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    In the School of Nazareth

    As they lead their own domestic churches, Christian parents can learn from the example of the Holy Family

    By Nicholas and Maruška Healy 12/1/2020
    Holy Family with Sparrow, ca. 1650, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo / Museo Nacional del Prado / Art Resource, NY


    For a moment, all is quiet during the Mass. Kneeling down near the back of the church, we suddenly catch a glimpse of our nimble-footed 3-year-old reaching for a large holy water dispenser nearby. The entire thing falls over with a deafening crash. All heads turn; the priest pauses. We wish we could disappear or at least pretend that we did not know this child.

    As we calm our wayward toddler, the congregation slowly returns to prayer. We return to prayer as well, and try to enter into the mystery that is unfolding before us. But soon enough, our 6-year-old chimes in, “Is it over?” — just as our 8-year-old “accidentally” drops a heavy wooden kneeler, adding, “Not yet.” We desperately wish for a moment of silence, for a chance to pray in peace. But in our hearts we also know that God has entrusted this family to us, and that there is an essential relationship between our family and the Church.

    St. John Paul II wrote, “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason too it can and should be called ‘the domestic Church’” (Familiaris Consortio, 21). To appreciate this teaching, it is helpful to recall that the first Ecclesia domestica (domestic church) was the Holy Family, whose feast day we celebrate this year on Dec. 27. The mystery of the Incarnation, which is the abiding source of the Church’s unity, was entrusted first to Mary and, in a secondary sense, to Joseph. By contemplating their hidden life in Nazareth, Christian families can better understand their own vocation as a living cell of the Church.

    During his historic visit to the Holy Land in 1964, Pope Paul VI described the home of Nazareth as “the school where we begin to understand the life of Jesus — the school of the Gospel.” Among the lessons to learn from “the school of Nazareth,” St. Paul VI focused on three main points: the mission of the family to welcome the gift of new life; the importance of silence and prayer; and the dignity of work undertaken for the good of the family and society. By educating children in prayer and work, Christian families bear witness to the truth that divine love has truly entered human history, exalting what is lowly and uniting nature and grace.

    Let us consider these practical ways in which families can enter the school of Nazareth to renew their vocation as the domestic church.


    The first and most essential task of the family is to welcome the gift of new life. We live in a time, however, when new reproductive technologies, such as prenatal genetic screening with a view to abortion, have led to a profound loss of this vision. It has become difficult for many people to see that a child is not manufactured or produced by its parents, but can only be received as a gift. Each new human life is a sign of the generosity of the Creator.

    Christian families that joyfully receive children safeguard and communicate the truth that each human person is created in the image of God and loved by him. This is especially true in cases where there is a severe disability. By looking to Mary and Joseph, who received not only the gift of a new human life, but the deeper mystery of the Son of God made man, Christian parents will be strengthened in their primary vocation. And they will remember that each new life entrusted to their care is destined for eternal life in communion with God.

    By educating children in prayer and work, Christian families bear witness to the truth that divine love has truly entered human history, exalting what is lowly and uniting nature and grace.


    The habit of prayer is first received and cultivated in the family. Even the Son of God learned how to pray in the context of a family. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Son of God who became Son of the Virgin learned to pray in his human heart. He learns to pray from his mother, who kept all the great things the Almighty had done and treasured them in her heart” (2599).

    Following the example of Mary, and petitioning her aid, Christian parents can hand on the memory of all that God has done for them. If each meal begins with a prayer of thanksgiving, if their family prays together each evening — perhaps a rosary, or a reading from Scripture — children will learn the habit of prayer and begin their journey toward heaven.

    Prayer within the home is ordered to the center of Christian life, holy Mass. One of the most important tasks of the family as the domestic church is to honor Sunday as a day of rest and worship. Maria Augusta von Trapp, whose story is known from The Sound of Music, wrote about a young couple who visited Russia under communist rule: “Of all the things they had seen and observed, one experience had most deeply impressed them: that Russia had done away with Sunday. This had shocked them even more than what they saw of Siberian concentration camps or of the misery and hardship in cities and country. The absence of Sunday seemed to be the root of all the evil.”

    In our fast-paced and hyper-commercialized culture, we run the risk of creating our own version of “a world without Sunday.” Parents can take small steps to remind their children and the larger society that this day is set aside to honor God. In addition to attending Mass together, families can take time each Sunday to enjoy God’s creation. Perhaps this means unplugging from the internet, playing games together as a family, or opening our homes to host other families in fellowship. If our families have the courage to keep the Sabbath, we will be actively affecting the world around us, changing it one Sunday at a time.


    The third lesson to learn from the school of Nazareth is the dignity of work as an expression of love. In light of the Incarnation, both the ordinary tasks within the home and work undertaken to support one’s family are dignified with a new and deeper meaning.

    Reflecting on St. Joseph’s role as the patron saint of workers, St. John Paul II explained how Joseph served the Holy Family precisely in his work as a carpenter. The key idea is that Joseph’s work was an expression of his love for his family and his love for God.

    In Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer), John Paul II wrote, “Work was the daily expression of love in the life of the Family of Nazareth. The Gospel specifies the kind of work Joseph did in order to support his family: he was a carpenter. … Having learned the work of his presumed father, Jesus was known as ‘the carpenter’s son.’ If the Family of Nazareth is an example and model for human families, in the order of salvation and holiness, so too, by analogy, is Jesus’ work at the side of Joseph the carpenter” (22).

    Whether we are preparing a meal, cleaning the house, or raking leaves, there is a dignity to work undertaken for the good of the family. This lesson from Nazareth can be handed on to children by giving them responsibility for specific tasks and by working together with them.

    The feast of the Holy Family was not included in the Church’s liturgical calendar until the 20th century. However, by the institution of this feast the Church only confirmed what has been understood for two millennia. Beginning with the shepherds and Wise Men in Bethlehem, the Holy Family has been recognized as a model for every family throughout the centuries. May we be receptive to the lessons about life, prayer and work they are offering to us today.


    NICHOLAS AND MARUŠKA HEALY live with their seven children in Silver Spring, Md. A member of Father Rosensteel Council 2169 in Silver Spring, Nicholas is associate professor of philosophy and culture at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.



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