A first in the history of the Church: canonization of a married couple.
Blessed Louis and Zélie, parents of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus (of Lisieux), will be the first couple ever to be canonized together, as a married couple, this Sunday October 18th, 2015.
In 1954, Msgr. Picaud, Bishop of Bayeux and Lisieux, wrote to Céline, one of St. Therese’s sisters, this prophetic sentence, “Your parents may be considered as providential models to be held up for the imitation of our modern fathers and mothers of families. The tasks and obligations imposed on the latter are so heavy and laborious that it is right to encourage them by holding up the shining light of such examples. We have no right to keep them hidden.”
In our culture, where marriage is so attacked and mocked, what an encouragement the Church is offering us in canonizing a married couple! No extraordinary deeds, just the simple life of a normal family, with Christ at the center. In the words of St John Paul II, “They lived an ordinary life in an extraordinary way.”
Who were they?
Louis Joseph Martin was born August 22nd, 1823, in Bordeaux, France, into a military family. He felt a strong call to the monastic life, but was rejected. He moved to Alençon, in Normandy, where he became a skilled watchmaker.
Azélie-Marie Guérin was born December 23rd, 1831, into a military family as well. Zélie’s childhood wasn’t very happy. She also felt called to the religious life. It didn’t work out for her either. She then dedicated herself to the famous and complicated Alençon lace-making technique, beginning her own successful business in Alençon.
Zélie wrote to the Lord: “Since I am not worthy to be your spouse, like my sister, I will enter the married state, so as to fulfill your holy wish, O God. I beg you however to send me many children and grant that they will be consecrated to you.”
One day of April 1958, as she was crossing the Saint Leonard Bridge, in Alençon, she passed Louis and heard in her heart: “This is the husband I have destined for you.”
The “meeting bridge,” as it is called today, is now a favorite proposal destination!
Their courtship lasted three months, and they were married on July 13th, 1858.
Card by Olivier Heitz, available here
For the first ten months of their marriage, at Louis’s request, and despite Zélie’s desire for children, they agreed to live as brother and sister.
Then, their wise confessor advised them to live their conjugal life to the fullest and God could fulfill Zélie’s request to have ‘many children’.
Within fifteen years, nine children were born to them: seven girls and two boys. All had “Marie” in their names. “We lived only for them, they were all our happiness.” (Zélie)
Life was pleasant in this joyful family.
Each day began with Mass and ended with family prayer. They had great love and compassion for the poor. Their favorite book was “The lives of the Saints”.
Tragedy soon struck. In the span of three years, four of their nine children died: two boys and two girls, leaving Zélie heartbroken. “I haven’t a penny’s worth of courage,” she said.
They bravely put their trust in God, Zélie saying:“God is Master, He does what He wants”
and Louis would reply with the words of St. Joan of Arc: “God,first served”.
Louis gave up his own craft to work with Zélie in order to allow her more time with the children, and relieve her of the anxieties of running a successful business.
A new tragedy struck the family in 1873. Shortly after the birth of the future St. Thérèse, Zélie was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was only 42. Her health rapidly deteriorated and she died at 46. Thérèse, the youngest, was only 4, and Louis 54.
Louis moved to Lisieux, only to see his daughters leave for the religious life one after the other. Only Céline stayed with him until the end, before entering the religious life in turn.
Louis’ health deteriorated rapidly. A series of strokes left him with brain damage, and he died July 29, 1894.
What example do they set for couples today?
They will be “shining lights” for all, in a culture without a compass.
They show the way by putting God at the center of their lives, trusting in Him through all steps of their journey.
Our families nowadays are in great need of this. Society teaches us that we are too busy, too in control of our destinies to allow room for God. The Martins teach us that by surrendering, we find true freedom and happiness.
After God, their family came first. Louis gave up his successful business as a clock maker for the sake of the family, out of love for his wife. They come to remind us that the only way towards true happiness is to die to self. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” Acts 20:35
Death and suffering are seen as terrible things that must be avoided and erased at all costs by the Hollywood culture. We create all sorts of artificial paradises to forget them, to live as if we were immortal. Louis and Zélie experienced the deaths of four of their children. They both suffered terrible diseases. Despite their sorrow and grief, they remained at peace, trusting in God’s love. They knew the power of offering up their sorrows. United to Christ’s sufferings, this sacrifice redeems the world, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” Colossians 1:24.
On her deathbed, Zélie said:“The good God gave me the grace to not be afraid [of death], I feel very peaceful. I am almost happy. I wouldn’t change my lot for any other.”
Let us end with these excerpts of a homily given by Jose Cardinal Saraiva Martins at Alencon on July 12, 2008and at Lisieux on July 13, 2008 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Louis and Zelie’s wedding.
“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…
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.
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.”