The Holy Witness of Married Couples
Maybe you have heard the old saying, “No one goes to heaven alone.” The idea is that we are all supposed to bring others along with us through accompanying them on our pilgrim journey through this life, through our example and words of encouragement and warning, through our acts of kindness and charity.
Married people have an advantage in this. The first and most effective apostolate is the witness of one spouse to another, and both parents to their children. If they apply themselves to their vocation – that is, if they strive daily to love – they will model holiness for others at very close range. Grace builds beautifully on nature and that is one of the primary purposes of marriage being raised to a sacrament. The path of marriage was created for the salvation of the couple and in the sacrament, the husband and the wife receive the grace to help each other, and their children, get to heaven.
Tomorrow, the whole Church will bear witness to this blessed reality with the joint canonization of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Canonization, the solemn declaration that the person is a saint, is a recognition that that person is with God in heaven. What a wonderful and joyous testament it is to the blessing of marriage to have this couple canonized together as husband and wife, to formally recognize their witness to each other – and their children – which has brought them to heaven.
Beyond recognizing that the Martins are saints in heaven, a particular benefit of their canonization is to lift them up as holy examples for other married couples and for all of us in our universal vocation to holiness and to mission. Married in 1858, Louis and Zélie led an exemplary life of faith, mercy and familial spirituality, with a love that was a pure reflection of the love between Christ and his Bride, the Church. After each seriously considered a vocation to the religious life before their nuptials, Louis and Zélie both understood that they could become holy through and in marriage as well.
Zélie, born Azélie-Marie Guérin, was a lacemaker when she met and fell in love with Louis Martin, a watchmaker. Three months later, they were married. They would go on to have nine children, with five daughters surviving infancy, each of whom would enter religious life. Their youngest, Thérèse, would be canonized a saint herself and she would write of her parents, “The good God gave me a father and mother more worthy of Heaven than of earth” (Letter to Father Maurice Belliere, July 26, 1897).
Throughout this time, Zélie was a working mother, maintaining her lace business, which Louis joined. Yet their family life did not suffer from this balancing act that modern families also face. “God was pleased all through my life to surround me with love,” said Saint Thérèse, “and the first memories I have are stamped with smiles and the most tender caresses” (The Story of a Soul, chapter 1). It was here that Thérèse would first learn of God’s love and a simple spirituality achieved in daily life.
The canonization of Louis and Zélie Martin comes on World Mission Sunday, just as they were beatified together on World Mission Sunday in 2008. Furthermore, their daughter, Saint Thérèse, who was a cloistered nun in religious life, is the patron saint of missions.
In hearing the call to be a missionary disciple, to go forth and evangelize, we might first think of missionaries as those witnesses who travel to foreign lands. What the Martin family says to us is that you can be a missionary in the family home; you can be a missionary in the enclosure of the convent. The mission territory is where you are right now – with your spouse and family, in your neighborhoods and workplaces – every place and time you encounter another is an occasion to shine with the Gospel love of Christ.
No one goes to heaven alone. We walk with others – husbands and wives, parents and children, friends and people we have never met before – each called to help the other to encounter the living God, now on the path and at the end of our earthly sojourn. The holy ones like Louis and Zélie and Thérèse Martin accompany us to show married couples and families and all of us the way.