Throughout whatever challenges God gave them, however, they sought not only to be faithful and encourage each other, but to pass on the faith to their children.
In a Church that's 2,000 years old, it's hard to have many firsts, but on Sunday we had one: the first canonization of a married couple jointly as a couple, as Pope Francis in a beautiful ceremony in St. Peter's Square officially declared Louis and Marie-Azélie "Zélie" Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, among the eternal hall of fame.
There are several pairs of married saints. We can think of St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother, Saints Joachim and Anne, and Saints Priscilla and Aquila from Biblical times. To them we can add Saints Gregory the Elder and Nonna, the parents of St. Gregory Nazianzen; Saints Basil the Elder and Macrina, parents of Saints Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Macrina the Younger, Naucratius, and Peter of Sebaste; Saints Isidore the Farmer and Maria de la Cabeza; and Saints Henry II and Cunegunda. But they were all, according to the customs and canons of the time, declared saints separately.
Saints Louis and Zélie were canonized together after a joint process and miracle, an act that showed that the Sacrament of Marriage they received, and the way they lived it together, were not incidental to their individual holiness, but central to their growth. The first purpose of the Sacrament of Marriage is the mutual sanctification of the spouses; their tandem canonization is a clear sign of this Sacrament's power and meaning.
Zélie had wanted to become a Sister of Charity but had been turned away because of headaches and respiratory problems. Louis had sought to become an Augustinian monk but he was rejected because he didn't know Latin. God sought them to make them saints, and help them become saint-makers, by another path.
In March, 1858, they passed each other on the St. Leonard Bridge in Alençon. Zélie, a 26 year-old lacemaker, heard what she thought was the voice of Our Lady whispering to her, as she looked at Louis, a 34 year-old watchmaker, "He is the one I have prepared for you." They were married three months later, on July 12, the day the Church fittingly chose for their feast day.
They grew in holiness together in the midst of better and worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. They had the joy of becoming parents to seven girls and two boys, but also the sorrow of burying both boys and two girls died in infancy. Zélie died of breast cancer when she was 45, when her youngest, Thérčse, was only 4. Louis suffered two strokes and eventually lost his mind due to cerebral arteriosclerosis, spending the last three years of his life in a mental hospital.
Throughout whatever challenges God gave them, however, they sought not only to be faithful and encourage each other, but to pass on the faith to their children. All five of their surviving girls became religious sisters, a sign both of the faith that they learned in their first "convent" chez Martin and of the generosity of Christian spirit to let their family name "die" in order to praise the Lord's name forever according to the vocations to which they had discerned he was calling them.
When I prepare couples for marriage, I give them twelve short essays to write, so that I can try to meet them better where they're at and take them to where the Church hopes they'll be on their wedding day and beyond. I ask how they met, how the proposal happened, what they believe marriage is, what role God has in their relationship, what makes marital love distinctive, what they love about each other, how the other has changed them, what they learned, good and bad, about love and marriage from their families, what their relationship is with each other's family and friends, and whether and when they intend to start a family. I learn a lot about what makes each couple tick from their responses.
But the most important question of the dozen I ask is, "Why do you think Christian marriage is a sacrament? What is the purpose of a sacrament?" In response, I often get the sad fruit of poor catechesis -- not their fault! -- describing how sacraments are merely "rituals to accompany stages of Christian growth" or some definition they've pulled from a Google search. I try to help them to grasp that, in seven different ways, sacraments are signs and means of intimate communion with God, bridges that bring God into our life and us into his and -- since God's life is eternal -- that the ultimate purpose of every Sacrament is heaven.
We discuss how their first task as a married couple is to help the other to become a saint. This means that if their marriage lasts 75 years, but one or the other doesn't make heaven, their marriage -- as a joint project -- will have failed. But even if they struggle through the depths of "worse, sicker and poorer," if they are able to help each other persevere and cross the eternal threshold, their marriage will have fulfilled its sacramental purpose.
That opening allows us to talk about whether they're presently helping each other grow in practical ways closer to God or drawing each other from God. Are they praying together? Going to Mass together? Helping the other to keep the Commandments? Growing in charity, mutual forgiveness and purity together? Assisting each other to learn the faith better through reading the Bible, Catechism and other means of Christian growth? Or are they leading each other into sinful choices or down worldly paths?
It's a beautiful thing to see the spiritual light bulbs go off in young couples when they begin to recognize that a Catholic marriage is something far greater than a bond solemnized in a Church building, when they grasp that the greatest gift they could give each other is God, and when they see that if they're going to help the other become holy, they, too, have to be following Christ eagerly on the road of sanctity. It's an even more beautiful thing to see them start to live this way.
I can't help but think this focus on conjugal and familial holiness, epitomized in the joint canonization of the Martins, is crucial for everyone to remember ultimately what the Synod of Bishops on the Family presently concluding in Rome is supposed to catalyze.
Several of the controversies that have taken place around the Synod have arisen, I believe, precisely because this focus on the purpose of the Sacrament of Marriage has been underemphasized or forgotten.
Like the well-meaning enablers who think that the charitable response to heroic addicts is clean needles and to promiscuous kids free prophylactics -- as if they're incapable of sobriety, chastity or any moral change -- so some think that the merciful approach to those in irregular situations is not to challenge, help and accompany them to conform to what God has revealed about love, marriage, sex and family but to allow the ethos of the sexual revolution to eclipse the Good News. It's to neutralize Jesus' ever actual imperative, "Repent and believe in the Gospel," and pretend as if neither conversion nor faith in God's revelation matters much any more.
Regardless of intention, some of the "pastoral initiatives" floated before and during the Synod are not objectively geared toward helping people order their lives and relationship toward holiness and heaven, but rather toward making them feel better about what a well-informed conscience rightly and medicinally ought to help them feel disturbed.
The question for the Church -- for Synod delegates and all of us -- is whether we are genuinely trying to help people in regular marriages or irregular relationships become saints, to love God above every other love, to love each other seeking the other's eternal good, and to embrace the Cross, even heroically, when necessary. Will obscuring Jesus' clear teaching about marriage and adultery, the conditions for worthy reception of Holy Communion, and the requisite amendment necessary for the Sacrament of Penance, really help people become holy? Or will it tragically leave many confused and deceived about their spiritual situation, thinking that they're on the way that leads to life when God's word plainly indicates that they're not?
Let's pray that the example and intercession of Saints Louis and Zélie will help all in the Church remember the purpose of marriage and human life -- and inspire us to repropose the Gospel of love, marriage, and family to our contemporaries when so many are suffering precisely because of failures to appreciate, live and proclaim this saving, holy gift.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.