Year of the Family
Lessons in Fatherhood from Blessed Louis Martin
Catholic Spirit, June 2009, Good News


By Joseph D. White, Ph.D.
Guest Columnist

As the composition of the typical American family continues to change, a number of recent studies in the social sciences are documenting what the Catholic Church has taught over the centuries; fathers fill a unique and irreplaceable role in the lives of children. According to the research, the positive impact of involved fathers includes better grades, more active participation in extracurricular activities, better self-control, higher levels of initiative, and better parenting skills when their sons grow up to have children of their own.

Of particular interest to those of us who are Catholic is the father’s impact on their child’s future faith life. Recent research indicates that children most often follow the example of their fathers when it comes to faith practices. They will tend to choose the religion of their fathers, even if the mother and father come from different faith backgrounds. Studies also show that they will tend to participate in church activities as adults to the extent that their fathers did. Clearly, fathers form powerful role models for their children in many areas of life, especially in molding faith and character.

Last fall, Pope Benedict XVI beatified Louis and Zélie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse, the “Little Flower.” A doctor of the church, St. Thérèse is known for her message that God can use all actions done in love, no matter how small, for his glory. Blessed Louis and Zélie, like their daughter, were humble, ordinary people living what the world would view as ordinary lives. Yet it is clear from Thérèse’s writings that her parents took seriously one of the church’s fundamental principles, "the family is the school of holiness".

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the family the “domestic church” and adds that parents are the first and foremost important educators of their children. Louis and Zélie Martin knew that if their little girls were to grow as people of God, they as parents would need to show them the way. But when Thérèse was just 4 years old, tragedy struck. Zélie died of cancer, leaving Louis to parent the family alone. Louis had no deep theological knowledge or profound ability to bear this formidable task; nothing that would make one stop and say, “This man will raise a saint.” What he did have was his simple faith, a faith he put into action in small ways each day as he fathered his children.

In her autobiography, Thérèse tells of her awareness of the importance of God in the eyes of her father. She never doubted she was loved because he took special time with her, even when he could only afford a few moments. She also never doubted that her father loved God. Their home in Lisieux was filled with reminders of the God who held first place in their lives, from the statue of a smiling Mary to religious articles among the children’s toys.

Thérèse also described watching her father at Mass; “Sometimes his eyes would fill with tears he could not keep back, and when he was listening to the eternal truths, he seemed to be in another world and no longer in this” (from Story of a Soul). If the family saw a poor person on the street, they gave what they could, and concern for the poor became an important priority for the children. Thérèse and her father would sometimes spend time in prayer together at the church before the Blessed Sacrament and at home at bed time. Thérèse wrote about her father, “At long last we would make our way upstairs to say our night prayers, and once again I would find myself close to him, only having to look at him to know how saints must pray.”

One important lesson Blessed Louis Martin gives us for fatherhood is that we must all take our faith seriously enough to let it touch our hearts. Christianity is not just a “life enhancement,” but a way of life that speaks to us as human beings. God made us for himself, and we cannot have true and lasting peace without him. To have a relationship with someone, we must know them, and so it is with God. Louis Martin was no theologian, but he spent time in prayer and listened to God’s word in the readings of the Mass. His children saw his devotion, and it led them to commit their own hearts to God.
Blessed Louis understood the value of family relationships, and took the time to be together and speak honestly with his children. Just as he knew God, he also knew his children. So when it was time to give correction, it was given in the context of relationship, and it was taken seriously.

In his homily on the occasion of the beatification of Louis and Zélie Martin, Cardinal Saraivia Martins said, “It is in the heart of the family that parents should be for their children by their words and their example, the first announcers of the faith.”
God chooses to reveal himself to us as a father, so we need faithful, nurturing, loving and involved fathers to help us see who he is. Little everyday things, praying together, giving to others, going to Mass, spending time with one another; these things are what Catholic family life is all about, and they provide fertile soil for the seeds of sainthood.

 
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