others
Zelie bore nine children. Four of them died in childhood, three as infants. She had hoped to have a son become a priest, but her only two sons passed away.
In the meantime, she was a talented business woman who supported the family through her lace-making enterprise. The Martins invited the poor into their homes on many occasions. Celine Martin later wrote:
If thrift reigned in our house, when it came to assisting the poor my parents were positively prodigal. They went toward them, sought them out, and invited them into our house, where they were nourished, given supplies of food, clothed, and urged toward a better life. I can still see my mother hastening toward a poor old man. I might have been seven years old, but I remember this as if it were yesterday. We were passing by when we met, in the road, a man who aroused compassion. Mother sent Thérèse to give him some alms. This poor man displayed such gratitude that Thérèse began talking to him. And so Mother invited him to follow us, and we returned home. She prepared a good lunch for him—he was dying of hunger—and gave him some clothes and a pair of shoes … And she invited him to come back to us if he needed anything else.
By the time Marie-Francoise-Therese was born, her mother was already suffering from breast cancer. Zelie died when Therese was four.
The Martins had an active social life among their Catholic friends in Alençon. After Zelie’s death, Louis left this life behind to move near his brother-in-law’s family in Lisieux.
Later Louis Martin’s gift of self became the gift of his five surviving daughters to God. One by one they left him for religious life. Therese was the third daughter to enter Carmel. Shortly afterward, her father fell ill. He spent two years in a mental institution, then came home to die. Daughters Leonie and Celine cared for him before finally entering religious life themselves.
The Martins show us that giving ourselves in relative obscurity is a true way to holiness. Instead of performing great deeds, they taught their daughters to love God with all their hearts. Time after time they gave up their own plans and accepted the unexpected road God set before them. They loved each other, their children, and the less fortunate. They gave their all.
The radiant witness of these new saints inspires us to persevere in joyful service to our brothers and sisters, trusting in the help of God and the maternal protection of Mary. From heaven may they now watch over us and sustain us by their powerful intercession. (From the homily at their canonization)