In his Ash Wednesday audience, Pope Francis said, “Having a brother, a sister who loves you is priceless.”
For St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her sister, Leonie, God’s priceless gift of siblinghood was a channel of grace and holiness in their lives.
With the recent opening of Leonie’s cause for beatification and canonization, brothers and sisters reflect on the value of siblings in one’s spiritual life.
Katie Sanders, 26, attributes the vibrancy of her faith today to her brother’s witness of faith and his vocation to the priesthood. “It wasn’t until high school that my faith came alive,” she admitted. “It was my brother’s witness, friendship and love that allowed my faith to blossom. While on a high-school retreat, I was really struggling with [belief in] the Eucharist. I looked over and saw my brother. He looked at what I saw as a piece of bread with such love; I was won over. I thought, ‘My brother is giving his entire life for the Eucharist. This must be true.’”
Her brother, Father Kyle Sanders, 29, described the evolution of their relationship as they each grew closer to Christ: “As her faith and mine matured, we began to build each other up in prayer. I had been the initial influence; she began to turn the tables. I am now encouraged by her love of Christ, which is full of joy and self-gift. She challenges me to love deeper.”
Father Sanders treasures having Katie “walk with him” in his priestly vocation, and his sister acknowledges how important his call to the priesthood was for her growth in holiness. “On the day of my brother’s ordination, I remember weeping at the joy I felt in my heart at the gift of Kyle’s vocation. I know that my brother’s priesthood will bear much fruit, but if his ‘Yes’ was only so that I may know Christ, I am forever grateful.”
Reflecting on the relationship between St. Thérèse and Leonie, Katie added, “Leonie and Thérèse remind me that we never become saints alone. Thérèse needed Leonie, and I need Father Kyle.”
Maureen O’Riordan was drawn to study the life and spirituality of Leonie Martin while learning more about the life of her sister, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Desiring to share the inspiring insights she found with others, O’Riordan founded the site LeonieMartin.org, where she has translated and published resources about Leonie’s life, provided to her by Leonie’s Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.
“During the two years Leonie spent in the Visitation, from 1893 to 1895, Thérèse wrote Leonie a series of spiritual letters that expressed her spontaneous affection for Leonie and articulated the ‘way of confidence and love’ she was then discovering,” O’Riordan explained. “Their relationship blossomed, and each ended by having a profound influence on the other’s life.”
O’Riordan believes that Thérèse and Leonie provide a powerful example of how siblings can encourage one another in faith. Among the lessons their lives and writings teach, O’Riordan mentioned a few important ones modern-day brothers and sisters can learn from: “Even though Thérèse confided less in Leonie, the sisters acted lovingly toward each other,” O’Riordan continued. “Siblings who are different can draw each other to God. Thérèse and Leonie were quite different. As a child, Thérèse was carefully protected; Leonie had been beaten and terrorized by the family’s maid. In grade school, Thérèse was a model pupil; Leonie was expelled. Thérèse became a nun at 15 and remained one for the rest of her life. Leonie finally entered religious life, after four attempts, at age 35. Yet Thérèse and Leonie shared a passion for God and an intense desire for religious life, and they shared the same spirituality. Each took delight in the other’s vocation.”
O’Riordan pointed out that “instead of competing, siblings can stimulate each other to be more generous with God.”
Communities of Love
Janet Cooke is the mother of 10 children, ages 12 to 33. For three decades, she has witnessed her children encourage one another to grow closer to the Lord through the intercession of the Blessed Mother.
Her oldest daughter, Jillian, 33, exemplifies the family’s consecration to Mary as part of the Father Kolbe Missionaries of the Immaculata, a secular institute. “She has been a tremendous witness to her brothers and sisters, influencing them to live a similar commitment in their own vocations,” her mother said.
Jillian believes that living family life among her siblings growing up gave her ample opportunity to strengthen her spiritual life. “Every single one of my siblings has forced me to my knees in petition, gratitude and praise,” Jillian shared. “Having so many siblings to love gave me the opportunity to die to myself every day, but also to see the inexplicable joy of unconditional love.”
Her youngest sister, Gianna, 12, receives and is grateful for Jillian’s love and example of faith: “Jillian has taught me that loving God is the most important thing. Jill always tries to bring others closer to Jesus, particularly through his mother, Mary.” Gianna articulated that all of her siblings play important roles in her spiritual upbringing: “My siblings inspire me to grow in my Catholic faith by encouraging me to pray and attend Mass very often and by answering any questions I may have about my faith. Most of all, however, they teach by example.”
In addition to prayer and forgiveness, Jillian says that one of the most important things siblings can do for one another, in imitation of Thérèse and Leonie, is to encourage one another.
“In St. Thérèse’s last letter to Leonie, she encouraged her sister with these words: ‘If you want to be a saint, this will be easy for you, since, at the bottom of your heart, the world is nothing to you. You can … occupy yourself with ‘the one thing necessary’; that is to say, while you give yourself up devotedly to exterior works, your purpose is simple: to please Jesus, to unite yourself more intimately with him.’”
Jillian described the impact these words have on her and her siblings: “This is what I desire for my siblings and myself, and it is my daily prayer: that we might be occupied by the ‘one thing necessary,’ intimately united to Christ and thus joyful witnesses of his eternal, present love in the world.”
Katie Warner writes from California. Her website is CatholicKatie.com.
Photos courtesy of Sanders and Cooke families, Maureen O'Riordan and Wikipedia