Families to Remember
[Gen.15:1-6,21:1-3; Heb.11:8,11-12,17-19; Lk.2:22-40]
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family.
Pope Leo XIII established this feast day in 1893 to remind us that God came to live among us, not as a proud and mighty ruler, but as a humble member of an ordinary family – the family of Mary and Joseph. And today this Holy Family is offered to us as a model for how to live our own lives.
Through the centuries, many families have strived to live holy lives. Think of St. Monica and her son St. Augustine, and St. Dominic de Guzmán and his family. His mother Joan and brother Mánes have both been beatified.
And in 2015, Louis and Zélie Martin, who had nine children including St. Thérèse of Lisieux, became the first married couple to be canonised together. Another of their children, Léonie, is now also being considered for sainthood.
There are many others, of course, but today I’d like to talk about the Ulma family, who were beatified by Pope Francis in September 2023.
Wiktoria and Józef Ulma were married in 1935, when she was 23 and he was 35. They had six children before she turned 30, and lived in a modest wooden cottage on a small farm outside Markowa, in southern Poland.
Wiktoria was a quiet and intelligent woman, and a loving wife and mother who loved reading and learning.
Józef was outgoing and inventive. He grew fruit and vegetables for the local village, and kept silkworms and bees. He had an impressive family library and loved photography. He even built his own camera, using it to record the life of his family.
His photos reveal a large family happily engaged in daily life: farming, baking, eating, playing, learning to read and write and helping with the chores.
In 1939, four years after the Ulmas married, Poland was invaded and by 1942 the Nazis began hunting for any Jews living outside the Warsaw ghetto.
Józef prepared a dugout to hide them out in the fields, and Wiktoria secretly supplied them with food and water. But the visitors were discovered later that year and shot.
Chaim Goldman, a local Jewish cattle seller then asked the Ulmas to hide his two daughters and the entire Szall family with their four sons.
They, too, were welcomed and for the next two years the Ulmas hid all eight people in their attic. They prepared kosher food for them and they all prayed together. Then in 1944 someone betrayed them.
At 4.00 am on 24 March 1944, the house was raided and seventeen people were marched outside in panic and tears. The Jewish guests were shot first, and then one by one the Ulmas were brutally executed, beginning with Józef and Wiktoria, who was pregnant. As she died, she went into premature labour.
Before leaving, the Nazis looted the house, but left Józef’s photos behind. Today they are on display in the Ulma Family Museum in Markowa, Poland.
Also on display is their bible, in which Jozef or Wiktoria had clearly underlined two verses of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk.10:33-34) and pencilled tak (yes) in the margin. Just like the original Good Samaritan, the Ulmas responded in humble and compassionate love to anyone who asked for their help, despite any risks.
‘Whoever loses their life for My sake will find it,’ Jesus promised (Mt.10:39).
When Pope Francis beatified the whole Ulma family, including their unborn child, he said, ‘May this Polish family, which represents a ray of light in the darkness of the Second World War, be for all of us a model to imitate in the zeal for goodness and service to those in need.’
Every year at this time, the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is presented to us as the ideal model for family life. They all agreed to serve as instruments of God’s saving love in our world.
Since then, many other families like the Ulmas have tried to do the same. Today we honour these good people who actively and heroically modelled the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love, even in the face of danger.
[i] At the beatification, Cardinal Semeraro said the partially born child had received the baptism by blood of those killed in hatred of the faith. ‘Without saying a word,’ he said, ‘the little Blessed cries out to the modern world to welcome, love, and protect life, especially that of the defenseless and marginalized, from the moment of conception until natural death.’