A married couple’s message for today

All married couples will struggle, but a strong faith can be empowering, writes Andrew O’Connell

St Thérèse of Lisieux is one of the Church’s most popular saints. Maybe it was because of Mission Sunday or perhaps due to the coverage of the synod, but the recent canonisation of her parents, Zélie Guerin and Louis Martin, passed by without a great deal of notice.

That’s a pity. This was the first married couple to be canonised together and, at a time when family life is high on the Church’s agenda, their life story demonstrates how holiness can be achieved in marriage. 

Though their piety might seem unusual to this generation, they struggled with the same difficulties and challenges as the people of our time.

For a start, they both had other dreams: both felt called to religious life, but it didn’t go according to plan. Louis was turned down by an Augustinian monastery on account of his poor Latin while the Daughters of Charity sent Zélie home due to her poor health.

But they were resilient and adaptable and found profitable trades; Louis as watchmaker and Zélie as a lace maker. They married in 1858, three months after first meeting; Louis at the age of 35 and Zélie at the age of 26.

They spent their married life together in the town of Alençon in Normandy and it was there that their nine children were born, including the youngest, Marie Françoise Thérèse who would become known to the world as ‘The Little Flower’. 

Zélie may have suspected this child was special, confiding to her sister-in-law: “When I was carrying her I noticed something which never happened with my other children; when I sang she sang with me.” 

They were a couple who knew heartache: four of their nine children died as infants. They also experienced the worry of illness. Zélie fought with breast cancer dying in 1877 at the age of 45 leaving Louis to rear the girls. 

Louis Martin suffered too. In his old age he battled with dementia and, like families today, his children struggled to take care of him. On one occasion he went missing for four days before being found in Le Havre in a confused state. He died after a series of strokes.  

As parents who lost their infant children, it is striking that the miracles leading to their beatification and canonisation both involved new-born infants. In 2002, an Italian boy, Pietro Schiliro, was cured of respiratory difficulties due to malformed lungs, and in 2008 a premature baby in Spain, Carmen, born at six months and suffering from a brain haemorrhage, was restored to full health.

I’m sure a lot of married people in our parishes would identify with their struggles and draw some encouragement from how they persevered in faith, instilling a love for God in the hearts of their children.


Keep in touch

While each person has a responsibility to keep themselves informed, the reality is that many people remain unaware of news and developments from across the wider Church. Many would be unaware of the recent canonisation of the parents of St Thérèse unless they heard about it at Mass on Sunday.

A snippet in the newsletter, a mention during a homily and some readily available literature are the main links many have with the Universal Church. A well distributed Catholic press has an important role to play.  

Ironically, there is a danger that in the age of communication, our parishes could become isolationist, focusing on the local and forgetting the global.


Attractive Saints The lives of the saints never fail to capture people’s attention and imagination. I know from talking to students that the story, for instance, of Maximilian Kolbe, the priest murdered at Auschwitz as he gave his life for the father of a family, always impresses. 

Pope John Paul II was sometimes criticised for creating too many saints and blesseds, but he wanted to show that holiness is achievable in our time. Not all of the saints had as dramatic a story as Maximilian; some, like Alfonso Rodriguez, merely ‘watched the door’, but all of them offer encouragement and a lesson on the path to holiness.