Last Sunday, Pope Francis celebrated the opening Mass for the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the topic of the family. Before the liturgy began, the Holy Father stopped and did something extraordinary – he venerated the relics of a family of saints. St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, and her parents, both Blesseds, Zelie and Louis Martin, had their relics present and will be placed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore during the course of this synod.
In doing this simple act of devotion, the pope is reminding us of what the true purpose of this international meeting of prelates and theologians is truly about. It’s all about making our families holy.
The XIII Ordinary Synod of Bishops from October, 2012 reminds us: “Established by the sacrament of matrimony, the Christian family as the domestic Church is the locus and first agent in the giving of life and love, the transmission of faith and the formation of the human person according to the values of the gospel. In imitating Christ, the whole Church must dedicate herself to supporting families in the catechesis of children and youth. In many cases the grandparents will have a very important role.”
The family is the “veritable cell of the Church” (May 4, 1970), as the soon-to-be blessed Pope Paul VI reminded us so many years ago. The family is the first place where we encounter, please God, the love God shares with us through others. The family is where we first learn about God and the things and ways of God. St. John Paul, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio 17, reminds us: “The family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love.”
This meeting certainly will address the pastoral challenges of families in the contemporary world. Issues like readmission to Communion for the divorced and remarried without annulment will be discussed, and an endless amount of ink has been spilled so far on what might occur in both the secular and the Catholic press. However, the real story is what it’s all really about – reminding our families to be holy, encouraging our people to be saints.
Imagine if that was the main goal of each family – to assist each member of the family – father, mother, brothers, sisters – to get to Heaven. The members of the Martin family, who struggled and had their problems, even emotionally, were all about helping each other to know God and to have each member of the family fulfill his or her true vocation in life.
The Martins knew pain and sorrow in their family. Louis Martin was a working man, a watchmaker of Alencon, France, and Azelie-Marie Guerin was a lacemaker. Only five children from the nine born survived to adulthood. All five were daughters, and all were to become nuns. They knew struggle: Zelie died of breast cancer at the age of 45, and this deeply affected young Therese. The Little Flower, in her “The Story of a Soul,” writes: “When Mummy died, my happy disposition changed. I had been so lively and open; now I became diffident and oversensitive, crying if anyone looked at me. I was only happy if no one took notice of me… It was only in the intimacy of my own family, where everyone was wonderfully kind, that I could be more myself.”
Maybe we should spend more time during this Synod focusing on how each family member can grow to know and love God in this life and be with Him in the next, and then all the pastoral challenges that families face today that the Church wishes to address won’t be as heavy a burden.
St. John Paul reminded us: “The evangelization of the future depends in large part on the domestic church.” (Familiaris Consortio 57). Never has this been truer. Put the focus on the holiness of the family, and then everything else will fall into place.