The extraordinary parents of Saint Therese of Lisieux
October 31, 2015
The following is the text of the homily delivered by Bishop Rhoades on October 31st at Saint Therese, Little Flower, Church, South Bend:
In today’s reading from the book of Revelation, Saint John describes a vision he had of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They were standing before the throne of God and before the Lamb, singing his praise. This vision of the saints in heaven reminds of our destiny. On this beautiful Solemnity of All Saints, the Church invites us to reflect on the joy of heaven and to taste the joy of the saints, to be inspired by their example as men, women, and children of the Beatitudes, and to seek their intercession to help us to be faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus, to live the Beatitudes of Jesus, whatever our vocation or state in life.
Today, here at this parish named in honor of the beautiful saint and doctor of the Church, Saint Therese, the Little Flower, we gather to celebrate the recent canonization of Therese’s parents, Louis and Zelie Martin. I must admit that I didn’t know a whole lot about their life until I read a book about them this past week. I was enthralled by this book as I learned about this amazing couple, amazing in the sense of holiness, heroic virtue. It is a tremendous blessing for the Church, especially for married people, that Pope Francis canonized at the same time a husband and wife together. This is the first time this has happened in the history of the Church. I highly recommend this biography of Saints Louis and Zelie Martin, written by Helene Mongin and published by Our Sunday Visitor. It is entitled The Extraordinary Parents of Saint Therese of Lisieux.
Saint Therese once wrote: the good God gave me a father and a mother more worthy of heaven than of earth. Many others have testified to the truth of this statement. Louis and Zelie Martin lived heroic lives and became holy, not despite marriage, but through, in, and by marriage. Their love for each other and for their children was deep. They had a profound affection for each other and their children. Their love and affection expanded and spread to extended family, to neighbors, and to the sick and the poor, whom they were always inviting into their home. Their beautiful Christian life, their love, had its source, of course, in God. They had a humble and intense faith. They knew and believed with all their hearts what we read today from Saint John’s first letter: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. They believed in God’s love! This is what gave them the strength to endure many sufferings and to persevere in faith. Let me name a few: they suffered the loss of four of their children at very young ages. Their sorrow was immense, but the devil could not rob them of their faith and trust in God during those incredibly painful times. They persevered in the joy of the Gospel. Their family life, despite tragedy, flourished.
The Martin family was a family of prayer. God was the center of the home. Daily Mass and daily prayers and devotions were part of the everyday rhythm of the Martin’s family life. They observed Sunday as “the Lord’s Day,” a day of worship, rest, and joy together. Louis and Zelie passed on to their five remaining daughters, including the youngest, Therese, a peaceful, humble, and intense faith.
The Martins were working parents. Louis ran a watchmaking and jewelry shop. Zelie ran a lace-making business. They were both very successful. Eventually, Louis closed his shop and devoted himself to his wife’s business. They were not only honest and just, treating their workers well and clients well, they went beyond the obligations of justice. They helped them when they were sick or in need. They made a small fortune but they were never attached to their money or material things. They were generous to others and they lived modestly.
When I think of the sufferings that are part of life, including family life, I think that the Martins are a beautiful example of endurance in faith, hope, and love. I already mentioned the death of four of their little children. I was also very moved when I read the chapter about Zelie’s suffering with breast cancer. Back then, they didn’t have the treatments we have today, nor medications for relief of pain. Zelie probably had breast cancer for many years, but it became obvious at the age of 45. That was the last year of her life. Her faith and courage during that final year reveals the depth of her holiness, her love for God and her love for Louis and her daughters. They prayed for her healing and even went to Lourdes, asking Our Lady for a cure. But Zelie entrusted her life to God’s hands; her only concern was the welfare of her husband and daughters. She died a holy death.
In the next few years, Louis who missed his wife whom he had loved with all his heart, devoted himself to his daughters, each of whom would enter religious life. That was also difficult for him, but, with great faith, he gave them complete freedom to answer the Lord’s call. He even took Therese to Rome to meet with Pope Leo XIII to receive the dispensation to enter Carmel at such a young age. You probably know the prophetic word the Pope said to Therese: You will enter if God wills it. It was a great sacrifice for Louis when his youngest beloved daughter, Therese, entered Carmel. He said: Only God can demand such a sacrifice, but he is helping me powerfully so that in the midst of my tears my heart is overflowing with joy.
There was something supernatural in the lives of Louis and Zelie that enabled them to embrace sufferings. They were given the grace of peace and joy in embracing the cross of Jesus. They teach us so much in this regard. About a year after Therese’s entrance into the convent, Louis would have an attack of the illness that would eventually lead to his death. It was an attack of cerebral arteriosclerosis. This disease developed the next seven years with phases of remission and aggravation and even attacked his mental faculties. Louis offered all this suffering to the Lord, like his wife had done. Saint Therese referred to these years as the “great trial” of her life, to see her father’s mental deterioration and his being confined to a psychiatric hospital for three years.
Louis and Zelie Martin’s canonization is a wonderful blessing for the Church. What a beautiful example they are for spouses and parents, for business owners, and for the sick and suffering! They can be an inspiration for those mourning the loss of a child, for those suffering from breast cancer or from mental illness. Truly they are an example and inspiration for the Church and the world during this time of crisis in marriage and family life. We need saints! Louis and Zelie Martin were ordinary people of extraordinary love. They now rejoice in the Lord in the company of their beloved nine children. May they and all the saints intercede for us, that one day we may join them at the banquet feast of heaven!