Our Domestic Church
As a family with four young children, we do our best to follow the ebb and flow of the liturgical calendar — whether in quiet prayer in the dark evenings of Advent, or in festive song with our parish on Easter morning, or among friends and family to celebrate baptisms, first Communions and the feast days of our favorite saints. In this way, as well as in the everyday events of our lives, we mirror the life of the universal Church. In lifting our eyes in faith amid our daily failings and foibles and making our way by God’s grace, we are reminded that as Christian family we are called to a higher purpose.
The Second Vatican Council declared, “The family, is, so to speak, the domestic Church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first teachers of the faith to their children” (Lumen Gentium, 11). A decade after the close of the council, Pope Paul VI likewise called the family “an evangelized and evangelizing community” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 71). Finally, this vision of the family as a domestic church and as the center of evangelization became a guiding theme of St. John Paul II’s pontificate.
My husband and I take seriously this charge as we endeavor in a variety of ways to keep the Word of God central to our family’s life. A hardcover Bible holds a place of honor on our mantel, unless we’ve taken it down to read a passage during mealtime. Recently, we’ve begun to listen to audio versions of the Sunday readings during our ride to Mass, followed by a mom-invented quiz, complete with prizes, for those who were paying good attention. At day’s end, the mysteries of the rosary, told story-style by my husband and illustrated by a piece of sacred art held in the upstretched arms of my proud-to-have-a-job 2-year-old, serve as vivid doorways into Jesus’ life.
While each season brings its own challenges, setbacks and little victories, we strive to bear witness to the Gospel and grow as a domestic church.
THE CHURCH IN MINIATURE
The Second Vatican Council revived the expression ecclesia domestica, or domestic church, but did not invent it. It was actually used by St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century and has its roots in the earliest days of Christianity.
Scripture often speaks about the conversion of entire households (e.g., Acts 11:14, 16:15, 18:8). Family homes, like little islands of Christian life, became the first centers of worship for the growing Church. So, too, the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, “in our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to faith, believing families are of primary importance as centers of living, radiant faith” (1656).
Mothers and fathers are rightfully called the first heralds of the faith to their children. After all, much of the formation and education of children depends on the teaching and lived example of their parents. At the same time, mothers and fathers are often drawn to deeper faith through their children. We know that in the smallest souls there is already present a home for Christ. Unless we become “like children,” Jesus teaches, our hearts will be prideful and hardened, too coarse to recognize him and too self-concerned to enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt 18:3).
My infant’s toothy, crinkle-nosed smile forces me to pause and take joy in life, giving thanks to God for all my blessings. My 7-year-old, in the midst of our hectic schedule, inspires me to take time to rest in God’s mercy. Despite his young age, he likes to tell our family that if frequent confession is good enough for St. John Paul II and Pope Francis, it’s good enough for us.
One day a question from my 5-year-old inspired me to pause and think more deeply about the life of the Holy Family. He walked up to me, concerned. “Mama,” he said quietly, “why didn’t Jesus have any brothers and sisters?” He realized what a gift his siblings are, despite their frequent disagreements, and was worrying that Jesus might not have had anyone to play with while he was growing up. I began to explain how special it was that Mary had only one baby, who was the Son of God, and how Jesus had plenty to do while he helped St. Joseph with his work.
My son’s face brightened, as he held up three fingers and said, “Mama Mary, St. Joseph and Jesus — one, two, three, like the Trinity!” Satisfied, he bounced off to ride his bike in the driveway. While his intuition didn’t exactly plumb the depths of the Trinitarian mystery, I was gently reminded of the significance of the fact that Jesus made his earthly entrance by way of a family. The Son of God was born like all of us and grew up obedient to a father and a mother, employed in the humble life of a small household for most of his days.
In fact, John Paul II called the Holy Family “the original ‘ecclesia domestica,’” in which “every Christian family must be reflected” (Redemptoris Custos, 7). Later, in his Letter to Families, he noted that “the primordial model of the family is to be sought in God himself, in the Trinitarian mystery of his life” (6).
Practically speaking, this means that when I stop amid my own activities to attend to one of my children, I’m not just muddling through; I’m offering myself in an ever-so-small way like the Son offered his life in obedience. Likewise, when my husband tries to form our children’s habits for the better, his loving authority echoes that of God the Father. And our children are not simply the inevitable results of biology, but, like the Holy Spirit, living testaments to the fruitfulness of self-giving love.
THE VITAL CELL OF SOCIETY
It is essential that we cultivate a living faith in a world that is increasingly hostile to faith and family alike. As St. John Paul II affirmed, “the family is the first and vital cell of society” and thus “the future of humanity passes by way of the family” (Familiaris Consortio, 42; 86). Much like a garden, the family’s life flourishes in direct proportion to the amount of care and nourishment it receives. The living water of the family is prayer and participation in the sacraments, while the weeds of selfishness and vice are removed by a life of mutual affection and forgiveness, hospitality and generosity toward those in need (cf. CCC 1657). Enlightened by the word of God, we grow strong enough to announce the Gospel with joy to others and put ourselves at their service, in imitation of Christ.
Pope Francis reminds us that “the word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him ‘to go forth’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 20). Caring for babies and little ones, much of our family’s energy is focused on just getting through the day, but we try to keep our hearts turned outward as well. Sometimes we “go forth” one by one — my husband does small tasks at the homes of those who need help, while I bring meals to aid new mothers. Sometimes we “go forth” all together. These days, just packing everyone in the car and traveling to visit relatives can be a little act of charity, considering the logistical challenges of travel with many small children!
My husband and I also try to plant the seeds of generosity and sensitivity toward the poor, letting our children carry our monthly offering of groceries to our parish for the Knights’ monthly food drive or inviting them to shop for gifts for K of C-sponsored toy drives at Christmas. While our acts of hospitality and service are small, we hope that we are setting the stage for an ever-growing life of charity as our children grow older.
If there is one thing that I have learned as we strive to live up to the name “domestic church,” it is that it is hardly automatic or easy. We often fall short, letting a cloud of sin obscure the radiance of the Gospel message with which we’ve been entrusted. Still, even our failings bring with them moments of grace. We recall our need for God’s mercy and of the need to apologize and forgive. Above all, we remember that any excellence or beauty that comes from within our home is not our own. Our little domestic church, like the universal Church, must always in humility point back toward the source of its radiance. The Christian family, like the Church, has no other light but Christ.
CARLA GALDO writes from her home in Lovettsville, Va. Her husband, Michael, is a member of St. Francis Council 11136 in Purcellville. They have four children.