Want to keep your kids Catholic? Make your home a church.
Last June, I found myself sitting next to Cardinal Joseph Tobin on a bus in Florida. I had just addressed the general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops about my experience at the pre-synod meeting in Rome in March of 2018, and we were all headed to Mass at a local parish. Over the course of the half-hour bus ride, Cardinal Tobin and I talked about a lot of things: a new company that made Catholic socks, our favorite books, recently watched TV shows and our families. As the oldest of 13 children, Cardinal Tobin had a number of stories about his siblings and their kids—how loud family gatherings were and the nicknames his nieces and nephews had given him over the years.
As we talked, he said, “You know, Katie, the thing my mother is most proud of when it comes to us kids—most of us have professional degrees, we’re well educated and successful—but all 13 of us are still Catholic. She is proudest of that.”
Knowing the statistics of disaffiliation, the decline in church attendance over the years, the emptying of the pews in just the past decade alone, I was shocked.
“How?” I blurted out. “Forgive my bluntness, Cardinal, but what was the ‘secret sauce’ to keep you all Catholic? What did your parents do?”
“I think for all of us, the church has always just been home. And you don’t leave your home.”
Expecting a complex answer with detailed descriptions of nightly family rosaries, intense catechetical sessions, attendance at the most reverent, incense-filled liturgies, I nearly pulled out pen and paper to take notes.
Cardinal Tobin took a long pause, then replied: “I think for all of us, the church has always just been home. And you don’t leave your home.”
That brief conversation on a bus last summer is etched into my mind, especially in light of the scandals that have rocked our church these past few months. In the moments when I have not wanted to go to Sunday Mass, I hear “You don’t leave your home.” When I have wanted to skip daily prayer or avoid having a conversation with a priest or take off the crucifix pendant hanging around my neck, I hear “You don’t leave your home.”
In the face of great pain and scandals, it is healing and helpful to think of the church as home.
But perhaps I am lucky to be able to think this way. I do not feel out of place in the church. Even when I go to a new parish, surrounded by total strangers, with a priest I’ve never seen and songs I have never sung, I feel at home. There is the familiarity of where to find the tabernacle, when to sit, stand and kneel, where to put my hand when I walk through the door, searching for the holy water font, looking for the candles burning in front of a statue of Our Lady.
The church is my home because my home was a domestic church.
This sense of familiarity and comfort did not begin with catechetical classes or even the Mass. My deep-seated love for the church began with what surrounded me in my own home growing up: the art on the walls, the nativity sets displayed at Christmas, the crucifix hanging in our kitchen, right next to the refrigerator, so that every time you went to grab a glass of milk, there was Jesus, staring at you from the cross.
The church is my home because my home was a domestic church.
My parents are not theologians. My mom is an accountant and my dad a director of bank security. They did not raise us in a mini-seminary, and they could not explain the ins and outs of the sacraments (nor would I expect them to). But they are good, salt-of-the-earth, hard-working, every-day Catholics who brought me and my sister to Mass on Sunday, sent us to youth group events, led us in grace before meals each night and encouraged us to be unafraid to ask questions and talk about our Catholic faith. They attend morning Mass every day, go on retreats and serve as mentors to engaged couples in our parish. They have rosary beads in their pockets, crosses around their necks, holy cards stuck in the dashboard of their cars and Catholic art adorning the walls of their home.
The deep faith of my adulthood was born out of a very rich experience of the simple Catholic living that surrounded me as a child.
Our personal witness to the Catholicism we love can and does deeply enrich the lives of our children.
Now that I have a daughter, the thought of raising children in the faith and “building the domestic church” can be intimidating. There is a fear that my husband and I are doing something wrong or that we are not doing enough or that our children will someday become part of the disaffiliated “nones” that swear off the faith and hate Catholicism because it was forced on them or does not make rational sense anymore.
But the best way to build the domestic church and to quell those fears is not necessarily by doing anything other than simply being faithful Catholics ourselves. Our personal witness to the Catholicism we love can and does deeply enrich the lives of our children. The objects we place in our home that call to mind our faith imprints the images of our church into their hearts and minds. The simple conversations we have about what we believe will be remembered for years and carried into adulthood.
As a kid, there was nothing more beautiful to me than seeing my mom pray after she received Communion. I can see it now: her head slightly bowed, eyes closed, left hand folded over right, with her wedding ring on top. A convert to the faith, my mom loves the Eucharist more than anything else in this world. I know this because I grew up witnessing it every day. My father lost his job a few years back, and one Sunday morning, sitting in the pew before Mass began, I looked over and saw him staring at his cell phone. Prepared to fuss at him for texting in church, I leaned over and caught a glimpse of the screen. “Prayer for gainful employment” flashed across the top. Knowing he was bringing a specific intention to the Lord challenged me in that moment to be more trusting of Jesus, the same way he was.
Pope Francis recently told a group of parents, “The important thing is to transmit the faith with your life of faith: that they see the love of the spouses, that they see the peace of the house, that they see that Jesus is there.”
The domestic church is not constructed in a day but built up over time, growing with the family through the witness of the parents, the things filling the house and the conversations encouraged and shared. The faith is not simply learned and memorized. It is transmitted. It is experienced. It is witnessed and then loved and then lived. It is in those homes, where faith is visibly lived and loved, that the church becomes a home one would never leave.