“The good God gave me a father and mother more worthy of Heaven than of earth.”
So wrote St. Thérèse of Lisieux of her parents, Bl. Louis and Zélie Martin, who married at midnight on July 13, 1858 and whose feast is celebrated on July 12.
In considering the parents, we tend to look first to the sainted daughter. After all, who would have heard of Monsieur and Madame Martin, if they had not given the Little Flower to the world? Indeed, their principal shrine is the great Basilica at Lisieux, erected in honor of St. Thérèse decades before their own beatification. Among the reliefs adorning their ornate reliquary are several images of their daughter. In the garden behind Les Buissonets, the Martin family home at Lisieux, we find a lovely statue of Thérèse asking Louis’s permission to enter Carmel at age 15. The reliquary would seem incomplete without those reliefs of Thérèse, and a statue of Louis alone in the garden would not be a fitting commemoration of the father. Nevertheless, the sanctity of the parents was prior to that of the daughter—both in time and, to a degree, in causality. They were not saintly because they raised a saint; they raised a saint because they were saintly. And so, I trust the Little Flower will not take it amiss if I bracket the story of her soul, lest it obscure our vision of her parents.
If we examine Louis and Zélie Martin in their own rights, they show us the sanctifying potential of the nineteenth-century Catholic revival in France. They are exemplars of what married lay men and women could become during that dynamic and turbulent era. As the Church at large struggled to carry the tradition into modernity, Monsieur and Madame Martin successfully did just that in the microcosm of the Catholic home. Like the householder of Matthew 13, their treasure consisted of both new things and old.
The most radical anticlerical and dechristianizing efforts of the French Revolution had failed, and the Church had returned to prominence, first under Napoleon and even more under the restored monarchy. The successful revolutions of 1830 and 1848 brought no sustained, direct assaults on the Church. Louis-Napoleon (later Napoleon III) pursued policies more pro-Catholic and pro-papal than many French kings of the preceding centuries. At the same time, the revolutionary deluge left an increasingly liberal and pluralist French landscape, and the ongoing industrial revolution swelled the cities, creating ample opportunity for indifference to religion. Although political battles for religion raged on, Catholicism could only flourish by becoming more voluntary and more innovative in order to win French hearts on the cultural battlefield. And flourish it did: existing religious orders were revitalized and new ones were founded; able writers like Chateaubriand defended the beauty and truth of Christianity; new movements like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul brought greater apostolic opportunities to the lay faithful; mass production gave rise to a new industry of inexpensive religious articles; and the railroad opened up new pilgrimage routes, especially at Lourdes. This was the world in which Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin grew up, and this was the ground into which they planted their own household.
Louis and Zélie each came from prosperous bourgeois families. Before marrying, both earned their livelihoods as masters of delicate crafts. Louis became a watchmaker; Zélie a maker of point d’Alençon, the specialty lace of her home region. After they married, both businesses continued at their home in Alençon. For such luxury goods, household production endured amid the rise of industrialization. But the liberalizing economy left fewer safeguards against pursuing profit alone, without regard for the common good. Louis resisted these temptations by, for example, absolutely refusing to open the shop on Sunday, despite the contrary prevailing norm. Zélie’s trade was based on a “putting-out” system, and she bore constant solicitude for her workers. She took it upon herself to visit them when they were ill, and she helped arrange their hire by other lace makers when she lacked in orders. The Martins’ labors brought to the family financial stability, all while they gave generous alms and saved for emergencies, dowries, and retirement. As the new economic world reduced men and women to contractual obligations, these two succeeded without relinquishing timeless principles.
The Martin family’s devotional practices were nourished both by the long tradition of Catholic spirituality and the newer fruits of the Catholic revival. Early morning daily mass was standard, as were prayers in the intimacy of the home. The famed statue of “Our Lady of the Smile” was surrounded with flowers and greenery during the month of May. Family spiritual reading included The Imitation of Christ, biographies of great French saints like St. Jane Frances de Chantal, Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity, and Dom Prosper Guéranger’s The Liturgical Year. The father was accustomed to making local pilgrimages on foot, and the mother made the great pilgrimage to Lourdes by train as she suffered from breast cancer.
Devotion did not make the Martin household a gloomy place. Zélie had herself experienced piously-intentioned puritanism in her childhood upbringing, and she did not want to inflict that upon her own. The family enjoyed themselves at home and in the community. The mother’s letters show her sense of humor at childhood antics and her tenderness with them. We find her, especially with the youngest, taking care with the children’s dress: “With little blue shoes, a blue sash, and a pretty white cloak, [Thérèse] will be charming.” Both mother and father were playful sorts with their girls. The mother could set aside her lace to spend two hours on a dolls’ dinner party, and the father could honestly declare, “I am a big child with my children.”
Louis and Zélie Martin both had held youthful hopes for the religious vocation, and they closely cooperated with religious throughout their lives. They famously began their marriage with the intention of permanent continence, fortunately changing their plans after about a year. I say fortunately because, of course, they raised not just one saint, but certainly several more who will remain uncanonized. I say fortunately also, because they were able to become exemplars of holiness who lived the conjugal life in its fullness. All that said, they would have wholeheartedly affirmed Bl. John Paul II’s affirmation that “the consecrated life, by its very existence in the Church, seeks to serve the consecration of the lives of all the faithful, clergy and laity alike.” Their daughters were educated at the Visitation convent of Zélie’s sister, Sr. Marie-Dosithée. All of their five surviving daughters entered religion, four at the Carmel at Lisieux. Despite this love for religion, Louis’s paternal heart did not find it easy to part with his girls, especially his “Queen,” little Thérèse. These parents loved their own state of life, they loved each other and their children, and they loved the consecrated religious persons who played such important parts in their lives.
Causes for canonization have overwhelmingly favored priests and religious for both theological and practical reasons. Among those raised to the altars are few lay men and women, few married persons, and even fewer still married persons who lived their conjugal union without permanent continence. Canonization efforts usually require sustained organization over decades and even centuries, and lay candidates for sainthood often lack the resources of dioceses and religious orders. We must thank the Little Flower, Louis’s “Queen,” for making possible the beatification and hopeful canonization of her parents. The Church’s focus on lay sanctity has been more explicit since the Second Vatican Council, which identified the lay vocation as follows: “They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.” Bl. Louis and Zélie Martin, in the “ordinary circumstances” of family life, of labor, of prayer, and of play, fulfilled this description to the letter.