We all know that sainthood can run in families. For example, St. Anne was the mother of the Blessed Virgin and Jesus’ grandmother. We know Jesus and John the Baptist were relatives and that Peter and Andrew — as well as James and John — were brothers.
This week, we celebrate the feasts of a mother and son saint team: St. Monica (Aug. 27) and her son, St. Augustine of Hippo (Aug. 28). Monica, a Christian, was married to a pagan and, for nearly all the years of their marriage, she prayed for his conversion. Her husband, Patricius, did become a Christian about a year before he died. Then Monica turned her prayer power upon her free-living and not at all religious-minded son. We all know that Augustine experienced a major conversion and became one of the great saints of the church.
Monica and Augustine are perhaps among the best-known of the parent-child saint teams. But did you know that St. Peter is probably part of such a parent-child team?
St. Petronella has been venerated in Rome since at least the fourth century, first as a martyr and, later, as a virgin. She has also been called St. Peter’s daughter. Whether she was Peter’s daughter is open to question, but it has been part of legends for centuries. It seems to trace back to the Gnostic writings in early Christianity, which included the Acts of St. Peter. In this story, Peter is said to have had a daughter. The similarities in names, rather than kinship, may have linked the two — but Petronella was real. She was buried in the Catacomb of Domitilla in Rome and her remains were later moved to a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica. Another legend also said that she was healed of palsy by St. Peter.
All through church history, the family trees of saints have budded forth many holy people.
Monica and Augustine lived in the fourth century; The siblings Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived in the first.
In between, we can find the brothers Cosmas and Damian (third century). The two were twins and both became physicians in the Roman province of Syria (near modern Turkey). They were martyred under Diocletian.
A century later, two other brothers — Cyril and Methodius — were born in Thessalonika (a Greek port city). The pair grew up to become priests and preach in the areas of Moravia and other Slavic regions. Cyril developed the Cyrillic alphabet and the two used it to translate the Gospels into the Slavonic languages.
In the 14th centuries, we find the mother and daughter saints: Bridget and Catherine of Sweden. Bridget was Queen of Sweden and had eight children. She was known for works of charity and, when her husband died, she founded what later became known as the Brigittine order. After her death, her daughter, Catherine, took over leadership of that community.
All these saints — and countless others — show us what it means to be the “domestic church.” As Pope Francis said earlier this year: “It is in the family that we first learn how to pray. … “ There we come to know God, to grow into men and women of faith, to see ourselves as members of God’s greater family, the church. In the family we learn how to love, to forgive, to be generous and open, not closed and selfish.”
In our time, we find the Martin family as just the latest in the long line of faith-filled families. The most famous of the Martin family has been St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who was born Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin on Jan. 2, 1873. She was canonized in 1925 and, in 1997, was named a Doctor of the Church by St. John Paul II. Her feast day is Oct. 1.
On this coming Oct. 18, Pope Francis will canonize Thérèse’s parents, Blessed Louis and Zelie Martin during the World Synod of Bishops on the Family. Both Louis and Zelie wanted to follow religious vocations, but instead married and had nine children. Five survived and all five entered religious life: four as Carmelite nuns and one as a Visitation Sister.
That Visitation Sister, Léonie Martin, (Sr. Francoise Thérèse) was Thérèse’s older sister. On July 2, her sainthood cause was officially opened by Bishop Jean-Claude Boulanger of Bayeux-Lisieux, France, in the chapel of the Visitation Monastery at Caen, where Léonie lived as a Visitation Sister from 1899 until her death in 1941. According to Carmelite Fr. Antonio Sangalli, Léonie’s postulator, Léonie’s grave at the monastery has been popular with pilgrims from around the world for decades.
Who knows what new saintly branches are budding for on family trees today. The Lord is always preparing new saints for the church.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia;” w2.vatican.va; “The National Catholic Register”; radiovaticana.org; littleclower.org; leoniemartin.org and cua.edu.