The point of family life

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, SS. Joachim and Anne, and SS. Priscilla and Aquila from Biblical times. To them we can add SS. Gregory the Elder and Nonna, the parents of St. Gregory Nazianzen; SS. Basil the Elder and Macrina, parents of SS. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Macrina the Younger, Naucratius, and Peter of Sebaste; SS. Isidore the Farmer and Maria de la Cabeza; and SS. Henry II and Cunegunda. But they were all declared saints separately. 

SS. 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, in other ways.

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 who died in infancy. Zélie died of breast cancer when she was 45, when her youngest, Thérèse, was only four. Louis suffered two strokes and during his last three years lived in a mental institution after having lost his mind due to cerebral arteriosclerosis. 

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 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 they had discerned. 

I can’t help but think the focus on conjugal and familial holiness, epitomized in the joint canonization of the Martins, is crucial for us to remember what the Synod of Bishops on the Family presently concluding in Rome is ultimately 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 drug addicts is clean needles and to promiscuous kids free prophylactics — as if they’re incapable of sobriety or chastity — 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, such “pastoral initiatives” 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 really 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 SS. Louis and Zélie will help all of us in the Church remember the purpose of Marriage and human life and inspire us to repropose the Gospel of love, Marriage, and family to the crisis of our age, when so many are suffering because of failures to appreciate, live and proclaim this saving, holy gift. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at

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