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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

October 17, 2008

Parents of St. Thérèse One Step Closer to Sainthood

Mission Sunday, October 19, is the date of the beatification of the mother and father of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, one of the most popular saints of modern times. They are the first parents of a saint to be beatified and the first married couple to move down the road to sainthood as a couple.

Zelie and Louis Martin, the parents of Thérèse and eight other children, are undoubtedly particularly happy with events that brought them the title of “Blessed.” The events eternally connect them with a modern couple who are parents of a large family.

The necessary directive for the beatification of the Martins came last summer when Pope Benedict XVI authorized the promulgation of a 2003 healing of Pietro Schillero, now six years old. The healing was directly attributed to the intercession of the Martins. The boy was born with inoperable lung deformities in 2002 in Monza, Italy in the diocese of Milan.

Doctors had told the baby’s mother and father, parents of five other children, that their baby could not survive without pulmonary support. His chances for long-term survival were virtually non-existent. But, the Schillero’s pastor, a Carmelite priest, suggested that the Pietro’s parents pray a novena to Louis and Zelie Martin. The Martins would understand their agony, he told them. Louis and Zelie lost four children, three in infancy, one at five years old.

The Schilleros’ fellow parishioners joined them in prayer. On June 29, 2003, on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the baby’s condition showed dramatic and almost instantaneous improvement. Testing indicated the lungs were now unexplainably healed; the deformities had disappeared! Fourteen-month-old Pietro Schillero continued to improve and left the hospital in July, 2003. Miraculously, he went home to his overjoyed family, breathing on his own!

A happy, holy home—full of joy—was what Zelie and Louis Martin understood very well. Their beatification and expected canonization gives the world a good look at the way husbands and wives can live their lives with extraordinary virtue. The Martins believed that their vocation was raising a happy, holy family for God.

Although Zelie Guerin Martin, (1831-1877) and Louis Martin (1823-1894) were initially drawn to religious vocations, it was “love at first sight” for Zelie. She strolled past Louis one Spring day in 1858 on the bridge in Alencon. They met soon after that and married three months later. Zelie was twenty-seven; Louis was thirty-five. Louis was a master watch-maker, and Zelie, a lace-maker whose lace creations were in high demand.

The way that Zelie and Louis lived as a couple and as devoted parents amazed those who knew them well. Two months before she died, Thérèse herself wrote, “God gave me a father and mother more worthy of Heaven than of earth.“ Thérèse was only four when her forty-six-year-old mother died of breast cancer. But the saint’s memories of her mother were vivid and formative. The widowed Louis, left to raise five girls, aged four to seventeen, was devastated but continued to urge his children to listen for God’s voice.

Particularly during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the Church has seen the enormous value in holding up married models of holiness. In 1994, the cause for canonization was launched on behalf of Zelie and Louis Martin. Proponents of their cause believe that the example of the Martins will resonate well with twenty-first century families.

This was a two-career couple who faced challenges much like those facing twenty-first century couples today—finding good child care; making a living, caring for aging parents; educating a special-needs child; forming their children in the faith; finding time to pray and staying active in their parish. Devout Catholics, Zelie and Louis saw Christ in the poor and worked for a just society.

Every day in Alencon, husband and wife attended the early morning “poor Mass,” a Mass for the town’s common laborers. The Martin children were taught their prayers and pious practices at a very early age. And above everything else, the five Martin girls learned the lessons of listening for God’s guidance. “God knows best,” Zelie often reminded her girls — Marie, Pauline, Celine, Leonie, and finally Thérèse.

Teaching Strategies

1. Summarize the story of Zelie and Louis Martin, the 2003 healing of Pietro Schillero and their recent beatification. Connect the story, of course, with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower whom students have likely heard and read about.

2. Poll students informally. What do they think are the most important things that they may one day want to teach their children? What are the best ways to teach values. Can students agree on “the most important spiritual lesson that children should learn from their families?”

3. Engage students in a brief debate on the value of spiritual “role models.” “Can saints from centuries past still serve as useful spiritual role models in our twenty-first century?” “Yes” or “No”?

Extra Credit Activities
1. Share this excellent website for the beatification of Zelie and Louis Martin and its related links to sites for St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the miraculous healing of Pietro Schillero. Challenge students to stretch their imaginations and write a three-to-five minute question and answer “interview” of the newly beatified couple for a local radio program. How would Zelie and Louis Martin deal with the challenges that families face today?

2. Invite students to produce short video documentaries that present interviews of parents sharing their views about raising holy children.

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