This time last year I had the privilege of attending the Synod on the Family in Rome. One of the highlights of those days was being present on 18 October at the canonisation of Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese, the ‘Little Flower’. As you know it was the first time that a married couple were declared saints together. In choosing to canonise Louis and Zelie Martin together during the Synod on Marriage and the Family, Pope Francis was sending a clear message that they, as husband and wife, as mother and father, had lived a life of supreme holiness and dedication.
Louis and Zelie offered a powerful witness to the precious gift that marriage and the family is for the world. Their shared sainthood is a sign of hope and affirmation for those who live the vocation of marriage. Their canonisation represents a vote of confidence in the beauty and value of marriage as a vocation. As we celebrate today the Feast of Saint Thérèse, I want to reflect on the tenderness and love that Louis and Zelie nurtured within their home and family and passed on to their children.
One of those children, Saint Thérèse, wrote: “The Good Lord gave me a father and a mother more worthy of Heaven than of the earth”. Clearly Louis and Zelie were a special couple. Although both had previously considered consecrating themselves to God in the religious life, God had another vocation in mind for them – a shared vocation as husband and wife, and as parents of an amazing family. I like to consider marriage and the family as ‘a shared vocation’. My personal vocational choice is to walk the path of priesthood with the help of God. Those of you who are married have chosen a shared vocation – joining hands and hearts to walk the path of life together with the help of God’s grace. Your choice entails a whole series of compromises, acceptance of one another’s faults and failings, and an undertaking to lift one another up when the going gets tough. You are on a journey of discovery with your wife or husband; along the way you have to learn to die to selfishness, to be willing to open your relationship up to the gift of children; to share the struggle of financing and building a home, teaching a family, raising your sons and daughters in the faith, coping with all the demands and contradictory messages that are hurled at you and your children from all corners. As you grow older together, you will have to share the cross of illness and increased frailty, discovering each other’s fears and anxieties; and, when death comes, coping with loss and bereavement until God unites you again in eternal life, where parting is no more.
Louis and Zelie had nine children, four of whom died in infancy. Through that shared heartbreak over and over and over again, they learned to trust each other and to put their trust in God, surrendering to his will in their lives. Zelie was a strong and determined woman – nowadays she’d be called an entrepreneur, in setting up her own lacemaking business. Her love for Louis and the children was the centre of her life. She enjoyed playing with them and having fun, but she was also determined that they would have the best possible teaching and education. She taught her family to be generous; she often welcomed the poor and hungry to the family home for a meal – they often left with a change of clothes and a new pair of shoes. Zelie knew what suffering meant – she struggled for years with cancer before her death at the young age of 46.
Louis was a dedicated husband and father, giving up his own watchmaking work to assist his wife in her business; he was active in his parish, supporting the local priest in teaching the faith and committed to ensuring that his daughters were given the best opportunities in everything. After Zelie died he had to deal with new losses as, one by one, his daughters chose to enter the convent (in those days that meant very little contact with their family). Despite frailty and increasing illness, Louis remained an active helper of the poor and the sick. He was a founder member of his local Saint Vincent de Paul society and he encouraged Catholic workers to have a strong sense of the dignity of work.
As a couple, Louis and Zelie gave powerful witness to their family and others. The warmth and consistency of their faith, hope and love made a mark on everyone who encountered them. They had a very clear sense of the values that they wanted to hand on to their children, and they achieved this by the example of their own lives – firstly by the witness of prayer – prayer and the Mass were an essential part of their every day; confession, penance and some sacrifice and outreach to the poor made their faith active and grounded. Their home was a like a ‘little domestic church’, a ‘school of love and tenderness’ where their children learned to live their faith by doing simple everyday things out of love – always conscious of God’s tenderness and mercy for them. I can imagine the family praying together the words of this today’s psalm: ‘O, that today you would listen to his voice; harden not your hearts’.
It was from her parents and family that Saint Thérèse picked up the spirituality that she would later share with the whole world in her ‘story of a soul’, her so-called ‘little way’ of serving God, doing the simple things of every day well and as an offering to God. No doubt she meditated often on the words of today’s Gospel about what can be achieved if your faith were even the size of a tiny mustard seed. Thérèse would often contemplate the innocence and tenderness of the ‘infant Jesus’ at Bethlehem, but also the wounds and blood on His Holy Face at the moment of the crucifixion. That was why, when she entered the Lizieux Carmel convent at the age of sixteen, she chose the name ‘Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face’.
Sometimes Saint Thérèse, and her parents Louis and Zelie are presented in an overly sentimental way. We forget that their spirituality of love and tenderness offers a profound and challenging message to today’s world. The ‘Little Way’ can change people – Thérèse and her parents were missionaries of tenderness and mercy in a world which is often harsh and unforgiving.
Day for Life
Pope Francis often speaks about the need for a ‘revolution of tenderness’ to melt the ‘hardness of heart’ that is so prevalent in today’s world. Nowadays the way of tenderness is indeed counter-cultural and revolutionary. It is perhaps the only way to confront inhumanity and cruelty, to bridge the great divide which greed has created between the rich and the poor, and to expose the pervasive ‘throwaway culture’ which surrounds us.
The ‘revolution of tenderness’, so obvious in the life of Saint Thérèse and her parents, challenges us to show real sensitivity and active concern for everyone and everything, and protect the wonder of life in our common home. As Pope Francis puts it: ‘everything is connected’. This includes the way we care for the environment; how we care for one another; how we welcome and accept those with different needs and abilities, refugees, the elderly, the unborn, the forgotten and the abandoned; how we acknowledge the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities (see Laudato Si’ #117).
These days as I listen to repeated calls for repeal of the Eighth Amendment in the Constitution of Ireland, I cannot help observing one of the great contradictions of our age: that, at the same time as society is developing a more urgent sense of the need to care for our planet and other creatures, many seem determined to remove the right to life of unborn human beings.
The Eighth Amendment reads as follows: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right”.
It is therefore fundamentally a declaration of tenderness and love for the equal right to life of both a mother and her unborn child. It is an undertaking to respect, defend and vindicate that right here in Ireland. This amendment is precious and wonderful – it places as the very foundations and substructure of our laws a clear conviction that all human life is worth cherishing.
Demands to quash and abolish this amendment go against the Good News that the life of every person is sacred and inviolable, irrespective of the stage or state of that life – from the first moment of conception until the moment of natural death. This is the most fundamental of all moral principles. It is the basis upon which every human right we enjoy as persons is predicated and upon which our very freedom and dignity as a person rests. It admits of no exceptions. To deliberately and intentionally take the life of an innocent person, whatever their state or stage of life, is always gravely morally wrong.
From a moral point of view, there is therefore no such thing as ‘limited’ abortion. The medical prognosis for the life of a child in the womb, or the extent of that child’s disabilities, is no more morally relevant than it is when considering an adult who faces the diagnosis of a life-limiting condition.
Today I call on all those who believe in a better future for humanity to preserve the dignity and sanctity of human life in all its stages and conditions, as an affirmation of our human capacity for tenderness and love. We must not forget of course that some mothers and fathers experience profound anguish when faced with a crisis in pregnancy. Tenderness also compels us to reach out to them. That is why I wish to repeat today the call for our politicians to provide every possible service and support to women, parents and families who are faced with severe difficulties and crises in pregnancy. This must include a commitment to providing comprehensive peri-natal hospice services for women and their families responding to a diagnosis of life-limiting disability for their unborn child.
Thirty-seven years ago today in Limerick, Pope Saint John Paul II said, “May Ireland never weaken in her witness, before Europe and before the whole world, to the dignity and sacredness of all human life, from conception until death (1 October 1979)”. That remains my prayer on this Day for Life 2016.
Let us pray to deepen our wonder at the gift of life. This prayer is taken from Laudato Si’ (Praise Be – on care for our common home), Pope Francis’ encyclical letter of May 2015:
All powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
That we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one. Amen.
· Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. This address was delivered at the Saint Thérèse Novena of Hope in Ballintogher, Co Sligo, on 1 October 2016.
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