What Catholics need to know about making their homes a domestic church.
The Catholic presence stretches around the globe, and its numbers are increasing worldwide, according to statistics from the 2011 Annuario Pontificio (“pontifical yearbook”). Approximately 1.18 billion belong to the big Church, the Body of Christ. In many cases they are also living in one of the countless little “domestic churches” all throughout the world.
But what actually constitutes a “domestic church”? Let’s take a quick look at the beginning of the Church’s founder’s life. Jesus himself was born into the heart of a family, a little domestic church consisting of his mother, Mary, his foster father, St. Joseph, and himself. Wherever the Holy Family set up their home — in the stable in Bethlehem for a time, in Egypt or in Nazareth — their domestic church moved right along with them simply because their domestic church consisted of the three of them.
Down through the ages, as people were converted and became believers, “they desired that ‘their whole household’ should also be saved. These families who became believers were islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1655).
Building up Church
Just as the early Christian families were an exemplary example to others around them, Catholic families today can build up their own domestic churches and strive to be “islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world.”
“Every home is called to become a ‘domestic church’ in which family life is completely centered on the lordship of Christ and the love of husband and wife mirrors the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church, his bride,” Pope Benedict XVI said in his Feb. 7, 2007, general audience remarks.
These are wonderful ideals to emulate. However, because of the large number of single-parent families today, we know that not every Catholic family consists of a mother and a father. Broken families seem more like a norm rather than an exception. Grandparents are raising their grandchildren in many households. And we also know that even in traditional families, not every Catholic husband and wife “mirrors the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church, his bride.” Even so, our Church summons Catholic families, in all their shapes and forms, to live in this virtuous way. Each unique domestic church can be a stable, loving and holy environment.
A domestic church begins with the Sacrament of Matrimony — man and woman become husband and wife. Pope John Paul II spoke of a Catholic couple’s call to holiness within that sacrament when he said, “Marriage is an act of will that signifies and involves a mutual gift, which unites the spouses and binds them to their eventual souls, with whom they make up a sole family — a domestic church.”
He also explained the husband and wife’s responsibility to recognize and to act upon their role as “givers of life” in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”): “As the domestic church, the family is summoned to proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of life. This is a responsibility which first concerns married couples, called to be givers of life, on the basis of an ever greater awareness of the meaning of procreation as a unique event which clearly reveals that human life is a gift received in order then to be given as a gift. In giving origin to a new life, parents recognize that the child ‘as the fruit of their mutual gift of love, is in turn, a gift for both of them, a gift flows from them’” (No. 92).
As babies are born and families grow, the parents, considered the first and foremost educators by the Church, are called to pass on the Catholic faith to their children. Blessed Mother Teresa explained this experience in the domestic church very simply. She said, “The best and surest way to learn the love of Jesus is through the family.”
Curriculum of love
Catholic parents can look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for direction regarding their responsibilities to impart the faith to their children. There we learn, “The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith. For this reason the family home is rightly called ‘the domestic church,’ a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity” (No. 1666).
Within the walls of the domestic church, children learn about their faith through their parents’ and grandparents’ word and example, as well as within the many growing pains and nitty-gritty details of everyday life as a family grows together in holiness.
Everyday life in the family may seem filled with a lot of ordinariness and at times a bit of chaos. Yet, right there along with the normal routines and day-to-day occurrences of sibling rivalry, teenaged angst and sometimes grouchy spouses is woven a paradigm of human enrichment pointing us to a narrow path that leads to heaven.
Catholic teachings open our eyes to the remarkable goings on within a growing faithful Catholic family, helping us recognize that there is a heck of a lot more happening in our day-to-day lives than what meets the eye.
“It is here that the father of the family, the mother, children, and all members of the family exercise the priesthood of the baptized in a privileged way ‘by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, and self-denial and active charity.’ Thus the home is the first school of Christian life and ‘a school for human enrichment.’ Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous — even repeated — forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life” (No. 1657).
Amazing! And we thought we were simply teaching our kids how to share, love and pray, potty training them, breaking up fights, functioning as lovingly as possible after sleepless nights, laying down the law, and rescuing them from far too many lurking dangers. But, in reality, it is within the domestic church that Catholic parents lay out a curriculum of fraternal love and forgiveness while helping the family to work out their salvation in the give-and-take of life in the family.
A high calling
Whether we live in a palace or a cave, Catholic parents have the awesome responsibility of raising their children to not only learn right from wrong, but to recognize that the real purpose of their lives in this world is to work out their salvation for the next world — their eternal lives. This has to be the No. 1 priority in raising Christian children. God provides the blessing of a family structure to accomplish this.
The Church teaches us, “Since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it. For it devolves on parents to create a family atmosphere so animated with love and reverence for God and others that a well-rounded personal and social development will be fostered among children. Hence, the family is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs” (Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, No. 3).
Parents certainly have a high calling. We also learn from that same document: “The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute.”
The Catechism tells us, “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment and self-mastery — the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the ‘material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones’” (No. 2223).
As first and foremost educator, parents will ultimately be answering to God with regard to how their children have been educated. Yes, that means parents need to investigate all that is going on in their children’s education, not just at home, but also in their schools, both Catholic and public, and their religious education programs.
Eyes toward heaven
To help pave the way to heaven for the children, it’s essential for parents to establish an atmosphere of prayer in the home. They’ll first want to ground themselves in prayer, making it an integral part of their daily lives.
If children are raised in a household of prayer, prayer will become as natural as breathing to them and will indeed provide a secure foundation. Kids take cues from their best role models, their parents and grandparents. The example of prayers said in the morning and evening, for special intentions at various times, and at the dinner table speaks volumes since children look to adults and learn their behaviors.
To help our family focus more on the sacred rather than the secular, we must bring something of the big Church into our little domestic church. We do that by placing sacred images around our home. Sacred art, icons, crucifixes, images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Holy Family, saints’ pictures, sacramentals, holy-water fonts and even a prayer corner can adorn our homes. These holy items help stir the soul and lift our attention toward heaven and its rewards.
Nourishing bodies, souls
Dinnertime is a lot more than just about filling our bellies. It’s a time to grow together as a family, creating memories and establishing traditions.
Our dinner conversations may not always be so profound and our children’s behavior may not always be Hallmark picture perfect. Things happen, kids can get messy and loud, and we may lose our patience at times. We are human, after all. A growing family is a work in progress, and parents are wise to lower their expectations with regard to their children’s behavior while still teaching them to show respect and practice their manners as best they can. Mealtimes are certainly those occasions when “tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule.”
Introducing prayer at the dinner table is not only beneficial, it’s essential. Why not use the time wisely? You will have a captive audience, after all. After Grace Before Meals is said, you can add an Our Father, a Hail Mary and any special intentions. In just a few minutes time, you will have united your family in prayer.
God gives Christian families countless opportunities to earn grace throughout their daily lives within their domestic church as they forge a blessed bond together and help one another come closer to their eternal reward. These families can become a beacon of light in our darkened world.
Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle is author of “The Domestic Church: Room By Room” (Servant Books, 2011) and “Grace Café: Serving Up Recipes for Faithful Mothering” (Circle Press, $14.95) and host of EWTN’s “Everyday Blessings for Catholic Moms.” For more information, visit www.donnacooperoboyle.com.