Families Matter: Why the domestic church is essential to the new evangelization

In the middle of the 19th century, the publication of Christian Nurture by the Congregationalist Horace Bushnell, began a movement within American Protestantism to cultivate a sincere spirituality within the home; one that would not only guide domestic behavior but would promote practices of family prayer. Over time, these efforts have met with mixed success. By contrast, within American Catholicism, there has not been a comparable interest in making the home a “domestic church.” Some groups, like the Christian Family Movement, inspired a life of prayer and reflection within the home, but generally there was little interest in family religion throughout the Catholic Christian community. Of course, there have always been moral and charitable admonitions from pastors to both parents and children, and the families under their care have been urged to devote time to various devotions, especially the Rosary. But the general expectation of a deeper piety was seen as reserved for the clergy and vowed members of religious communities. This situation began to change with the Second Vatican Council.

In “Lumen Gentium” it was recognized that through procreation, followed by baptism, married couples were directly involved in the ongoing creation of the children of God. The positive role of the laity was acknowledged and, perhaps most importantly, there was a universal call to holiness. The significance of these developments for family life were alluded to in audiences of Pope Paul VI, but it would be left to Blessed John Paul II to more fully define the religious role of the family in the life of the church. His contribution began with the Synod of Bishops on the Family in 1980. The bishops, hoping to improve Christian living within the home, sought the advice of the Holy Father. His response was the publication in 1981 of the apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” (“On The Family”).

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“Familiaris Consortio” conceives of the family not as an aggregate of individuals but as a community of persons. Rooted in the sacramental union of the spouses, it extends to all members of the household and even those not in residence, such as grandparents. The parents are of central importance since they are an immediate sign to their offspring of the love of God. The Christian family is formed in love and a developing sense of mutual respect that should animate the whole of the common life, and extend beyond the home into the world at large.

Without reservation, Blessed John Paul sees both the institutional church and the family as co-participants in the life of Jesus Christ. Together, they are both redeemed and redeeming communities. It was also his conviction that within the mystery of the church, the family is a legitimate ecclesia domestica, having distinct and unique qualities that include acts of worship. But the family does not fulfill its mission in isolation. It has the same spiritual objectives as the universal church and is intimately connected with their local parish, constantly engaged with the parish and its priests in a progressive and fraternal cooperation.

Many of the writings of Blessed John Paul II have made a considerable impression upon the Catholic conscience, in matters ranging from social justice to sexuality. Unfortunately, “Familiaris Consortio” is neither well known nor widely published. There are many reasons for this lack of interest. The growing crisis in marriage and the rise of single-parent households may be a major cause of indifference towards the elevated role of the family as envisioned by the late pontiff. And, in spite of the universal call to holiness, there may also be a lingering belief that in this broken world calls to a deeper piety can only be met by consecrated religious. But there is also an institutional factor. The ideal of building up families into domestic churches is in some tensions with the desire of the hierarchy to make the parish the center of Catholic life. This strain is reflected in the programs and plans for the new evangelization.

Parish and Family

The Bishops’ Synod on The New Evangelization was held in Rome in October of 2012; Pope Benedict announced the theme for the bishops’ deliberations. He expected the focus to be upon those who, though baptized, had “drifted away” from the church and were living their lives without reference to Christian faith and teaching. The objective of the new evangelization was one of reconciliation as well as conversion. Benedict expressed the hope that those who are now non-practicing Christians can recover, through the church, the deeper peace and meaning of Jesus Christ.

During the synod’s deliberations, the bishops considered various ways that the vision of God revealed in the Gospels could be more fully manifested in our modern, highly secular, society. The Christian family was seen as having an indispensable role. The possibility of small Christian communities, intermediate between the parish and the family, was also considered, but the parish was seen as having the central position as it was the main gathering place for the smaller communities of faith. This allocation of responsibility was reflected in “The Final Message of the Synod to the People of God.”

In part seven of the “Final Message” the bishops formally affirmed the essential role of the family in the transmission of the faith, for it is here that one finds “the communication of first truths, education in prayer, and the witness of the fruits of love.” Evangelization was seen as having a particular influence on the domestic sphere. In its encounter with ordinary life, the Gospel can transform the basic conditions of daily living while at the same time reminding all believers that the ultimate meaning of human existence lays beyond this world.

The following section was entitled “The Ecclesial Community And The Many Agents of Evangelization.” It is here that the primacy of the parish, and its priest, is upheld as the paramount forum for the pastoral care of the faithful; a primacy that must be preserved even if division into smaller communities becomes necessary. For the parish church is like a village fountain from which all can drink in the refreshment of the Gospel and the Eucharist. All acts of evangelization must be brought within this paramount forum for the pastoral care of all the faithful.

One section of “The Message” was devoted to the special problems of the young, who are surrounded by an aggressive secular culture that encourages them to dissipate their affections and whose attractions disappoint their expectations. All the communities of faith are called upon to support our children and help them to become an important medium for evangelization. The bishops also called for a new dialogue with human culture; one that transcends the false dichotomy between faith and reason. Particular attention was given to the social media and the news programs that often promote the “unholy trinity” of economics, politics and sports. The ultimate antidote to these distractions is to be found, by all the faithful, in prayer and contemplation.

In an address to the synod, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, called for an evangelization that would lead the world through a contemplative humanity that closely follows the life of Christ. Williams emphasized that this would not be a matter of private experience, but one that directed us towards one another and to the whole of God’s creation. In the “Final Message” the synod bishops echoed that theme by insisting that only a prayful silence could keep the Word from being submerged in “the many noises that overrun the world.” While expressing their gratitude to all the men and women who lead a monastic existence, they affirmed that contemplative opportunities could arise under the circumstances of everyday life.

Contemplation is valuable in itself, but it should issue in compassionate action directed towards the needs of the poor and all who live under difficult circumstances. But charity is not the only measure of a Christian life. It must be accompanied by a commitment to justice that is attentive to both rich and poor. Reaffirming the social teachings of the church, the synod bishops called all to service to the human community in both social and political affairs.

Prayer and the Family

In the United States, in the same year, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis published a document entitled “Disciples Called To Witness: The New Evangelization.” Relying upon a distinction first made by Pope Benedict, the committee pointed out that the Gospel is not just informative, but also has a per formative purpose, that is, it “makes things happen and is life changing.” The Gospel engenders a culture of witness through which living in charity and faith becomes the most effective form of evangelization. This document repeats what was said by the synod concerning the primacy of parish life and on the indispensable quality of the celebration of the Eucharist. There the community prays together as it does in various devotions, to which the committee advises returning Catholics to reconnect.

“Disciples Called to Witness” gives fuller attention to the Christian family than was the case with the more inclusive document published by the Synod of Bishops. Here there is an explicit recognition of the family as a domestic church, as well as an acknowledgement that the success of the new evangelization will depend, in large measure, upon the flourishing of these churches- in-miniature. Yet something essential is missing from this understanding of how the family gives prophetic witness to the Christian life and of what makes it an authentic ecclesia domestica.

In his exhortation “On The Family” John Paul II made it clear that for the family to be an authentic domestic church, common prayer must be continuously practiced in the home. Such praying with, as well as for, others is not a means of escaping the strains of modern living. Domestic prayer is the only way that the family can truly fulfill all of its obligations—to each other, to its neighbors and to the church. It should lift the ordinary and significant events of family life into that world of petitions and thanksgivings that constitute divine adoration. Through such worship there is a “trusting abandonment of the family into the hands of their common father in heaven” (No. 59).

That fundamental call to prayer within the family is passed over, or taken for granted, in “Disciples Called To Witness.” Ironically, that document devotes considerable time to prayer and popular piety, but only with respect to the main objective of the new evangelization, that of helping those no longer practicing their faith. We are counseled not to assume that those who have been away from the church do not pray. Moreover, programs designed to reach out to “our missing brothers and sisters” should explain and teach the basic elements of a daily prayer life as well as the various forms of traditional devotions and spiritual practices, such as lectio divina The implicit assumption that families who do practice their religion already understand the modes of common prayer is, unfortunately, contradicted by experience.

If the message of “Familiaris Consortio” is to be realized, families who are members of a parish community need to be instructed by their pastors on how to develop a daily prayer life—not just as individuals, but also among themselves within their respective homes. Such forms of prayer should respect traditions that honor the Virgin, but also be in harmony with the various seasons of the liturgical year as sustained by the universal church. There can also be direct links to common worship in the parish. For example, at the conclusion of his sermon, the priest can ask the congregation to discuss it together in their home as part of a Sunday evening “vespers.” If such steps are taken, the transforming the family into an authentic domestic church may well be accomplished.

Sunday Eucharist is indispensable, but the practice and prayer life of faith cannot be confined to the parish church one day a week. For in the days between such celebrations the burdens and pressures as well as the temptations that arise in the course of ordinary living will continue to assault those who are struggling to live a Christian life. Without a shared daily prayer, those composing the family will not likely develop a taste for the joys of contemplation. The forces identified by Rowan Williams in his address to the synod will continuously harass all within the home. They will be increasingly subject to the powers of “the unreal and insane world that our financial system and advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.” Even worse, the family will be constantly tempted to assimilate the modern idolatry of money and possessions that Pope Francis has warned us to avoid.

The modern parish, with much justification, is beginning to understand itself as “a family of families.” Its many programs are impressive, especially those that attend to the spiritual needs of the children. But these efforts may not bear fruit if the children are not taught to bring what they have learned in the parish church back into the life of their own families. If within the home there is communication between parents and children about matters that concern belief, and living together in charity, the family can grow into that community of persons as characterized by Pope John Paul II in “Familiaris Consortio.”

The vitality of any parish depends upon how well its pastor guards and affirms its central position in the life of the church. But although the pastor is the dominant authority, his power is not exclusive. True growth in faith also depends on how deeply each family in the parish, on its own initiative, cultivates a life of love and worship within their respective domiciles. To advance that goal, bishops and pastors must take more seriously the ecclesial status of Catholic families. Clerical life and that of the laity can be reconciled if church leaders begin to see themselves and those who make up the domestic churches as having co-responsibility for promoting the new evangelization.

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