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The Family as the “First Church” Emphasized in Recent Canonization

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November 9, 2015

On October 18th of this year, Pope Francis canonized Louis and Zélie Martin, the first married couple to be jointly elevated to sainthood.  While they are best known as the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, Louis and Zélie lived such simple, humble, and holy lives that the Church has recognized that they, like their daughter, are outstanding examples of heroic virtue.

Providentially, their canonization took place during the recently-concluded Synod of Bishops on “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World”.  During the synod, the fundamental importance of marriage was affirmed, and the canonization of Louis and Zélie Martin presented Catholics, especially married Catholics, with a truly saintly ideal of marriage and parenthood.

The French couple met in Alencon and were married in 1858, following a three-month courtship.  For the first ten months of their marriage, they lived a celibate married life.  However, after spiritual direction the couple decided to raise children for the glory of God.  Zelie subsequently gave birth to nine children (seven girls and two boys), but three of the children died in infancy while another child died at a very young age.

Louis and Zelie’s sanctity was most clearly demonstrated in their home life, which fostered the atmosphere that allowed their daughters to discern God’s call.  As Pope Francis stated at the canonization Mass: "The holy spouses Louis Martin and Marie-Azélie Guerin practiced Christian service in the family, creating day by day an environment of faith and love which nurtured the vocations of their daughters."

Indeed, the sublime example set by Louis and Zélie Martin made it possible for Saint Therese to be formed.  As she later wrote of her parents, "The good God gave me a father and mother more worthy of Heaven than of earth."

Tragically, Zélie died of breast cancer in 1877 at the age of 45, and Louis was left to raise their five daughters on his own.  Gradually, each of the remaining five daughters left to enter the convent.  Four of the daughters, Pauline, Marie, Therese and Celine, became Carmelite nuns (along with a cousin).  The remaining daughter, Leonie, became a Visitation sister at Caen.  Despite his loneliness, Louis said, "It is a great, great honor for me that the Good Lord desires to take all of my children.  If I had anything better, I would not hesitate to offer it to Him."  Louis died in 1894 at the age of 70 after suffering with an illness for several years.

The marriage of Saints Louis and Zélie Martin exemplifies the Christian ideal of marriage in which the spouses strive to not only lead each other to holiness but to also spiritually aid their children, the Church, and society at large.  The Martins’ example conforms to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which refers to the family as "the domestic church":

"In our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to the faith, believing families are of primary importance as centers of living, radiant faith…It is in the bosom of the family that parents are by word and example…the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children.  They should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each child, fostering with special care any religious vocation."  (CCC, 1656).

Like the model of married and family life provided by Louis and Zélie Martin, the synod on the family affirmed the crucial role of marriage in the modern world.  As Pope Francis said in his closing message, the synod "was about urging everyone to appreciate the importance of the institution of the family and of marriage between a man and a woman, based on unity and indissolubility, and valuing it as the fundamental basis of society and human life."

Again, this message reaffirms the teaching of the Catechism that, "The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church.  It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church: the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on their way to eternal life."  (CCC, 1661).

This is a topic that the Holy Father continues to emphasize.  In his recent Wednesday general audience on November 4, Pope Francis told married couples and families, "You are continuously writing the beauty of the Gospel in the family in the pages of real life.  In a world which at times is barren of life and love, you speak every day of the great gifts which are marriage and the family."  At this point in time, when marriage is under such direct attack, both the Pope’s words and the example of Saints Louis and Zélie Martin provide much-needed hope and encouragement to be courageous witnesses to marriage and family life.