If there was one serene moment amidst all the ecclesiastical discord at the recent Synod in Rome, it was when Pope Francis canonized Therese of Lisieux’s parents, commending them to the faithful:

The holy spouses Louis Martin and Marie-Azelie Guerin 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.

As the first-ever married couple with children to be canonized at the same ceremony, Louis and Zelie Martin will be particularly good role models for Catholic parents. The Martins’ marriage, said Cardinal Angelo Amato, of the Congregation for Saints, was “an extraordinary witness of conjugal and family spirituality.”

Remarkably, the now-famous marriage almost never came about. When Louis and Zelie were young, both pursued a religious vocation, only to be turned down—Louis, because he couldn’t master Latin, and Zelie, because of her poor health.

Disappointed, and uncertain about what to do with his life, Louis went on to become a watchmaker, and Zelie, a lacemaker. Then, by an apparent coincidence—though many would say, Divine Providence—the two met on a bridge one day, and immediately fell in love. Within three months, they were married, and became an ideal Catholic couple, wholly devoted to their faith, and to one another.

Because they chose to live as brother and sister for the first year of their marriage, some have depicted Louis and Zelie as dour, distant from one another, and reluctant to experience the joys of marriage.

This is to misunderstand their intentions. Their period of continence was a mutual decision of sacrifice—unusual, yes, but never meant to weaken the marital bond. Their spiritual director encouraged them to consummate their marriage and begin a family, as soon as possible, and they did. We know from their letters that the couple was deeply in love, a passion that grew even more over time.

Louis wrote messages to Zelie of great intensity, signing them, “Your husband and true friend who loves you for life,” with Zelie replying: “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 in your presence. I could not live apart from you.”

As their marriage developed, Zelie welcomed the idea of having children and nurturing them with great joy. In one of her letters, she exclaimed : “I love children like crazy. I was born to be a mother. . . .” Louis, for his part, delighted in his children, giving each one a special nickname.

As evidence of their fruitfulness, Zelie gave birth to two boys and seven girls, the last becoming the greatest saint of modern times. In her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, St. Therese provides a wonderful portrait of the warm, loving and reverent environment her parents created.

A typical day in the Martin household included early Mass, school for the children, work for the parents, almsgiving to the poor, and nighttime prayers.

Therese calls these her “sunny years,” expressing immense gratitude for the “sweet imprint they have left on my soul.” And long before becoming a saint, she wrote: “Had I been reared with parents without virtue . . . I would have become very bad and perhaps have even been lost.”

But while Louis and Zelie’s story is marvelous in so many ways, it was also marked by tragedy and heartache. Four of their children died in infancy, leaving the couple numb with sadness. Were it not for their unfailing faith, their marriage may not have endured. Fortunately, by the grace of God, they came to comprehend their losses through the lens of eternity. Zelie wrote to her sister-in-law:

When I closed the eyes of my dear little children and buried them, I felt sorrow through and through. . . .People said to me, ‘It would have been better never to have had them.’ I couldn’t stand such language. My children were not lost forever; life is short and full of miseries, and we shall see our little ones again. . . .

That their five surviving daughters all went on to become nuns, was another tremendous grace from Heaven, but even that blessing was interrupted by sorrow. Zelie contracted breast cancer in her forties, and died in 1877 (when Therese was just four.) Louis lived on, supporting his daughters—Marie, Pauline, Leonie, Celine, and Therese—as each pursued their calling; and when Louis became gravely ill, during his final years, they reciprocated their immense love for their father by caring for him until he returned to the Lord, in 1894.

The impact of Louis and Zelie’s life and faith on their children was beautifully testified to by St. Therese in a letter she wrote a few months before her own death, just three years later. “God,” she told a French Abbe, “gave me a father and a mother more worthy of heaven than of earth.”

Because they lived in the nineteenth century, some wonder whether the Martins' lives have lasting meaning for contemporary Christians. The answer is, of course they do—holiness is always relevant and true, as are the principles of marriage and parenthood. The Martins understood, as the Catechism explains, why the family needs to be suffused and anchored in a life of prayer:

The father of the family, the mother, children, and all members of the family, exercise the priesthood of the baptized in a privileged way ‘by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, and self-denial and active charity.’ Thus the home is the first school of Christian life and ‘a school for human enrichment.’ Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous—even repeated—forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life.(1657)

To this day, engaged couples and newlyweds make pilgrimages to the French home where Louis and Zelie originally lived, hoping to learn from—and even to receive—the boundless love and fidelity that helped produce a family of saints. 

William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vaticanmagazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.

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