Holy Matrimony: Sainthood and the Vocation to Christian Marriage

John F. Wagner, Jr.
From the Jun 1999 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

“All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Catechism, no. 2013). Since all are called to holiness, it is undoubtedly true that the communion of saints in heaven includes numerous husbands and wives. However, the ranks of those who have been officially recognized by the Church for their sanctity do not include many men and women who have been elevated primarily on the basis of living out their vocations in marriage.

Perhaps in recognition of this, Pope John Paul II recently advocated what could be characterized as “ecclesial affirmative action” to streamline the canonization procedure for candidates from the current era who bore witness to Christ in the married state:

“It will be the task of the Apostolic See, in preparation for the year 2000, to update the martyrologies for the universal Church, paying careful attention to the holiness of those who in our own time lived fully by the truth of Christ. In particular, there is a need to foster the recognition of the heroic virtues of men and women who have lived their Christian vocation in marriage. Precisely because we are convinced of the abundant fruits of holiness in the married state, we need to find the most appropriate means for discerning them and proposing them to the whole Church as a model and encouragement for other
Christian spouses” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, no. 37).

There are signs that the Church will soon canonize holy fathers and mothers who will serve as models of sanctity for today’s families. Let’s look at how the Church’s understanding of the communion of saints reveals the importance of recognizing holy souls who have lived virtuous lives in their marital vocations and, thereby, entered into heavenly glory.

Sainthood in Historical Perspective

In his 1983 apostolic constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister, which revised the procedures to be followed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Pope John Paul II summarized the teaching of the Church concerning the veneration of saints:

“While we contemplate the life of those who have followed Christ faithfully, we are inspired by a new kind of motivation to seek after the future city and we are taught in the safest manner the path whereby, amid the vicissitudes of the world, we can arrive, each according to his or her own state of life and condition, at perfect union with Christ, that is, holiness. To be sure, having so great a cloud of witnesses around us, through whom God is made present to us and addresses us, we are very strongly attracted to seek after His kingdom in heaven.

“Embracing these signs and voice of the Lord with the greatest reverence and docility, the Apostolic See, from time immemorial, in keeping with the serious task entrusted to it of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the People of God, proposes to the faithful for their imitation, veneration, and invocation men and women who are brilliant examples of charity and the other evangelical virtues and, after due investigations have been carried out, declares them, in the solemn act of canonization, to be saints.”

The current canonization process developed from the public veneration given to martyrs in the early Church. If a bishop determined that a person had died for his or her faith, he could send the person’s name and an account of the martyrdom to other dioceses. It would then be up to the bishops in these other dioceses to sanction the martyr’s public veneration there, so that the faithful “might hold communion with the generous martyr of Christ,” in the words of the account of the martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch. During the first centuries of Church history, culminating in the persecutions under the Roman
emperor Diocletian (284-305), thousands of Christians of all ages and states of life died for the faith as martyrs, and for this they are venerated.

Only in the fourth century did local Churches begin to publicly recognize the sanctity of confessors. The term “confessor” initially meant one who had confessed Christ publicly during the age of the martyrs and had been persecuted for it, but short of death. By the fourth century, the term was applied to those other than martyrs who had lived a holy life of Christian virtue and were deemed worthy of devotion and imitation. Some of the earliest so honored were St. Ephrem (d. 373) and St. Martin of Tours (d. 397).

For several centuries thereafter, local Church authorities continued to determine which candidates from among martyrs and confessors were deserving of public honor in particular territories. In order to bestow such honor in the universal Church, however, the Pope’s approval was required. Over time, owing to indiscretions with respect to some of the persons who were being accorded public veneration at the local level, the Church centralized its control over this area of Catholic practice.

In the 12th century, Pope Alexander III prohibited veneration of a certain person, declaring that “even though miracles were worked through him, it would not allow you to revere him as a saint unless with the authority of the Roman Church.” Finally, by a papal bull issued in 1634, Pope Urban VIII reserved exclusive authority in all matters of public veneration to the Holy See. He later added that all expressions regarding the sanctity of persons not yet
canonized or beatified are made without any anticipation of the judgment of the Church.

This consolidation of ecclesial jurisdiction over the canonization process, however necessary, may have had the result of making it more difficult for lay men and women, particularly those without high social standing or influence, to attain ecclesiastical honor even in their own geographical area. For many years, extending even into this century, the canonization process was complex, lengthy, and expensive. While the process has been streamlined under Pope John Paul II, further revision may be necessary to ensure that the married faithful have contemporary models of holiness to imitate in the present “age of
the laity,” which began in earnest following Vatican II.

The Apostolate of Married Laity

Vatican II, more than any ecumenical council before it, placed special emphasis on the role of the laity in the Church. The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) offers particular guidance on the way to holiness for married persons
today. The section of this document devoted to married persons and families provides that Christian couples, as one of their supreme tasks, must manifest and prove by their own way of life the unbreakable and sacred character of the marriage bond, and that Christian families give priceless testimony to Christ before the world by remaining faithful to the Gospel and by providing a model of Christian marriage throughout their lives.

In Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Council Fathers observed that married life has great value in evangelization. The Christian family, where the spouses find their proper vocation in being witnesses to one another and to their children of the faith that they have in Christ and in their love for Him, “loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to
come” (no. 35).

In accord with such view, the first of several chapters on “problems of special urgency” discussed by Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) is entitled, “Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family.” An excerpt from this chapter illustrates the relationship that exists between the marital vocation and the call to holiness:

“For this reason, Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state. By family obligations, they are penetrated with the Spirit of Christ. This Spirit suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope, and charity. Thus they increasingly advance their own perfection, as well as their mutual sanctification, and hence contribute jointly to the glory of God.

“As a result, with their parents leading the way by example and family prayer, children and indeed everyone gathered around the family hearth will find a readier path to human maturity, salvation, and holiness” (no. 48).

Pope John Paul II on Holiness in Marriage

In his 1994 Letter to Families, Pope John Paul II further developed the Church’s theology of the family. He stressed that “the ‘communion of persons’ in the family should become a preparation for the ‘communion of saints,’” since everyone, “including spouses and families,” is “called equally to perfect holiness” (no. 14). Observing that marriage was the vocation to which most men and women were called, the Pope identified the bodies of the husband and wife as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, and the family as the place where living stones were formed for the “spiritual house” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5)
built on Christ as the cornerstone.

Starting with the apostles, the Holy Father declared, all generations of Christ’s disciples have drawn upon the “gospel of the family,” a truth that was a treasure for the Church and that found its fullest symbolic expression in the mystery of the Holy Family— the beginning of countless other “holy families”—in which the divine Bridegroom brings about the redemption of all families. The treasure of Christian truth about the family, said the Holy
Father, had been examined and analyzed by recent written documents of the Church, but he counseled that this, in itself, was insufficient:

Written testimonies alone, however, will not suffice. Much more important are living testimonies. As Pope Paul VI observed [in a 1974 address], ‘contemporary man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he listens to teachers it is because they are witnesses.’ In the Church, the treasure of the family has been entrusted first and foremost to witnesses: to those fathers and mothers, sons and daughters who through the
family have discovered the path of their human and Christian vocation. . . . In our age, as in the past, there is no lack of witnesses to the ‘gospel of the family,’ even if they are not well known or have not been proclaimed saints by the Church” (no. 23).

In the 1994 bestseller Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Holy Father followed his own advice by providing a personal example of how the universal call to holiness can intersect with a person’s call to marriage:

“The call to marriage is also a vocation, a gift from God. I will never forget a young man, an engineering student in Kraków, who everyone knew aspired with determination to holiness. . . . He knew he had been ‘created for greater things,’ as Saint Stanislaus Kostka once expressed it. And at the same time, he had no doubt that his vocation was neither to
priesthood nor to religious life. He knew he was called to remain in the secular world. Technical work, the study of engineering, was his passion. He
sought a companion for his life and sought her on his knees, in prayer. I will never forget the conversation in which, after a special day of retreat, he said to me: ‘I think that this is the woman who should be my wife, that it is God who has given her to me.’ It was almost as if he were following not only the voice of his own wishes but above all the voice of God Himself. He knew that all good things come from Him, and he made a good choice. I am speaking of Jerzy Ciesielski, who died in a tragic accident in the Sudan, where he had been invited to teach at the University. The cause for his beatification is
already underway” (p. 122, original emphasis).

Recent Developments

On March 26, 1994, the Church officially recognized the heroic virtue of Venerables Louis Martin (1823-94) and Maria Azelia Guerin Martin (1831-77), who were the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Significantly, the Martins are identified in their causes as “layman and father of a family” and “laywoman and mother of a family.” The causes of this husband and wife are being considered jointly, and thus the Martins could become the first married couple to be declared saints together, as father and mother of a family, following the Church’s examination of their lives.

In addition to the Martins, other married candidates whose causes have been acted upon during the past five years have included Bl. Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-62), an Italian physician who died after giving birth following her refusal of treatment for uterine cancer where the treatment would have killed her unborn child; Bl. Peter To Rot (1916-45), a catechist from Papua New Guinea who was martyred by occupying Japanese forces during World War II for his Catholicism, in particular for his stand against forced polygamy; and Bl. Elisabetta Canori Mora (1774-1825), an Italian woman whose total fidelity to her
marriage vows won her unfaithful husband’s return to the faith after her death.

Here and Hereafter

Married men and women who seek to answer the universal call to holiness are well-advised to turn first to Mary, the “Queen of the Family,” and to St. Joseph, the “just man” whose own fiat at the critical moment brought the Holy Family into being. For additional assistance, married couples will now be able to emulate, as well as invoke, an increasing number of men and women like themselves who have reached perfection in their roles as spouses. The Sacrament of Marriage, through a couple’s cooperation with God’s grace, can surely be a means of sanctification for Christian men and women.

John F. Wagner, Jr. is the editor of  Catholic Family Perspectives (www.frontiernet.net/~jfwagner/cf110198.htm).

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