The ministry of family

“All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we knew how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of Him.” These beautiful words from Gerard Manley Hopkins summarize the challenge of forming our families into a Domestic Church. The Second Vatican Council resurrected the concept of the Domestic Church when it recognized the critical importance of the family in handing on the faith. “In what might be regarded as the Domestic Church, the parents are to be the first preachers of the faith for their children by word and example,” (Lumen Gentium 11). Families, however, have a difficult time recognizing how much their lives are “charged with God.”

In the past several years the Church in the United States has been trying every means possible to cultivate an atmosphere of faith within our families. The National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry has dedicated its mission to building strong Catholic families. They have identified four truths that families must emphasize in order to nurture faith: “Family life is Sacred; family activity is holy; families are an evangelizing community; and families have a unique ministry.”

Family life is Sacred. Gone are the days when Ozzie and Harriet with their perfect home and two children represented the ideal model of family. We all know that even in the 1950s most families did not look like that television sitcom. To be Sacred a family does not need be the image of perfection, but needs to imitate the image of God, Who is love and mercy. When a brother leaves in anger, bringing years of emptiness to his mother’s heart, it is difficult to welcome the prodigal son back into the fold. As Mark Twain said, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” The imperfect family is Sacred when, despite the pain, it resolves conflict with forgiveness. 

Family activity is holy. Sometimes we make the mistake of viewing a family’s schedule of activities as a measure of its holiness. Sanctity is not achieved by performing Sacred acts, but by making the acts we do Sacred. Going to work every day is not inherently Sacred, but if our work is motivated by our desire to provide for our family, it then becomes a Sacred act. St. John Paul II told families, “In and through the events, problems, difficulties and circumstances of everyday life, God comes to them.” At the end of each day, when “good night” and “I love you” are exchanged, God’s love permeates the home and brings Sacred closure to the day’s occupation.

Families are an evangelizing community. So much of our attention is drawn to families who are on the margins of the Church, while we overlook the families that are sitting right in front of us. Rather than complain about families who drop off their children for Religious Education but never come to Mass, we might ask the parents in the pews why they do go. Something motivates them to get up early on a Sunday, get their little ones dressed and out the door in time for Mass. This does not go unnoticed by their peers, for these families are known to be “Church” people. They don’t have to stand on a street corner proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ for their lives are already spreading the Word. They may not have learned to intentionally share their faith, but they are on a path that will readily lead them to be heralds to the world.

Families have a unique ministry. In every generation there are families that have cared for an elderly parent, an abandoned grandchild, a troubled teen, a pregnant daughter, a child with disabilities, an addicted relative. A family cultivates a Spirit of mercy by doing what comes natural. It is not some grand theological virtue that motivates a family to do the hard work of mercy; it is the power of love that brings forth this response. The family is more than the primary cell in society; it is the cradle of mercy.

The greatest challenge to the Church is not bringing God to the family, but revealing the God that already is there. Theologians call this “naming grace.” Pope Francis placed the responsibility of naming grace on the shoulders of those who preach the Word of God: “We need but think of some ordinary human experience such as a joyful reunion, a moment of disappointment, the fear of being alone, compassion at the suffering of others, uncertainty about the future, concern for a loved one, and so forth” (Evangelii gaudium, 155). All things are charged with God, and the greatest gift we can give to our families is to help them release the spark. 

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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