Ordinary Lay Holiness – Part XXIII
Long marriages and many children are signs of great, demanding sacrificial love
My parents had seven children. They were married for 61 years, until my mother’s death. I often think about what I say was “their great love.” She would often tell us children that she loved “every hair on your father’s head.” And he would cry in front of me when he would remember how she, at age 48, was in the hospital with unstoppable bleeding, possibly dying.
For so many of my generation, long marriages and large families were common. In writing this essay several years ago, I picked up the Washington Post of June 29, 2016, and espied two obituaries of two women whose husbands survived them. They were Catholic: Mary Ann Keller, age 85, married 65 years, five children; and Momenica Francesca Serra Leonard, age 85, married 62 years, seven children. I have added three more obituaries: Nancy Lee Wright Miller (d. 2018), married 65 years, six children; Anna J. Aurichio (d. 2017), married 62 years, six children; and Dr. Edward Pacious (d. 2017), married 62 years, 12 children.
By discussing long marriages and large families, I am not suggesting that only laypeople with long marriages and many children could be candidates as Servants of God. But it is obvious that long marriages and many children are signs of great, demanding sacrificial love. They are indicative of a healthy, wholesome life, and a healthy, wholesome sex life. Matrimony is holy; married people make love to the glory of God Who made them man and woman. The traditional term “marital pleasure” or “marital act” – obviously within marriage – is holy and good and God’s will. What message has the Church been sending by refraining from canonizing women and men who are married, or who are a married couple, or whose marriages have been blessed by God with children?
Aside from the unusual Martin family of France, the Church holds up as a model of holiness practically no couple, who have been devout, deeply in love with Christ, helped each other, bonded, raised children in the Faith, known for holiness among friends, relatives, parishioners, priests, their children and grandchildren.
In Myles Connolly’s novel Mr. Blue, cited earlier, the main character Blue converses with the fictional narrator. Blue talks about Saints Francis Borgia, Thomas More, and Louis, all married with children. This leads him into speculation concerning the various husbands and fathers who were great saints. “It’s odd,” he says, “that nowadays there’s no special appeal to sainthood for the heads of families. The idea seems to be that after a man is married little else than an ordinary good Christian life is expected of him. In the ripe wisdom of noble husbandhood should lie, it seems to me, rare seeds of sanctity…”
I must mention here that a biographer of St. Thomas More, Professor Gerard B. Wegemer, devotes a full chapter to More’s choice of vocation. He observes that More had no “attractive or compelling models of people who consciously set out to achieve Christian perfection in and through marriage and worldly responsibilities” (Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage, 1995). There are more saints with children than Francis Borgia, Thomas More, and Louis, of course, even without mentioning the many widows, with children, who founded religious orders. There is, for example, the extended family of the Cappadocian Fathers and Saints Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa (see my “Basil and Gregory: Two School Chums Who Became Saints,” Spero Forum, Aug. 15, 2013). Another example is St. Isidore (ca. 1070-1130), married, with one child.
In 1997 I wrote a brief essay of appreciation for a man I knew who, when he was young, had married a young woman even though he knew she had multiple sclerosis. He cared for her for over 20 years (“A Promise Keeper,” Celebrating Life, American Life League, vol. 19, no. 3, May-June 1997, p. 17). After her death, he continued a life of giving and devotion; he married a widow with four minor children.
How might we respond to such a plenitude of holy flowers of grace among us? Pope St. John Paul II was correct in recognizing that saintliness was common and many individuals could be canonized without diluting the brand, so to speak. We can and should rejoice in God’s creation and His grace and His children. I am reminded of U.S. Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz’s words spoken a month after the landing on Iwo Jima: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” (March 16, 1945). I have wondered whether the Church Fathers worry that being focused on lay holiness may open floodgates, and that they will not have the resources to discern who should be pronounced Servants of God and who should not. My response is: Such a good “problem” to have! (College football coach and Catholic Lou Holtz says that there are problems that come with failure, of course, but there are also problems that come with success.) The Church Fathers may also worry that if large numbers of people think they can be saints without becoming priests or religious, it may dampen vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Au contraire! When I was writing my master’s thesis, Aquinas on Marriage, I read a true statement that when priestly celibacy is esteemed, so too is the Sacrament of Matrimony, and vice versa.
In the next installment, I will share with you part of the fourth Lenten homily of 2016, on the subject of “Marriage and Family,” given by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household.
***Editor’s Note: For Part XXIV in this series, click here
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