Sharing Catholic Faith
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, born Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin, lived in France from 1873 to 1897. Her short life was marked by suffering, first in the loss of her mother at age four, then separation from her older sisters, who joined the convent before Thérèse was old enough to follow, and later by her own slow death of tuberculosis. Despite all the hardships of her 24 years, Thérèse was, by all accounts, a joyful, peaceful soul .
Thérèse wrote her memoirs at the command of her sister, who was her mother superior at the time. She scoffed at the idea that anyone would actually be interested in reading about her life, but her writings quickly circulated around the world. Here was a very ordinary person who had found an extraordinary spirituality in everyday life. Hers was a spirituality of offering even the most mundane tasks to God, and performing them as if working for Christ himself. This was not a new idea, as St. Paul says in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men.” Still, Thérèse’s straightforward way of applying this principle to her own life served as an inspiration for countless faithful, including the likes of St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta, St. Josemaria Escriva, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Francis, and even evangelical Protestant Pastor Rick Warren.
I have found St. Thérèse to be a powerful prayer warrior and a faithful friend. When she was dying, she promised she would spend her Heaven "doing good on earth." She has been true to that promise. I invite you to get to know St. Thérèse, if you haven't already, and discover the woman Pope St. John Paul II called the "greatest saint of modern times."
Early in my Catholic journey, a friend introduced me to St. Therese of Lisieux, also called the Little Flower. I read her autobiography and was attracted to her "Little Way" to holiness -- doing small things with great love. I have asked for her intercession for many things over the years, and in a particularly difficult time, when I was in a great deal of distress, I happened across a medallion of Therese with the inscription "Do not forget that I am your sister and I will never cease praying for you." It was such a comfort to find this among my own possessions on that challenging day. I won't go so far as to say that it was of a supernatural origin. I had a number of St. Therese medals, pictures, and other items, but I will say that I don't recall seeing this one, or reading its inscription, until that difficult day.
Truly, St. Therese has been my sister over the years, probably because of her documented affection for poor souls in need of conversion! It was through Therese that I, like many others, discovered her parents and newly-proclaimed saints Louis and Zelie Martin.
Martin was born in 1823 in Bordeaux, France, were his father, a military
captain, was garrisoned. The family settled in Alençon when Louis was 7 years
old. When he was older, Louis went to live with his father’s cousin, a clock
maker, and learned his trade. He initially felt a call to religious life, but
eventually settled into his trade as a watch and clock maker in Alençon.
Zélie Guérin was born in 1831 in
Saint-Denis-sur-Sarthon, near Alençon. Like Louis, Zélie initially
felt herself called to religious life, but when she interviewed with the
Sisters of Charity, it was decided that she did not have a vocation. She
learned the trade of lacemaking and excelled in this craft, establishing an
office in Alençon.
Zélie saw one another one day as they
were crossing the same bridge in opposite directions. They each asked about the
other around town and eventually met. They married within three months.
Though they were skilled in their trades and did
well, financially, Louis and Zélie faced many hardships. They had nine
children, four of whom died very young. During the Franco-Prussian war, their
home was occupied by enemy soldiers, whom they were forced to host and feed
with very little resources. When their youngest child, Thérèse, was just four
years old, Zélie died of breast cancer, leaving Louis to raise his five girls
Through it all, Louis and Zélie remained faithful
to God and to their vocations and spouses and parents. Evidence of this is seen
in the lives of their children, all of whom entered religious life. Louis died
of arteriosclerosis in 1894, at the age of 70.
One of the most striking things about Louis and
Zélie Martin is the ordinariness of their lives. They were, in many ways, an
average couple presented with challenges, some unusual, at least to us (e.g.,
infant mortality, military occupation) and others quite common (such as family
illness and parenting difficulties – especially with their daughter Leonie, for
whom there is also now a cause for Beatification). But the couple lived by the
principle of doing each everyday act with great love, as if for Jesus himself.
Zélie used to speak of making small sacrifices that would “set pearls in your
crown” in heaven. In this, we can see the seeds of Thérèse’s own spirituality.
The devotion of Louis and Zélie to their faith led
each of them to initially consider religious life, yet they found that God had
not called them to give themselves in this way. Instead, their vocation was to
give themselves in love to one another and to their children. Their lives
affirm the dignity of the vocation of marriage as a path to sanctity.
Louis and Zélie Martin show us how it is possible
to live an ordinary life with extraordinary virtue. For those with a vocation
to marriage and family – the majority of Catholics today, they provide an
example of living out that vocation in a faithful and holy way. In short, they
are a shining reminder that by loving our spouses faithfully and raising our
children with love, we are living holy lives.
The Martin family serve as an
inspiration to married couples, showing us that through the vocation of
marriage and parenthood, even as we are called to bear crosses, we can become
more like Jesus. In giving to one another in small sacrifices of love, we
become ever more the people God made us to be.
We also recognize that the circumstances of life
are sometimes less than ideal. Louis Martin spent the better part of Thérèse’s
childhood as a single parent, having been widowed when Thérèse was just four
years old. Still, his faithfulness and openness to God’s grace allowed him to
raise five saintly daughters – including a Doctor of the Church.
I was at the home of Saints Louis and Zelie last March on the day the Vatican announced they would be canonized, and it brought great joy to everyone in Alencon. This is a family whose love is so great that they are always adding to their numbers. I recently read Helene Mongin's new biography of Louis and Zelie Martin, titled, "The Extraordinary Parents of St. Therese of Lisieux," and I got to know the Martins even better than before.
With St. Therese as my spiritual sister, I also think of Louis and Zelie as a spiritual mother and father. They are a model for me and the love I want to cultivate in my own home and daily life. The Martins have a son named Joseph (who died as an infant) with them in Heaven, and in me they have another son named Joseph on earth. I must confess, though, that I feel I am much more like Leonie, their difficult child who struggled to find a path to holiness, than I am like Therese, the beloved saint and Doctor of the Church. Still, I pray that with God's grace and through their intercession, I will, like Leonie (who is now being considered for Beatification), grow in holiness and one day share in the heavenly banquet with this family I love so much.
Saints Louis and Zelie Martin, pray for us, and save me a seat at your table!
Today is the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, so I thought a little explanation might be in order...
Mary, Mother of Jesus is honored above all other saints.This is consistent with her foretelling that all generations would call her blessed (Luke 1:48). The reasons Mary is so honored are numerous. First and foremost, as Mother of Christ, she is Mother of God, for Jesus is fully God and fully human -- true God and true man. As the Mother of Christ, Mary is also our Mother, for we are all part of Christ’s Body, the Church.
Catholic Tradition provides us with four Marian Dogmas, or essential beliefs about Mary. In addition to our belief in Mary as Mother of God, we believe in her perpetual virginity, her Immaculate Conception, and her bodily Assumption into Heaven after her death.
Catholics believe that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ (CCC, 499). Mary’s physical intactness was a sign of her faith, fully intact because of God’s grace. Protestants sometimes attempt to use Scripture to argue against the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity, claiming that Scripture says Mary had other sons (Matthew 13:55). In actuality, the term used for “brothers” in this verse is an Old Testament expression for close relations. Scripture never classes these “brothers of Jesus” as sons of Mary. In addition, when he was on the Cross, Jesus would not have needed to entrust Mary to John’s care if he had other siblings who could care for her (John 19:25-27).
The Immaculate Conception is a term that many misunderstand. Some Catholics mistakenly believe this term refers to the conception of Jesus, but it actually refers to the belief that Mary was conceived free from OriginalSin. Christians have a long history of belief in the sinlessness of Mary. In fact, before the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, no one questioned the idea that Mary was sinless. Here’s why: the early Christians understood Mary as the “new Eve.” While the first woman and man brought sin into the world, aspecial woman (Mary) and the God-man (Jesus) brought salvation. This is predicted in the book of Genesis, when Godsays, “I will put enmity between you and the Woman.” The “Woman” referred to in Genesis is not Eve, but Mary. Secondly, Mary is known as the “Ark of the New Covenant.”
In the Old Testament, the “Ark of the Covenant” was a specially designed box made of wood and lined with gold. It carried the Ten Commandments tablets Moses had received from God and also carried the presence of God. For this reason, it had to be made perfectly, with no flaws. In Revelation chapter 12, a “woman” is described, clothed with the sun and with acrown of twelve stars. She is about to give birth to one who will rule all nations. Satan is described as a dragon waiting to hurt the child after he is born. Now, it’s pretty easy to figure out that the child is Jesus, so that makes the “woman” Mary. (Because Scripture describes Mary as having a crown and being in Heaven already, this is one place we get our Catholic understanding of Mary as Queen of Heaven and the idea that she was Assumed, body and soul, into Heaven.) Mary is described in Revelation 12 right after a description of the Ark of the Covenant. It’s obvious that the Holy Spirit wants us to make a connection here. The Ark carried the presence of God under the Old Covenant,and Mary carried the presence of God (Jesus) under the New Covenant. She is the Ark of the New Covenant. But to carry the presence of God, she must be without any flaws.
Finally, in Luke, Chapter One, the angel Gabriel calls Mary “full of grace.” (This is where we get the beginning of the “Hail Mary”prayer.) Grace is the share of God’s own life that grants us the ability to dowhat God asks us to do. We have received grace through our Baptism and continue to receive grace through the Sacraments, such as Eucharist and Reconciliation.But none of us is “full of grace.” In Romans 7, when Paul complains about a problem that keeps coming up for him (we don’t hear exactly what the problem is), God answers, “my grace is sufficient for you.” In other words, Paul has enough grace to be a good Christian, but even he does not have the fullness ofgrace. To have “fullness of grace” would mean always doing what God wants. That would be essential for the Mother of the Son of God.
Mary didn’t earn the grace granted to her by God. He made her sinless for a special purpose. She was human just like we are. In fact,Jesus was her Savior just like he is ours, and he was the Savior of those who came before him (like Moses and Abraham). God gave Mary the special grace that would come through Jesus in advance. He filled her with that grace so she could be a perfect mother for him. Mary’s role as mother gives her a special place in the lives of all Christians. We can always depend on her motherly care, andknow that she remembers us to her Son, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us!
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
― St. Catherine of Siena