Keeping families united in times of separation

In October of this year, Pope Francis will canonize Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin -- the first saints to be canonized as a married couple. Many will recognize Louis and Zélie Martin as the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church. While some may believe they are being canonized because they bore so great a saint, the truth is that St. Thérèse became who she was in part due to the example of her saintly parents. And in July of this year, a cause for beatification was opened for another Martin daughter, St. Thérèse’s older sister Leonie.

How, some might ask, did this French couple raise such holy and faithful children, all five of whom pursued a vocation to religious life? We might be tempted to believe that life was somehow easier for them, perhaps simpler than in the modern world. But nothing could be further from the truth. Several family members were plagued with serious illnesses. Four of their children died young, and Blessed Zélie herself died of cancer when Thérèse was just four years old. The family lived through occupation of their own home by a foreign army, economic difficulties, and mental illness. Pertinent to our present topic, the family was challenged by many separations. For example, when St. Thérèse was an infant, she had to live away from the home for several months in order to be nursed back to health. On a few occasions, family members went on pilgrimages to pray in challenging times. Other separations include when Marie, Pauline, and Leonie were away at boarding school, when the Martin daughters left the home, one by one, as they entered the convent, and when Blessed Louis had to be hospitalized as he suffered with dementia. And then, of course, there were the most profound separations – the death of Blessed Zélie when her children were still young, Blessed Louis’ death, and Thérèse’s own early death from tuberculosis.

Through it all, the Martin family never forgot who they were, and whose they were. We find in them a profound example of what family is called to be. By attending to three aspects of their family life, we too can cultivate a powerful unity with one another and with our Lord.

Family Identity

The Martin family had certain sayings that helped define their approach to daily life. In his biography of Blessed Louis and Zélie, Fr. Paulinus Redmond writes about one of these:

There developed in the Martin family a saying of “setting pearls in your crown.” This was a neat way of expressing the idea that small sacrifices on earth would count as great rewards in heaven, which would be seen to be like jewels in a crown. Zélie put her efforts into this training so that the words of St. Peter could be said to all her children: ‘When the Chief Shepherd appears you will be given the crown of glory’ (Redmond, p. 41).

Surely this was an inspiration to Thérèse’s own “little way” of sanctity.

Generosity was another defining characteristic of the Martin family. When they were forced to house soldiers from the Prussian army occupying their town of Alençon, the Martins not only shared what they had, they often even surprised the soldiers with special gifts and treats. After the war, when their community was economically devastated by the heavy indemnity imposed on the French people, the Martins shared what little they had with those less fortunate, and never failed to thank God for what they had.

Concrete visual symbols of the family and what was important to them filled the house and the later lives of the Martin children. For example, the statue of Our Lady of the Smile, which Louis moved to Thérèse’s room when she was severely ill, was a symbol of their devotion to Our Lady, whose intercession they would credit for Thérèse’s miraculous recovery. Thérèse later painted symbols of her family, represented in the form of lilies and roses, the latter of which she herself would use as a sign of her goodwill following her death.

Today’s families can cultivate unity during challenging times, including times of separation, by adopting similar practices – having family mottos that state, succinctly and clearly, the mission of our families. Our own family motto is causarum justia et misericordia: “for the causes of justice and mercy,” a saying inscribed on rings worn by my wife and me. This motto has inspired us to go all over the world to do God’s work, from educational initiatives in a rainforest community in Latin America to training those who rescue children from trafficking in Southeast Asia. Our family motto has called us outside ourselves and our home, which is part of God’s plan for the family. Just as God himself is a communion of persons that does not stay closed in on itself, a family, as a communion of persons and a sign of God’s love, is called to send forth its unique gifts in order to accomplish God’s will in our world. But a family motto also reminds us who we are when we are apart from the family. When we go out in daily life, in mission, or in separations that are not of our own choosing, we carry the family, and the family’s mission, with us.

We can also adopt visual symbols that focus our senses and mind on our priorities and remind us that God is present in our homes. This is especially important for young children, who are such concrete thinkers and benefit from visual reminders. To this end, families would do well to revive the practice of home altars, sacred spaces in the home that serve as a focal point for prayer and reflection, with concrete signs that point beyond this earthly life towards our heavenly destination. We can start simply, with an end table or mantle on which we place a few sacred objects – perhaps a crucifix, a statue of a patron saint, a candle, and other sacramentals.

Wearing sacramentals such as medals, crucifixes and scapulars can also remind us of our faith when we are away from the home or separated from the family. It is a way for us to wear our faith out into the world, and a comfort and reassurance in times of challenge.

Shared Memories

What a family does together – the time spent being present to one another – is tremendously important to them when they must be apart. In their new book, Discovering God Together, Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak discuss the research on family rituals and routines. Citing research in the social sciences, they state,

“More than sixty years of research shows that, almost more than any other factor, the presence of regular rituals and routines that govern how and how often the family works, plays, talks, and prays together (e.g., family meals, game nights, prayer time, family days, holidays and celebrations, chores, bedtime routines, et cetera) dictates both how stable and how happy that family will be together over time (Fiese, 2006)” (Popcak, p. 22).

Family rituals and routines create shared memories and a shared sense of identity that shepherd us in life when we are apart from the family. Many rituals we celebrate when we are together keep us close when we are separated. We are often brought closer in mind and spirit to family members who are far away when we are doing something we remember doing together with them.

One especially important ritual of the Martin family was daily prayer. Blessed Zélie taught her children to recite the following prayer each day:

“My God, I give you my heart; please accept it so that no creature, but You alone, my good Jesus, may possess it.” (Redmond, p. 40).

The Martin family also had a tradition of taking Sunday afternoon walks after Mass. In the summers, they would go on vacation to visit family and friends. In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, Thérèse would remember with fondness these times spent with family, and how family time shaped her life and her faith.

How quickly those sunny years of my childhood passed away, and what tender memories they have imprinted on my mind! I remember the Sunday walks when my dear Mother always accompanied us; and I can still feel the impression made on my childish heart at the sight of the fields bright with cornflowers, poppies, and marguerites. Even at that age I loved far-stretching views, sunlit spaces and stately trees; in a word, all nature charmed me and lifted up my soul to Heaven. (Story of a Soul, Ch. 1, p. 14)

A recent study by the Holy Cross Family Ministries and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that only 22% of Catholic families attend Mass weekly and only 17% of Catholic parents who pray on their own also pray together as a family (Gray, 2015). This represents a crisis in the practice of our faith and a potentially grave obstacle to handing on the faith to the next generation. As a family psychologist, I have clearly seen that children grow to do that which they have lived and experienced. One of the most important things we can do to stay strong when we are apart is to pray when we are together. When we stay close to God through prayer, we also stay close to one another, even when we are physically separated. Modern technology also allows us, in some instances, to pray as a family even at times when there is physical distance between us. Today’s hectic lifestyles often lead families to say they cannot find the time for prayer. It’s difficult, with today’s schedules, to find the time for anything, but if we even said a short prayer as often as we checked our email or drove to soccer practice, it would probably change our lives!

In a homily on the family in 2013, Pope Francis encouraged families to pray together, saying,

“I would like to ask you, dear families: do you pray together from time to time as a family? Some of you do, I know. But so many people say to me, “But how can we?” As the tax collector does, it is clear: humbly, before God [Luke 18:9-14]. Each one, with humility, allowing themselves to be gazed upon by the Lord and imploring his goodness, that he may visit us.”

He continues,

“But in the family, how is this done? After all, prayer seems to be something personal, and besides there is never a good time, a moment of peace… . Yes, all that is true enough, but it is also a matter of humility, of realizing that we need God, like the tax collector! And all families, we need God—all of us! We need his help, his strength, his blessing, his mercy, his forgiveness. And we need simplicity to pray as a family: simplicity is necessary! Praying the Our Father together, around the table, is not something extraordinary—it’s easy. And praying the Rosary together, as a family, is very beautiful and a source of great strength! And also praying for one another! The husband for his wife, the wife for her husband, both together for their children, the children for their grandparents … praying for each other. This is what it means to pray in the family, and it is what makes the family strong: prayer.” —Homily for Family Day, St. Peter’s Square, October 27, 2013

Another dying ritual that we need to resurrect, if we wish to cultivate shared memories in order to keep families united in times of separation, is the family meal. In a 2012 study, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that children and teens who regu­larly eat with their families (five to seven times per week, as opposed to two or fewer times a week) have lower levels of tension and stress at home, are happier and have better peer relationships, get better grades in school, are more likely to confide in their parents, have healthier eating habits, have a lower risk of suicide, and have a much lower risk of sub­stance abuse.­

Sharing meals together was a central element of Jesus’ own ministry, and our shared meal, the Eucharist, is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC, 1324). In this family meal, we find our spiritual unity with Jesus Christ and all believers. It is critical, then, that we rededicate ourselves to the family meal. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, has also pointed out the importance of eating together as a family and encourages families to turn off the television and suspend other technology while eating together, saying that having the television on “doesn’t let you communicate.”

Assigned Meaning and Hope for the Future

The Martin family found meaning their own sufferings and separations, and they endured their trials with hope for the future – not a future here on earth, but one together in Heaven. At the end of her life, following a pilgrimage to Lourdes in which Zélie finally realized that she would not be healed of her cancer, she stated, “There are great graces concealed beneath this, and those will amply compensate me for the discomforts. The Blessed Virgin has said to us as she did to Bernadette, ‘I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next’” (Redmond, p. 58).

Thérèse learned from her mother to assign meaning to sufferings both great and small, and this became a key element of her Little Way. While she was a novice, she was assigned the most menial tasks in the convent, and one of the sisters was especially harsh with her, even accusing her of breaking a vase she had not broken. Thérèse bore it all with grace, having decided that she would do all things, as if working for Christ himself, as St. Paul admonishes the Colossians (Col. 3:23). Assigning meaning to these small sufferings prepared Thérèse for the agony she faced as she died a slow and painful death from tuberculosis, feeing at times both the pain of her impending separation from her beloved sisters and also a subjective sense of separation from God himself.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp at age 37. Having been separated in the camp fro his wife, his mother, and other family members, Frankl found that in contemplation of his love for them, he was still able to carry a sense of meaning, and have small moments of happiness. He states,

“Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when Man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way– an honorable way– in such a position Man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory’" (pp. 56-57).

Frankl found that the small moments of happiness found from finding meaning in the midst of suffering sustained him and his fellow prisoners.

Similarly, a family’s ability to survive, and even thrive, in challenging circumstances comes in part from their ability to find meaning even in the midst of challenges. All families endure difficult times -- some more than others. One key to staying united in these difficult times, especially times when we are physically separated from one another, is in finding a sense of meaning. For us as Catholics, this meaning comes from our faith, and from the knowledge that, while our earthly life may have trials of every kind, we have the hope of being united forever in Heaven, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain” (Rev. 21:4, NABRE). It is also important that those in the family who have been given the grace to see challenges in this way share their hope with other family members, just as Blessed Zélie did upon her return from Lourdes. Some family members, especially young children, may not understand the meaning we see I difficult circumstances, but seeing our trust in God will inspire them to continue to search for this meaning and hope, just as Thérèse did so many years after her mother’s death.


The lives and circumstances of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, and their family were not particularly extraordinary on the surface. They were an everyday family with struggles and challenges, some typical, and some quite significant. They celebrated times of togetherness and endured times of separation. They are an inspiration to us precisely because they are not known for doing great things, but for doing “small things with great love.” By following their examples -- through building a strong sense of family identity, cultivating shared memories through both everyday and special rituals and routines, and expressing shared meaning and hope for the future -- we can stay together even when we are apart.


Catholic Church (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church.2nd ed.Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

Fiese, B. (2006). Family Routines and Rituals. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Frankl, Viktor (1997). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

Gray, Mark M. (2015). The Catholic Family: 21st Century Challenges in the United States. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University.

Popcak, Dr. Greg A. and Lisa (2015). Discovering God Together: Raising Faithful Kids. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press.

Pope Francis (2013). Homily for Family Day, St. Peter’s Square, October 27, 2013.

Redmond, Fr. Paulinus. Louis and Zélie Martin: Parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. London: Catholic Truth Society.

Thérèse of Lisieux (2012). The Story of a Soul (L’Histoire d’une Âme): The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, With Additional Writings and Sayings of St. Thérèse. Tredition.