Even the most saintly Catholic families have their problems

Thomas Moore and Family by Holbein (Wikimedia Commons)

Ordinary Catholic families can be daunted by the example of saintly exemplars: the family of St Therese of Lisieux, for example, or Karol and Emilia Wojtyla, the parents of Saint John Paul II. We forget that they also had their sorrows and difficulties; Louis and Zelie Martin lost four of their nine children in infancy or early childhood and Pope John Paul II was largely brought up by his father after his mother’s premature death when he was nine. It is noteworthy that the Pope often recalled waking up in the night (he and his father shared a bedroom) and seeing his father deep in prayer.

These thoughts are occasioned by reading Saints for the Family by Fr John Murray (Messenger Publications) in which these two examples of devout Catholic domestic life are included. Among others are St Joseph, made Patron of the Universal Church by Pope Pius IX in 1870 (one excellent reason to like this controversial Pope) and described as “Guardian of the Redeemer” by John Paul II. The “silence” of St Joseph must surely be the most eloquent fatherly reserve in the history of sanctity.

Another, much-loved English family saint is St Thomas More, whose cultured, lively yet prayerful family life is well-known and which leaps out from the well-known Holbein group portrait, which includes the Saint’s father, his fool and a pet monkey. There is also St Margaret Clitherow, who was pressed to death (an appalling form of judicial punishment) aged only 30, on Good Friday 1586 and whose bereft Anglican husband, a prosperous butcher in York, gives us a telling glimpse of her character in his desolate plea: “Let them take all I have and save her, for she is the best wife in all England, and the best Catholic.”

Two modern inclusions in this slim but thought-provoking book are Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma and Professor Jerome Lejeune. The first were a Polish farming couple who, knowing full well the fatal consequences of discovery, hid eight Jews in their house after the German invasion of Poland during the War. Betrayed by a malicious local policeman, they and their six young children, aged from 8 to 18 months, were shot dead by the Germans at dawn on 24 March 1944, along with the Jews they were harbouring. As with St Margaret Clitherow, Wiktoria was pregnant at the time. Their Cause goes forward as possibly the first family to be canonised in the Church’s history. Meanwhile, Israel has rightly honoured them at the Yad Vashem memorial as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Whether we term them “righteous” or “holy”, they are an extraordinary example of generosity, courage and unswerving faith.

Professor Jerome Lejeune, the famous bio-geneticist, who discovered the chromosomal abnormality that causes Down’s syndrome, and who deplored the way his discovery later came to be so heartlessly misused to detect and abort babies with this syndrome, is already named as a “Servant of God” – the first stage on the road to canonisation. A loving family man with five children, his Catholic faith was rock-like but quiet, something he lived rather than talked about. It was reading his biography written by Clara, one of his daughters, that first gave me some insight into how sanctity can be distilled within someone into very human qualities: professional integrity, a devotion to family life and an enormous love for those with learning disabilities for whom, like a latter-day son of St Joseph, he saw himself as the guardian and protector.