OTTAWA (CCN) — On the eve of Zélie and Louis Martin’s canonization Oct. 18, Ottawa parents, some already devoted to the new saints, took part in a conference on sanctifying families Oct. 16-17.
“There are innumerable attacks on the family as God designed it, and our times and marriages cry out for examples of holiness, to help us to sanctify our own families,” Cheryl Thompson, one of the conference organizers, told the approximately 200 people, mostly young families, present.
“I love that Pope Francis is canonizing a married couple,” Thompson said in a talk describing the lives of the Martins, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, the “Little Flower,” and Doctor of the Church and the first married couple to be canonized together.
“Although I am sincerely grateful for the holiness and example of many great saints, if the church canonized only popes, or Mother Teresas, who among us could relate, in our day-to-day lives?” Thompson asked.
“Louis and Zélie were normal people, as normal as you or me, and they were by no means perfect,” she said. “Yet in the normalcy of daily life, they found ways to attain personal holiness, to overcome trials and suffering, and to lead their children to holiness as well.”
Thompson outlined how Louis and Zélie both worked in addition to raising their family, he as a watchmaker and she as a producer of fine lace. They also experienced much suffering, especially through the loss of four children, three in infancy, one daughter at age five. Zélie died of breast cancer at the young age of 45, leaving Louis alone to raise their remaining five daughters, all of whom entered cloistered life, a huge sacrifice for their father.
The Martins “lived out the church’s teaching heroically,” Thompson said, noting with their canonization, “they will become universal examples of how to be a Christian husband and wife, father and mother.”
David and Theresa McPike shared their personal witness of “Flowers from the Martin Family.” Married for 10 years, the parents of five, their “world was turned upside down” when their eldest child, Naomi Therese, died an accidental death at age five. “It was the worst and most grace-filled moment of my life,” said Theresa.
A week or two before Naomi’s death, Thompson had given her a book, A Call to a Deeper Love, featuring the correspondence of the Martin family. The Martins had suffered the loss the McPike’s were experiencing four times, Theresa said. Like the Martins, though sorrowing, they abandoned themselves “to God’s holy will.”
“Our loss and pain didn’t hurt our family; it made it even stronger,” she said.
“This soul-wracking experience” deepened their understanding of themselves as children of God and of the Catholic Church, David McPike said.
“The church is the place to foster the birth and growth of saints,” he said, “To prepare them to be filled with God, loving mercy, justice and love.”
Nazareth Family Apostolate leaders Cheryl and David Darwent shared how their offering of three or four one-week retreats a summer over the past 15 years had helped their 35-year marriage.
“We brought a lot of baggage into our marriage,” said Cheryl. “No one knew the hidden suffering.”
David said the baggage was mostly his, since he had been sexually abused by an older brother, now deceased, from infancy until he was 10 years old. Scripture verses 2 Corinthians 12:9 about how God’s grace is made perfect in weakness and John 3:20 about how everyone who participates in evil hates the light became touchstones for his spiritual growth and deliverance, he said.
Through “exposing darkness to light,” David said he found freedom “to live in the light.”
He found the stigma of the abuse, that had been “kept in darkness,” no longer had power over him as he shared it how it had contributed to lust, anger and selfishness in his family life.
The retreats provided a place where God could heal their marriage and family life in ways they never thought possible, he said. The Darwents said the retreats have helped them experience the support of other Catholic families. “We are not alone in this journey of holiness,” he said.
Keynote speakers Rita and Gerard McCarthy, founders of the St. John’s, Nfld.-based Marriages for Mary apostolate, spoke on God’s divine plan for marriage and on families’ mission to love.
So many confuse love with a feeling, on “what you are getting, not what we’re giving,” said Rita. Jesus calls us to love one another “as I have loved you.”
The McCarthys said they have tried to intentionally live out unconditional, merciful and sacrificial love in their marriage.
“Mercy is critical in marriage, day in and day out,” she said. “Family life offers so many opportunities for mercy.”
“We must never give up on one another,” said Gerard.
The message of, “No matter what, we are together,” sends a message of the indissolubility of marriage, he said.
As for sacrificial love, to follow Jesus’ example, “we literally have to love each other to the point of death, letting go of our own agendas to love sacrificially,” Rita said. “Letting go of our own agendas to love sacrificially, being intentional on this is really hard.”
Gerard recalled a weekend where he had promised Rita a walk around the lake and lunch out. Then, however, he got a call from his brother-in-law, asking if he would like to join him in moose hunting that weekend.
“You’re joking, right?” when Gerard told his brother-in-law why he could not go. “I did not go. I was present with my wife on that day.”
Rita said she was elated that day. “I am more important than a moose!”
Gerard added, “The byes (boys) did not get a moose that day.”