Faith Matters

Inspiration to deal with life's struggles

Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux, will be canonised by Pope Francis later this month. Fr Patrick McCafferty believes their example can inspire parents and spouses everywhere

Fr Patrick McCafferty prepares for the feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux. A new shrine will be dedicated in Crossgar today. Picture by Mal McCann

ON October 18 history will be made in Rome when Pope Francis canonises the parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux - Blessed Louis and Blessed Zélie Martin - making them the first married couple to be canonised, together, by the Church.

In inscribing the names of certain persons in the official register of saints, the Church proposes them to us, for our admiration, imitation and veneration, on account of the heroic and exemplary manner in which they lived out their Christian vocation.

Louis and Zélie Martin, up until now, have been known as the devout parents of "the greatest saint of modern times", as Pope Pius XXI described their remarkable daughter St Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face of Jesus, known affectionately, to Catholics, as 'the Little Flower'.

Now, Louis and Zélie are about to shine forth, upon the Universal Church, shedding their own unique light upon the Gospel.

The myriad of saints, of every time and place, each in his and her own individual life, reflects a facet of the infinite beauty of God.

Together, they shine more brightly than the stars (Philippians 2:15), so that the Psalmist says: "God is wonderful in His saints" (Psalm 67:36).

The glory of the saints is, most often, in lives of hidden faithfulness, which God Himself chooses to make known for "He exalts the lowly" (Luke 1:52).

In the case of Louis and Zélie Martin, God has chosen to highlight their extraordinary holiness, as a married couple and as parents, as witnesses to the path to holiness and the heights of heaven, which begins in the Christian home.

Before they met and fell in love, both Louis and Zélie had offered themselves as novices for religious life: Louis at a monastery in the Swiss Alps and Zélie at a convent in her native Alençon, in Normandy; but they were both refused.

So they applied themselves to their respective trades: Louis as a watchmaker and Zélie as a maker of the renowned point d'Alençon lace.

They married on July 13 1858 at the Church of Notre Dame in Alençon. They had nine children, three of whom died in infancy. One daughter, Marie-Hélène, died aged five.

Five daughters survived. One of them, Léonie, was a difficult and troubled child.

Although their home was happy, life was far from idyllic. They had financial troubles and struggled to keep afloat.

Nevertheless, their home was a place where everyone was welcomed and the family regularly shared their table with the destitute and homeless.

In December 1876, disaster struck when Zélie was diagnosed with inoperable breast cancer.

She died on August 28 1877. Thérèse was four-years-old when her mother died.

She would later suffer severe abandonment issues, which would culminate in a life-threatening illness, at the age of 10.

Zélie had faced her death with courage and deep faith. Her only concern, like any mother, was the welfare of her children.

Louis had been panic-stricken at his wife's impending death. Nevertheless, after she died, he rallied himself as best he could.

He moved from Alençon to Lisieux to make a new beginning for himself and his girls - Pauline, Marie, Thérèse and Céline - each of whom, in turn, would enter religious life as Carmelite sisters in Lisieux.

Léonie, who continued to be fragile and problematic, would finally settle as a religious sister in the Visitation convent at Caen in 1899.

He would continue, however, to be dogged by financial difficulties. He lost the home he had rented and was given lodgings by relatives.

In 1889, he suffered serious health issues due to a narrowing of arteries in his brain, inducing in him a form of dementia.

He went missing from his home one day and was found, days later, 40 miles away, in Le Havre.

He was admitted to the Bon Sauveur Psychiatric Hospital in Caen. He became like a child, unable to look after himself and, after release from hospital, was completely dependent upon his youngest daughter, Céline, who had not yet entered the Carmel of Lisieux. Louis died on July 29 1894.

In the lives of the soon-to-be saints Louis and Zélie are to be found the struggles many families face at various times: the deaths of children; financial worries; cancer, depression, worry over a troubled child; mental illness and all the pressures of life.

The Church, in canonising this married couple, celebrates the extraordinary faith and love with which they faced all the hardships that arose.

In the midst of their trials, they strove, like all good parents, to give their children love, security and stability, which they did, to an immeasurable degree.

In raising Louis and Zélie Martin to the dignity of the altar, the Church also praises the remarkable lives of multitudes of faithful husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, today and throughout the ages.

The remarkable gift that their most famous daughter, Thérèse, has given to the Church is a new and deep awareness of unshakeable confidence in God no matter what happens.

It is the absolute certainty taught to those who receive the Word of God with noble and generous hearts (Luke 8:15), who know that "though the mountains fall and the hills collapse, yet the steadfast Love of the Lord will endure and stand" (Isaiah 54:10).

St Thérèse learned this truth in her home from the example of her parents.

The canonisation of St Thérèse's parents occurs during the 14th General Synod on the Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World taking place in Rome from October 4 to 25.

This meeting of the Universal Church, with Pope Francis and bishops from all over the world, will examine every aspect of family life and the challenges facing it, at this moment in history.

It will underline, once more, the sacredness and inviolability of the family and its beauty in God's saving plan for humanity.

In choosing one married couple to be canonised together, God praises and draws our attention to, the vast number, beyond counting, of spouses and parents, already glorified in Heaven.

The earthly occupations of the new saints, watchmaker and lace-maker, required meticulous attention to detail.

God's own meticulous attention to the detail of our lives, causes His Son to say "every hair on your head has been counted" (Luke 12:7).

The canonisation of Louis and Zélie Martin celebrates God's intricate involvement - Louis the watchmaker - with human family life and His having woven Himself - Zélie the lacemaker - inextricably and most lovingly into every aspect of its joys and sorrows.

:: Fr Patrick McCafferty is curate of the parish of Kilmore in Crossgar in the Diocese of Down and Connor

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