One of the most popular saints in history is St. Therese of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower: the simple, humble Carmelite nun who lived in France in the latter part of the 19th century. She achieved great holiness in her short life of 24 years, due in large part to the example and encouragement of her devout parents, Louis and Zelie—both of whom were eventually canonized as saints themselves. It’s a wonderful thing—and, indeed part of God’s plan—when parents and children help each other grow in holiness and come closer to Him. Many saints, however, did not have that fortunate experience. For every St. Therese of Lisieux who knew the tender love of a father, there is also a St. Martin de Porres, whose illegitimate father abandoned him and the rest of his family, or a St. Dymphna, a St. Hermenegild, or the child martyr Blessed Christopher of Mexico, all of whom were executed by their own fathers for refusing to give up their Catholic faith.
Living as part of the family of God may sometimes mean opposing a member of our earthly family—often at terrible cost. The 9th century martyrs Sts. Flora and Mary were denounced as Christians by Flora’s Muslim brother, and both were beheaded. Even when physical violence isn’t involved, saints quite often experienced rejection when they placed God’s will ahead of their parents’ desires. St. Francis of Assisi was one of many spiritual heroes disowned by his father for choosing to answer God’s call. In the 7th century, when St. Amand prepared to enter a monastery at the age of twenty, his father threatened to disinherit him; to this Amand replied, “Christ is my only inheritance.” St. Catherine of Siena was the youngest of twenty-five children; not surprisingly, her parents wanted her to marry someone wealthy, but Catherine refused: her life, she stated, belonged to God. Instead of supporting her daughter’s vocation, Catherine’s mother nagged her about making herself beautiful so as to find a husband, to which Catherine responded by cutting off her hair. Her punishment for this act of defiance was to perform the hardest household chores and to serve the rest of the family—which Catherine did so cheerfully and patiently that finally her father decreed she be left in peace and allowed to live as a recluse or hermit in her room. These and many other saints throughout history understood the truth of Our Lord’s teaching that our highest duty is toward God alone—and this command is just as valid and important today. We were created with an inner need for God, an emptiness only He can fill—and this can only happen if we try to place His will above everything else.
Business consultants and efficiency experts will tell us that if we want to get the most out of our time, first things must come first—in other words, instead of letting ourselves become overwhelmed by details and distractions, we must always remember what truly matters and stay focused on our goal. This is also good advice when it comes to our spiritual lives. The Book of Wisdom states that we cannot really know the mind of God or understand His plans—but this doesn’t matter as long as we try to obey His commandments in a spirit of love and trust; living in such a manner means our lives will not be wasted or veer off in the wrong direction. In his Letter to Philemon, St. Paul was inviting one of his converts, a man named Philemon, to demonstrate the sincerity of his faith by setting free his slave Onesimus, a fellow Christian, who had run away and sought refuge with Paul. Roman society allowed Philemon to own Onesimus, but Paul gently suggested that Philemon should be living by Heaven’s standards, not those of this world. First things must come first, especially when it comes to following Jesus. Our Lord (Luke 14:25-33) makes it clear that He expects a true commitment on the part of His followers. We must take up our cross each day and follow after Him—knowing this will put us at odds with this world and perhaps even with our own families.
The saints have much wisdom to share when it comes to family life. Jesus speaks of taking up our cross and following Him each day—and according to St. Francis de Sales, this has special meaning for husbands and wives. He says, “Let married people remain on their cross of obedience, which is in marriage. It is the best and most practical cross [for] them and one of the most demanding, in that there is almost continual activity—and occasions for suffering are more frequent than in any other state. Do not desire, therefore, to descend from this cross under any pretext whatever. Since God has placed you there, remain there always.” Even though, as a bishop, St. Francis de Sales was never married himself, it sounds as if he had a good understanding of how challenging marriage can be—which is why it can also be a great opportunity for growing in holiness. This saint also said we must be as kind to our family members as we are to friends and strangers—otherwise we will “resemble those who are angels abroad and devils at home.”
According to St. Augustine, “Love your father, but not more than you love God. Love your mother, but not more than the mother who gave you birth to eternal life [meaning the Church]. Furthermore, from this same love of your parents see how much you ought to love God and the Church.” As all the saints realized, love is the key: the key to holiness, the key to finding and fulfilling our mission in life, and—if we’re lucky—the key to a happy family life. The more we love God, the more we become capable of loving others—especially our parents, siblings, relatives, and children. Sometimes this love will be fully and generously returned; other times it may be misunderstood, belittled, or rejected, especially if family members resent our commitment to God and the Church. In either case, Jesus expects us to put Him first if we would truly be His disciples. When “Heaven’s family album” is made available for everyone to see on Judgment Day, there will surely be many fascinating and amazing images and stories. In the meantime, however, we’re called to do our best to make our families on earth a reflection of the joy and peace that awaits us in God’s Kingdom. This may often be difficult, and sometimes even impossible, but the Lord will surely bless our attempts to help our family members in their own journey toward holiness, and—as long as we try to put Him first in our lives—will certainly hear our prayers on their behalf. The saints were willing to give up everything to follow Jesus; the more we try to imitate them, the more we will be blessed