Catholic families aren’t merely called to go to church, but also to bring the spirit of the Church into their homes, allowing Christ to radically transform their family life. Since ancient times, the Church has referred to the family home as the Ecclesia domestica, the “domestic church.”
“Believing families are of primary importance as centers of living, radiant faith” (1656), the Catechism tells us. But practically speaking, what is a “domestic church”? The phrase sounds like pews and stained glass in the living room, but the reality is simpler, and much more doable. The good news is the Catechism offers guidance for families in how to excel at their vocations …
1Educate children in the faith, by word and deed.
The role of parents in passing down the faith cannot be overstated. Not only do “parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (2223), but there is no one else who can fill their shoes: “The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute (2221).” In other words, compared to what kids can learn in the family home, even the best school or CCD program falls short.
It’s clear, then, that parents have a “right and duty” to shepherd their children’s “moral education and spiritual formation” (2221). Parents are actually called to be missionaries to their children, joyfully sharing with them the Gospel: “parents are by word and example … the first heralds of the faith” (1656).
This “education in the virtues” (2223) can come in countless forms: praying together as a family, going to Mass together, reading books and watching movies about Christ and the saints … There are as many ways to teach children about the faith as there are parents. As long as you are trying, God sees your efforts and appreciates them.
2Build a family culture of selfless service.
There’s a beautiful line from the great Catholic novel Kristin Lavransdatter: “Whoever serves the others most during the holidays is the most blessed.” Kristin uses these words to describe the mentality that was at the heart of the happy, Christian home and loving family life her parents gave her.
A Catholic home is called to be “the first school of Christian life,” where all members participate in “sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, and self-denial and active charity” (1657). Mother Teresa perfectly described this approach of active charity when she said, “Wash the plate, not because it is dirty, nor because you are told to wash it, but because you love the person who will use it next.”
When each person in a family tries to shove forward and snatch the best for himself, or constantly demands his or her own way, nobody is happy. But when each family member puts others first, happiness reigns. Parents modeling this selflessness is a powerful means of evangelization, both to their children and to others witnessing it.
3Welcome others into the family home.
Even while speaking of the family, the Church is mindful of those who may not have a family:
We must also remember the great number of single persons who, because of the particular circumstances in which they have to live — often not of their choosing — are especially close to Jesus’ heart and therefore deserve the special affection and active solicitude of the Church. (1658)
Catholic families have a special calling, in these situations, of opening their homes to those who remain without a family for whatever reason:
The doors of homes, the “domestic churches,” and of the great family which is the Church must be open to all of them. “No one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone.” (1658)
This hospitality is an ideal opportunity to model the faith education and selflessness which parents seek to teach their children.
Our world desperately needs families transformed by Christ. Modern society is wracked by the plague of despair. In the face of this pervasive hopelessness, Christians have a duty to witness to the Gospel, and to the light and hope Christ brings. Living and working in the midst of the world as they do, families have a privileged opportunity to offer this witness.
In the days of the early Church, “families who became believers were islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world” (1655). In a world that once again turns a hostile face to Christian belief, we pray that our families may be these islands of Christian life, offering to all who come in contact with us a safe harbor.
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