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Why Building the Domestic Church Matters

A priest should remind families that they are the pathway to God

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Pope St. John Paul II, speaking to families, expressed his desire “to knock at the door of your home, eager to greet you with deep affection and to spend time with you” (Gratissimam Sane, No. 1). As pastors of the families in our parish, he invites us to do the same — to be intentional about helping families recognize that they are the most important pathway to God. This task is not an automatic function, but one that must be carefully planned and carried out.

The pope invites us to knock metaphorically at the doors of the families in our parish by affirming them, preaching God’s word, providing religious instruction, celebrating Mass and the sacraments, exercising responsible stewardship and putting families in a high place in our ministry. These households may consist of traditional two-parent families, one-person families — single, widowed or divorced — and other nontraditional situations that include single parents, children raised by grandparents and other configurations.

As we go about our ministry, we remember, as Pope Francis wrote, that “the main contribution to the pastoral care of families is offered by the parish” (Amoris Laetitia, No. 202). We accomplish the pope’s desire to knock at the doors of homes in our parish with a family centered attitude of vigor, hope and enthusiasm.

Familiaris Consortio, sometimes referred to as the Magna Carta of the apostolate to families, focuses on a family perspective. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops described this perspective as “a guiding vision for planning, implementing and evaluating programs, ministries and policies in a parish, school or any other institution” (“Family Perspective in Church and Society,” USCCB, 2007). A family perspective sets a parish tone that stresses family ministry. It influences worship, homilies, catechesis, evangelization, parish incentives, finance matters, pastoral council decisions and social justice initiatives — that is, all facets of the parish.

The pastor focuses on creating such a tone through an overall family-centered attitude in his priestly ministry. This doesn’t involve doing more, but doing what we do for families with renewed enthusiasm.

Domestic Church

Pope Francis says Christian families “are the principal agents of the family apostolate, above all through their joy-filled witness as domestic churches” (Amoris Laetitia, No. 30). As the pastor of a parish — a “family of families” — we ask whether our approach to family ministry would change if we viewed every parish household as a small domestic church.

We find the origin of the domestic church in early house churches. St. Paul says, “Greet Prisca and Aquila … greet also the church at their house” (Rom 16:3-5). In Philemon, he says, “To Philemon our beloved and co-worker, to Apphia our sister … and to the church in your house.” A family’s relationship to the broader church is found also in the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine and St. Clement of Alexandria.

Over time, the relationship between parish and family as a domestic church receded and was not part of the Church’s vocabulary by the time of the Second Vatican Council. Bishop Pietro Fiordelli reintroduced it there. However, the council’s description of the family as “like a domestic church” (Lumen Gentium, No. 11) did not grasp fully the relationship between church and family.

The real impetus came from Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) in which Pope St. Paul VI spoke forcefully of the family as a domestic church.

Succeeding popes took up his considerations as the foundation of their theology of the family. Today, pastors, bishops, Church leaders, theologians and family members, and documents such as Gaudium et Spes, Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio and Amoris Laetitia, regard the family as a domestic church — the smallest organic cell in the Church.

New Insights

The family as a domestic church invites us to look at our ministry to families in light of early house churches. The Acts of the Apostles says, “Every day they … [broke] bread in their homes … and ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people” (2:46-47).

Seven important elements in these house churches included mission, close relationships, accountability, worship, prayer, religious teaching and commitment to justice. We now consider these elements, reflect on the insights they offer us and suggest questions for pastors.

1. Mission

Early Christian households recognized that Jesus’ command to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) applied to all the baptized. Consequently, “All day long, both at the Temple and in their homes, they [the baptized] did not stop teaching and proclaiming the Messiah, Jesus” (Acts 5:42). Their kindness, love and commitment moved neighbors and civic officials alike to follow Jesus.

These Christians knew they were called to be missionaries. Their homes played a prominent role in missionary activity, sometimes functioning as cells for this work.

In today’s Church, focusing on the family as a domestic church brings greater pastoral awareness to the call of all the baptized to exercise their missionary role. Pope Francis wrote: “In virtue of their baptism, all members of the People of God have become missionary disciples. … Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 120). For pastors, this means acknowledging that many homes and families in their parish are actually the real mission territory.

Pastoral Reflections:

• What are some implications for our priestly ministry, when viewing every Christian household in our parish as a cell for missionary discipleship?

• What concrete steps can pastors take to help families view their homes as incubators for missionary work?

2. Close Relationships

The small setting of house churches made it easier to develop a sense of togetherness between members of a Christian community. Everyone knew and supported everyone else in their fidelity to Christ and the teachings of the apostles.

In today’s world, people often join churches where they feel welcome and closely connected with one another. Remembering early house churches, we do well to look again at the welcome that church members feel in our parish.

Pastoral Reflection:

• What challenges to close family relationships does digital technology present to families today? How can we address these challenges in our congregation?

3. Accountability

Early Christians were faithful to Jesus’ teachings, served the poor and supported sick and elderly community members. With Peter, James, Paul and the apostles, they spread Jesus’ message to an alien world. Because of their faithfulness, the Church grew and Jesus’ message reached to the ends of the earth.

Their example reminds us that family members are accountable to each other in transformative and fruitful ways. This also extends to accountability for sharing Jesus’ Good News outside of the family. As pastors, we support their efforts, while they provide strong leadership at home and in a troubled world.

Pastoral Reflection:

• As pastors, how can we encourage accountability in the domestic churches of our parish?

4. Worship

The Eucharist was central in the lives of early Christians (cf. Acts 2:47).

We are encouraged to stress frequent Mass attendance and Jesus’ Eucharistic presence in our homilies and parish faith formation. With the exodus of Catholics to evangelical assemblies, it is imperative that we focus on catechizing the Catholic community on the value of the Eucharist.

Such catechesis includes focusing on the domestic church as the center of family spirituality by promoting family prayer and other spiritual activities such as the Rosary at home throughout the week. These activities lead to a full, conscious and active participation in the Sunday Eucharist with the larger community.

Pastoral Reflection:

• How can we encourage families to give high priority to making their homes centers of prayer and other spiritual activities and to celebrate Mass on Sundays with the parish community?

5. Prayer

Prayer was the foundation of the early Church’s life. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name …” (Mt 6:9). After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, prayer permeated the Christian community.

The Acts of the Apostles says, “All these [Christians] devoted themselves with one accord to prayer” (Acts 1:14). When Stephen was stoned, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). First Thessalonians indicates that early Christians prayed individually, corporately and “without ceasing” (5:17).

The prayer patterns of first-century Christians remind us to pray with and for families and to encourage them to pray as families.

Pastoral Reflections:

• How can we show family members by our actions that, like us, they are to be persons of prayer?

• What tools can we provide to promote family prayer as an agent for the transformation of society?

6. Religious Teaching

Jesus’ command to “teach all nations” was a major focus in house churches. At home and in the Temple, adults and children studied the Scriptures, especially Jesus’ words that were handed down to them orally and in letters.

Parents depend on the parish or Catholic school to instruct their children in the Faith. What children learn in the parish, however, is rooted in family spirituality.

Pastors — all priests — need to encourage parishioners to pray and teach their children basic faith beliefs at home. It’s not uncommon for children to begin the first grade with little religious knowledge, no prayer history at home and little support when beginning parish catechetical instructions.

The present situation offers us a great challenge. Christian formation in the home is most important, and we can learn from early house churches that faith is born and fostered in the home.

Pastoral Reflections:

• How can we encourage parents to develop a truly Catholic home environment?

7. Commitment to Justice and Peace

Jesus’ life, teaching and struggle for justice and peace motivated early Christian households to reach out to the needy. After Pentecost, the disciples concerned themselves about the poor and welcomed them into their homes.

The Acts of the Apostles says that the disciples “would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need” (2:45). In their house churches, they did as Jesus did by serving the cause of justice.

In homilies and parish ministries, we follow Christ’s command to work for justice. This includes helping the less fortunate, opposing racism, sexism and rampant consumerism. In doing so we learn a powerful lesson from Peter, Paul and the leaders of early house churches.

Pastoral Reflections:

• Concerning our commitment to justice and the poor, what implications follow if we regard each parish household as a domestic church?

• How can our parishes use these seven elements to help families with the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to create family spaces to hold one another accountable, worship and pray together, work for justice, educate one other in the Faith and engage in close, welcoming relationships?

A Final Word

On our path of life, we recall that “among these many paths, the family is the first and most important. It is a path common to all, yet one which is particular, unique and unrepeatable, just as every individual is unrepeatable; it is a path from which man cannot withdraw” (St. John Paul II, Gratissimam Sane, No. 2).

In our pastoral walk, let us knock at the door of homes in our parish and greet family members with the dedication necessary to proclaim the Good News.

FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, Ph.D., a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is professor emeritus at the University of Dayton and resides at St. Clare Parish in Cincinnati.

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Tools to Build the Domestic Church

• Begin praying as a family and reading from Scripture daily, certainly before meals, but also first thing in the morning or before bed. Find a time that works for your family.

• Have a crucifix in a prominent place in the home, and in every bedroom.

• Make the sacraments a regular celebration — take the whole family to confession and Mass!

• Make worshiping God a priority. Never miss Mass, even while traveling.

• Teach stewardship and charity to your children, through word and example.

• Demonstrate love for your spouse, your children, your neighbors and the world.

• Talk freely about the presence of God in the joys and sorrows of your life.

• Welcome into your home and support priests, brothers, sisters, deacons and lay ministers in the Church.

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