The Liturgy of the Domestic Church: When faith and family life mix
Thirteen years ago, I married Cruz, a beautiful Catholic woman, and we started a new religious order. We call it the Hawrot Family Domestic Church. After saying “I do,” it seemed like no time at all had passed before our “congregation” grew to seven people—and our dog Bosco.
From the beginning, my wife and I wanted our faith to be reflected in our family life. We thought it would be simple: sacraments, prayer, catechesis, religious art and Donut Sunday. Mission accomplished. Except, most days, we did not feel accomplished. Some days, we felt we hadn’t even begun. More often than not, our attempts to live our faith at home weren’t strengthening our family. The spiritual practices we used when we were single didn’t seem to fit as easily into family life. “Faith” was becoming one more stressful thing we had to do.
Although Cruz and I kept searching, talking and praying about this challenge, we didn’t have much luck until we recommitted to the idea of intentionally building our domestic church. The idea may sound unusual to some, but it helped point us to a solution to our stressors. The Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz noted in his book Quo Vadis that being Christian is discovering “a new way to be human.” If that’s true, then being Christian should also point to a new way of being a family—because that’s where we first learn to be human. Shouldn’t our Catholic faith, and the love of Christ we encounter through it, somehow help us create a deeper, more loving and more meaningful family life? But how?
We found wonderful guidance in the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life, a model developed by the family counselors Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak. (Full disclosure: I am a staff member for Dr. Popcak’s counseling services.) This project grew from the 2019 Symposium on Catholic Family Life and Spirituality at the University of Notre Dame, and the Popcaks eventually presented their work in the opening keynote at the World Meeting of Families in Rome. Today there is even an app to help families develop their own rituals called CatholicHÔM. So what does it mean?
A liturgy is a type of worship instituted by God and designed to heal the damage sin does to our relationships with God and each other.
First, a few working definitions can help. The project defines a domestic church as “a household united to God and each other through the sacramental life of the Church and committed to living out the Christian vision of love in their relationships with each other and the world.” And a liturgy is a type of worship instituted by God and designed to heal the damage sin does to our relationships with God and each other. God created families at the beginning of time. He built certain practices into his design of the family to help members be happy, healthy, and holy when we do them.
The Liturgy of Domestic Church Life has three rites: the Rite of Christian Relationship; the Rite of Family Rituals; and the Rite of Reaching Out. Each rite recommends certain simple, achievable practices that help families practice their baptismal mission to be priests, prophets and royals, both at home and in the world.
The Rite of Christian Relationship
Acting on this calling sounds complicated, but the ideas behind it are surprisingly simple. For instance, the Rite of Christian Relationship helps us practice Christ’s sacrificial love at home by prioritizing our relationships and being intentional about how we show up for each other every day. For our family, that means being more mindful about our family’s schedule. We are getting good at saying no to extra things (even though they in themselves might be good) so we can say yes more often to one another (which is even better). This year, we decided to take a break from soccer this spring so we could focus on growing closer as a family without rushing to the next practice with half our shin guards on.
Being thoughtful about affection is another part of our family’s spiritual life.
Being thoughtful about affection is another part of our family’s spiritual life. Hugs, tickle fights, wrestling, piggyback rides, holding hands, back massages, hair brushing and smiles help us communicate Christ’s incarnate, embodied love.
The Rite of Christian Relationshipsalso challenges us to look at how we love and serve each other. Every day, after a short prayer time, we try to take a few minutes to ask each other. “What can we do to take better care of each other today and be the kind of team God wants us to be?”
Finally, the Rite of Christian Relationship promotes “discipleship discipline,” an approach to child-rearing rooted in St. John Bosco’s preventive system of education. Discipleship discipline shows us how to model the Good Shepherd in our parenting. It shows us how to lead our children into a loving relationship with God and teach them how to meet their needs and communicate their feelings virtuously. It’s a positive, faithful approach to discipline that really works and makes parenting so much more enjoyable.
The Rite of Family Rituals
This second rite helps us practice our prophetic mission. Family rituals are not good just for family wellbeing. They’re the primary way parents communicate their values and worldview to their kids. We are trying to create consistent family rituals for working, playing, talking and praying together so we can prophetically model Christian attitudes toward work, leisure, relationships and faith.
Our working-together ritual is doing the dishes together. We don’t just see chores as things that have to get done, but as an opportunity to use the “stuff” of family life to grow closer. We try to make this time fun and encouraging for our children: “You’re a great helper, sweetie! I like being a team with you!”
Family rituals are the primary way parents communicate their values and worldview to their kids.
Our simple, nightly prayer ritual draws us close to God and each other. We have a sincere but family-friendly approach to prayer. Our family doesn’t kneel up straight or wear hairshirts. We cuddle and relax in each other’s arms and imagine God holding us in his arms too.
We also make time to talk together, which helps us connect heart-to-heart. What was it like to be my 6-year-old today? Our “Roses and Thorns” dinner-time talk ritual helps us connect around the highs and lows of the day and how we can take better care of one another. Even just playing together builds joy in the family. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, and the liturgy encourages us to cultivate that fruit. We’re learning to invite Jesus to be part of our play, whether we are enjoying board games, jumping on the trampoline, taking hikes or playing tag. The family that plays together prays together.
The Rite of Reaching Out
This third rite teaches us to reign with Christ by serving with him. Every day our family looks for ways to “wash each other’s feet” by encouraging service in the home and putting each other first. I especially love seeing this idea take hold in our kids’ lives—for instance, when our 4-year-old son stops playing to help his 2-year-old sister off the trampoline and walk her safely back to the house.
The Rite of Reaching Out also reminds our whole family to look for simple ways we can serve others as well. Every day, we ask God to help our family find little ways to bless the people we encounter. For example, this past Lent, our oldest girls started a small babysitting ministry, helping a few neighborhood moms for free so the moms could get some rest.
The Fruits of Our Efforts
In simple, engaging and even fun ways, the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life is helping our family better understand the sacredness of our daily lives and interactions. These practices have blessed our family in many ways, but there are two things Cruz and I love the most. First, it gives us a flexible blueprint that shows us how to build a domestic church that reflects God’s unique call in our lives. Instead of feeling that our family must fit into a particular mold, embracing the theology of the domestic church allows us to see how our unique family can work together to experience God’s love in our home and share that love with others.
Second, through embracing this approach to family life, we have been able to connect daily with a community of other families who are walking the same road. Through an online community that has formed through the CatholicHOM app, we are able to connect to people around the world, gather and learn together. We share successes, support each other through our struggles, get personalized, expert pastoral support as we need it and share stories about our experiences. We no longer feel lost or alone.
We were nervous at first about embracing the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life. We were worried that we would be faced with yet another program that added more things to our already packed schedule and triggered our Catholic guilt when we inevitably could not make it work. But part of the beauty of the domestic church is that it involves the entire family. Pursuing holiness alongside our children, even when it’s hard (for all of us!) creates real bonds. As my wife and I grew in our understanding of what building a domestic church meant, our children also grew in their excitement about doing it with us. We were surprised by the great conversations that followed.
The Liturgy of the Domestic Church will look different in your family than it does in ours.
Building a domestic church means looking at what our family is already doing through a new lens. I’ve learned that most of what we think of as Catholic spirituality is drawn from the monastic and clerical traditions in the church. These spiritual tools might be beautiful, but they often do not fit neatly into family life. The reality is that daily home life can offer simple ways to use everything from doing chores to playing games, walking Bosco, and even correcting our kids as a little way toward holiness and an opportunity to encounter Christ’s love.
My wife and I don’t want to live a compartmentalized Catholicism where faith and family life don’t mix. Instead, by embracing the Liturgy of Domestic Church life, we’re learning how to celebrate an integrated faith that helps us discover and love God’s plan for our family every day. And when we did this, we saw for the first time the ways in which our Catholic faith was making a real difference in the quality of our family relationships. Striving for sainthood is not just for super-religious people doing heroic deeds in far-flung lands. It’s for simple families like ours too. All we have to do is try our best to put a little bit of Christ’s love into the things we do together every day.
As we practice the three rites of the Liturgy of the Domestic Church, our faith is feeding our family life, and our family life is fostering our faith. Instead of feeling drained by our attempts to bring faith home, we’re learning to see our faith as the electricity that runs through our household and powers everything we do. We’re not “doing more things,” but the things we do are more like prayer, a Little Way of Holiness based on our family life. Don’t get me wrong, we’re nowhere near perfect. But we are finding little ways to experience God’s love more perfectly as we learn to relate to one another the way he is calling us to.
The Liturgy of the Domestic Church will look different in your family than it does in ours. That’s the way it should be. It’s like a dance that has certain moves but wants you to bring your own style to it. But our family is learning the dance of domestic church life and discovering how much fun it is to let the Lord teach us the steps.