The Domestic Church

The parish is not a collection of people, but a family of families. Pope Francis made this clear when he advised parishes that pastoral care of families does not mean coming at them with theories and rules, but with a listening heart and a resolve to help them to overcome any obstacles they encounter. The Church needs families for they bear the hope that the Body of Christ will continue to grow strong. This is why so much emphasis was placed on the Domestic Church, a concept that was brought to light in the Vatican II constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The family was recognized as an apostolate, having the same mission of the Apostles. By definition, the family apostolate has the responsibility of forming disciples of Christ. “Parents, by word and example, are the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children.”

Given the importance of this role in the evangelizing mission of the Church, it is remarkable that so little guidance is given to families. The Church holds a very high ideal of love and Marriage and expects every family to have this strong foundation on which to build their Domestic Churches. Pope Francis recognizes that the Church has not given specific attention to helping the family to prepare for this role. He makes this clear in his encyclical Amoris Laetitia: “It is not enough to show generic concern for the family in pastoral planning. Enabling families to take up their role as active agents of the family apostolate calls for an effort at evangelization and catechesis inside the family.” 

Evangelization is not difficult, but it does take courage. It isn’t enough to simply invite them to the Eucharist, people need to be invited to opportunities where they can hear a powerful witness of faith from their peers. If we care about families we must be able to leave our comfort zone and tell the person trying to raise a child that we understand how hard it is. Tell these parents that we know that there are times when the challenges of raising a family can be overwhelming. Most important, they need to hear from someone who has experienced God’s love in a real and tangible way so that the message does not get lost in some theological conceptualization of God. They also need to hear that there is hope at the end of whatever crisis they are experiencing.

The heads of families are people first, and parents by role. Evangelizing them does not need to be a complicated effort. They first need to hear that every person has been created to be loved by God. This is not special knowledge reserved for the pious, the chosen, or the intellectually gifted. This simple message is the primary stone on which the foundation of the Domestic Church is built. In John’s Gospel Jesus contrasts His way with that of the world when He said, “I came so that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” When a person is able to stand in front of their peers and give witness to this simple truth, the impact is more profound than any special program or event.

Prayer might come naturally to some, but most people want to know how to make it a habit. Even Jesus’ disciples wanted to know how to pray. In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus gives a simple analogy of how to be persistent in prayer because God will respond. The parents in our families would like to hear from someone that prayers are answered. They need to know that during the darkest moments when it is impossible to pray, God responds. We all know about the dark nights of the soul that many saints have related in their memoirs, but when it comes from someone who is walking the same path as we are it is going to take hold in the heart.

We might invite parents to be active in our faith community, but if they do not have the opportunity to own their own faith they will do nothing more than just drop off their kids. Faith is a gift, but as we all know, some gifts are taken for granted and discarded when the next shiny present comes along. It must be an essential part of a parish pastoral plan to provide the people who are raising families with the means by which they can reflect on their faith. Some parishes have begun to incorporate families into their Faith Formation programs, and others have started parish retreat experiences. This is a very positive movement toward a more intentional effort to evangelize our families. 

The Office of Faith Formation is focusing on Building the Domestic Church at its annual Ministry Convention on November 5 in Hyannis. There will be workshops that are designed for parish leaders and individuals who wish to learn how to build a stronger faith within their families. 

The more we can offer to parents, the better is the chance that they will build a solid Domestic Church. 

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

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