Marriage Is a Saint-Making Business

COMMENTARY

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Marriage is a saint-making business. At its most basic, making saints of sinners is what marriage does.

In other words, by God’s grace and with God’s grace, matrimony teaches us fallen, selfish creatures to love without counting the cost. Day in and day out, it calls us to die to ourselves — to give more generously, to sacrifice more heroically and to forgive more readily. It is and has been, for countless men and women, the ordinary path to holiness.

And yet, while marriage is a saint-making business, the business of making saints has limited the number of married couples officially canonized by the Church to exactly … zero.

That’s right. Zero. Not once since the Church formalized its process for naming saints in the Middle Ages has a married couple been raised to the altars.

It’s true that there are a few “mixed” marriages, like the 12th-century Spanish farmer St. Isidore, canonized in 1622, and his wife, Maria, beatified (but never canonized) in 1697. Likewise, if you look back far enough, you’ll find holy couples such as St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia — who, in the fourth century, raised not one, but three saints (Macrina the Younger, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great) — and their contemporaries, St. Gregory of Nazianzen the Elder and St. Nonna (parents to Sts. Gorgonia and Gregory of Nazianzen the Younger).

Those early Christian couples, however, were declared saints the old-fashioned way — by popular acclaim due to a widespread reputation for holiness. No tribunal sifted through the details of their lives, and no pope officially added them to the saintly roster.

That’s not to say the Church has any qualms about declaring married persons saints. Plenty of holy people who have also been husbands and wives — from St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Thomas More to St. Gianna Beretta Molla — have been raised to the altars. And no one has any doubt that biblical couples like John the Baptist’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, or Jesus’ own grandparents, Anne and Joachim — not to mention nameless couples without number — enjoy the beatific vision.

For the Church, it’s not a question of whether or not married people can become saints just like priests and religious. They can, most definitely. Rather, it may simply be a great deal more difficult to make the official case for those who’ve said, “I do” to a human spouse as opposed to a divine Spouse.

Again, the saint-making process is serious business. Assessing the life and holiness of a given individual typically requires thousands of man-hours — hours spent interviewing witnesses, compiling documentation and then reviewing the whole kit and caboodle.

Few families have the time, energy or finances to make that kind of assessment possible. Religious orders (and dioceses) do. Perhaps that largely explains why, of the 10,000 saints officially canonized by the Catholic Church since the early 13th century, only 500 have lived the vocation of marriage.

But, while the scarcity of married saints in general and married saintly couples in particular is understandable, it’s still a shame. The Church doesn’t just declare people saints so that we know whose intercession to call upon when we lose our keys. Nor is it merely a way of honoring good and faithful servants for a life well lived.

Rather, through holding up men and women as saints, the Church helps us make friends with the holy ones who’ve gone before us. That makes it possible for us to be inspired by those friends, encouraged by their witness and guided by their example. The saints give us models for practical holiness, for living out the Gospel in ordinary and extraordinary ways as we go about the business of our day.

And that, again, is why it’s so important for Catholics — the majority of whom are called to marriage — to have saints to look upon who lived lives akin to our own.

Fortunately, the Holy Spirit knows that and has two married couples moving swiftly along the path towards (official) sainthood: Blessed Luigi and Blessed Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi and Blessed Louis and Blessed Zélie Martin (parents to St. Thérèse of Lisieux).

Both couples — one Italian, one French — lived in relatively recent times (the Quattrocchis in the 20th century, the Martins in the 19th); both knew the joys and struggles of parenthood; and both juggled the complexities of work and family life.

Luigi Quattrocchi was a lawyer and civil servant; Maria was a professor and author. Louis Martin was a watchmaker who eventually closed his own shop to help Zélie manage her prosperous lace-making business. Maria survived a difficult pregnancy, refusing to abort even when the doctor swore that both she and the child would die if she went to term. Zélie buried four children in five years and then endured a prolonged battle with breast cancer, to which she finally succumbed at age 46.

Romance and babies, financial woes and professional headaches, great love and great loss — it’s all there in the lives of these two couples, giving married people today both powerful intercessors and powerful examples to imitate as they journey towards holiness.

Even better, this fall, Pope Francis plans to canonize one of those couples — the Martins (shown) — during the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. That will make St. Thérèse’s parents not only the first married couple officially canonized by the Church, but also the first married couple canonized together.

Which, since marriage is a saint-making business, is exactly how it ought to be.

Emily Stimpson writes from

Steubenville, Ohio,

where she blogs at

TheCatholicTable.com.

An icon of Titus Brandsma is seen in Bolsward, the Netherlands.

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