Saintly Marriages: The Good, The Bad & the Holy
By Karee Santos
The saints are our cheering section in heaven, rooting for us to finish the race and win the victor’s crown. They can show us how to be better people, better Catholics, and better husbands and wives. Although many saints come from the ranks of the priesthood and the religious life, there are more than 100 married saints and blesseds who show us how to live up to the beautiful but difficult vocation of marriage and parenthood.
Some saints had great marriages, and other saints had dreadful ones. But in every one of their life stories, these men and women reached sainthood through the grace-filled choices they made as spouses and parents.
Doing little things with great love
It’s easy to be intimidated by the perfection of the Holy Family and wonder how ordinary people can ever imitate their example. It helps to think that God’s notion of perfection may not match up exactly with ours. For Mary perfection probably didn’t mean she whipped up five-star recipes every day and had the best decorated house in town. For Joseph perfection most likely didn’t mean out-earning everyone in Nazareth or becoming head of the local carpenters’ guild. Instead Mary and Joseph did little things with great love—and we can, too.
The basic routines of Mary and Joseph’s daily lives mirrored ours. Mary was a stay-at-home mom. She cooked, cleaned, and took care of her home and family. St. Joseph worked to support his wife and son with his strong back and skilled labor.
Like any parents, Joseph and Mary wanted the best for their child. They showed Jesus how to pray and how to obey and respect them. They made sure he learned how to read the Holy Scriptures so he could speak before the assembly in the temple when he was older (see Luke 4:16–17). They trained him to be a carpenter like his father.
They didn’t hitch up the donkey and trot Jesus around to extracurricular activities or push for Jesus to get into the best schools in the best towns in Israel. They didn’t urge him to enter into the most prestigious profession. All those things can be good, but none of them are necessary.
Their perfect lives had some imperfect moments. When Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant, he thought of divorcing her quietly. But when God sent an angel to Joseph in a dream, encouraging him to take Mary as his wife, Joseph did the right thing (see Matthew 1:18–20). Joseph couldn’t find a room in an inn for his wife to give birth. But he stayed with her and helped her make do with the little they had (see Luke 2:7). Joseph and Mary even lost their son for three days in the big city of Jerusalem, far away from their home village. But they searched for him and found him together (see Luke 2:43–46).
Like Mary and Joseph, we can live the ordinary moments of our lives knowing we are achieving something extraordinary. Every little act of service is a step closer to sainthood. Every obstacle conquered together reinforces a lifetime bond of love.
First married couple ever canonized together
Despite the existence of more than 100 married saints and blesseds, the Church has never formally canonized a married couple. That is expected to change in a historic event this October, when Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin, parents of the beloved St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
The Martins lived a comfortable middle-class life in 19th century France. Louis was a watchmaker, and Zelie was a skilled crafter of gorgeous point d’Alencon lace. They met while walking in the countryside—a chance meeting as they crossed a bridge. Catching sight of Louis’ face, Zelie suddenly heard a voice in her heart saying, “This is he whom I have prepared for you.” They married three months later, when she was 27 and he was 35.
The Martins enjoyed fishing, billiards, traveling, and parties. But they also attended daily Mass, prayed the Angelus every day at noon, and kept Sundays as a day of rest. They had nine children, four of whom died in infancy. Five daughters survived—Marie, Pauline, Leonie, Celine, and Thérèse. Thérèse, the youngest, was a special favorite of her father, who called her his “little queen.”
The Martins’ 19-year marriage ended when Zelie died of cancer in 1877 at the age of 45. Thérèse was only four years old when her mother died. Louis raised his five girls by himself with some help from nearby relatives. The sisters tenderly took care of one another. Louis supported the decision of every one of his daughters to enter religious life, many in cloisters cut off from the outside world, even though this meant he would be left virtually alone in his old age.
The Martins were not great philosophers, brave martyrs, or founders of religious orders. The most important thing they did during their lives was to create a family environment that nurtured the blossoming sainthood of their smallest child, Thérèse. This is what all mothers and fathers are called to do—to raise their children to be saints. The example of the Martins gives us hope that we can follow in their footsteps.
Never give up
St. Monica is well-known both for suffering through a terrible marriage and for converting her husband and wayward son through many years of prayer. She lived in fourth century North Africa. Although she was Christian, her parents arranged for her to marry a Roman pagan named Patricius. He was bad-tempered and according to some accounts both physically abusive and unfaithful.
Monica responded to her difficult situation with sweetness, patience, and constant prayer for her husband’s conversion. Although Monica’s habits of almsgiving and prayer annoyed Patricius, he grudgingly respected them. After decades of marriage, Patricius finally converted to Christianity, won over by his wife’s unwavering kindness.
A year later Patricius died. Their oldest son, Augustine, was 17 years old at the time. A brilliant student, Augustine went away to school and began to run wild. Monica at first refused to let him return home, but after experiencing a vision in which a mysterious figure said, “Your son is with you,” Monica relented.
When Monica described her vision to Augustine, he suggested that his mother turn away from Christianity, since her faith was the biggest obstacle in their relationship. Monica quipped that the mysterious figure told her Augustine was with her, not she with Augustine. She clung to her faith and prayed daily for his conversion. Seeking advice from a holy bishop, Monica received the advice that still consoles many anguished mothers today—“It is not possible that the son of so many tears should perish.”
Shortly before Monica’s death, Augustine converted and later became a bishop, an influential theologian, and a canonized saint. On Monica’s deathbed, she told her son that her life’s work was fulfilled because all she had desired was to see him become a Christian before she died. St. Monica is a special model for those whose husbands and children have gone astray and an inspiring example of the power of persevering prayer.
It’s never too late
St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, lived in the Roman Empire during the third and fourth centuries. After almost 20 years of marriage, Helen’s husband, Constantius, a Roman general, divorced her in order to marry a younger, more politically connected woman.
Helen remained in obscurity for two decades, never remarrying, until she returned to public life when her husband died and her son Constantine became emperor. Constantine became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, and Helen converted as well. She donated generously to the poor and founded many churches.
When she was almost 80 years old, she went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Previous Roman emperors had erected temples to the Roman gods and goddesses on the sites of many places holy to Christianity. A shrine to Adonis perched atop the place in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. A temple to Venus, the Roman goddess of love, stood atop Mount Golgotha, or Cavalry, where Jesus was crucified.
Influenced by his mother, Emperor Constantine ordered the destruction of the pagan buildings and the construction of churches to replace them. These churches are still open to pilgrims today, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. During the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Helen discovered the remnants of the true cross on which Jesus was crucified. Although her husband abandoned her, Helen and her son changed the course of Christian history for the better.
All saints can inspire us. But for spouses, the married saints provide a specific roadmap for the vocation to matrimony, a suggested route from earth to heaven. Married saints reveal the eternal value of the everyday work of spouses and parents. They remind us to nurture our children’s souls as well as their minds and bodies. They provide us with hope for a happy ending, even when it’s not what we expected. They remind us that the hard times will pass away and the best is yet to come.