Louis and Zélie
By JAMES MARTIN, S.J.
After their wedding in Alençon,
France, on July 13, 1858, Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin
refrained from sex for 10 months. The impetus for that arrangement,
known as a "Josephite marriage" (after the celibate relationship
between St. Joseph and his wife, Mary), came from Louis, who had
earlier hoped to enter a monastery. Eventually, a frustrated Zélie
escorted her husband to a local priest, who assured them that raising
children was a sacred activity.
They took his advice. Before her death
in 1877, Zélie bore nine children, five of whom joined religious
We would know little about Louis or
Zélie were it not for their youngest daughter, Thérèse,
who entered a Carmelite monastery in Lisieux and became one of the
church's most popular saints. St. Thérèse of Lisieux,
the "Little Flower," was canonized in 1925.
This Sunday in the basilica of Lisieux,
Louis and Zélie will be beatified, the Catholic church's
final step before canonization, positioning them to join the rarefied
company of saints who were married. That brief list includes Saints
Peter, Monica, Thomas More and the American-born Elizabeth Ann Seton.
The roster of saints married to one another is even shorter: Isadore
and Maria, 10th century Spanish farmers, are among the few.
The Lisieux ceremony follows the Vatican's
approval, in July, of the required miracle, the healing of a man
with a malformation of the lung. But the beatification raises questions
about the models of life being presented to Catholics. What can
a man and woman who planned to live celibately say to married couples
The two traditional roles of the saints
are the patron (who intercedes on behalf of those on earth) and
the companion (who provides believers with an example of Christian
life). And the paucity of lay saints, more specifically, married
ones, in the roster is somewhat embarrassing.
Two reasons underlie this anomaly:
the outmoded belief, almost as old as the church, that the celibate
life was "better" than married life, and the fact that
the church's canonization process is an arduous one, requiring someone
to gather paperwork, interview contemporaries if that is still possible
and present the case to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Certainly there have been as many
saintly wives and husbands as there have been holy priests and nuns.
But religious orders and dioceses know how to navigate the canonization
procedures on behalf of bishops, priests, brothers and sisters.
By contrast, how many families have the resources to embark on the
decades-long process on behalf of even the holiest mother or father?
As a result, married Catholics have few exemplars other than Mary
and Joseph, whose situation was hardly replicable.
Since the Second Vatican Council,
which emphasized the "universal call to holiness," Rome
has stepped up its efforts to canonize more lay and married people.
The Vatican hopes to expand the "calendar of saints" beyond
those who sport miters, collars and veils in order to provide Catholics
with lives that they can emulate, not simply admire. But do Louis
and Zélie fit the bill?
No one doubts that the Martins led
the traditional life of "heroic sanctity" required for
sainthood. Though obviously biased, St. Thérèse wrote:
"The Good God gave me a father and mother more worthy of heaven
than of earth." They were devoted to one another, to their
children and to their faith. During their first year of marriage,
the couple took into their home a young boy whose mother had died.
And whenever Louis and Zélie were apart, they exchanged the
tenderest of letters. "Your husband and true friend who loves
you forever," Louis wrote.
One lesson that believers might take
from the new "blesseds" is that sanctity comes in many
styles. If it were up to their youthful selves, neither would have
married. Zélie wanted to be a nun as much as Louis hoped
to be a monk. After setting aside their celibacy, they provided
a warm home for their children, five of whom fulfilled their parents'
thwarted hopes for life in a religious order. The wife died early;
the grieving husband struggled with mental illness, including hallucinations
in which he saw "frightful things," according to his daughter
Throughout their complicated lives
Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin tried to love as best they
could, something that is still relevant and not just to married
couples. And whose life, and which saint's life, is "typical"
anyway? Holiness, as the lives of the saints remind us, always makes
its home in humanity.
Father Martin is the author of "My
Life With the Saints."