Connecting with the domestic church
Home visits are some of my favorite aspects of priestly ministry. Visiting parishioners on their own turf offers a new perspective and insight into their lives, and also many memorable moments.
Once a family invited me for a Fourth of July picnic, and although they told me to arrive at 4 p.m., they obviously were running behind schedule. When I came to the front door, one of the kids let me i, and showed me to the living room before running off to do something else. From another room, I could hear the lady of the house shouting: “Hurry up before the priest comes! This place is an [expletive] disaster!” I heard the sound of vacuums going and floor boards creaking as people were running from room to room trying to tidy the house.
Finally, I heard the host of the party saying as he rounded the corner, unaware of my presence, “I hope that our company does not stay too long!” His face became ashen white when he saw me sitting on the couch. I laughed, but he obviously did not. Home is not always so sweet; but the unexpected can give us an enlightened, unfiltered view of the domestic church.
I had a similar experience once when I went to a family’s home for a baptism luncheon. There were a number of kids at the party, and I asked them at one point if they remembered their own baptism. Most of them laughed and shook their heads no, but one girl of about 7 years old looked at me fairly disgruntled and replied, “I did not have a baptism!”
“Oh,” I replied. “Well, maybe we can fix that.”
“You better,” she stated. “I was supposed to have one, but these two [pointing at her parents] did not go through with it. They didn’t even get married in the Church. Sad!”
I did not know if I should laugh or hire her for our evangelization team, but the parents looked fairly embarrassed. They did, however, contact me soon thereafter to validate their wedding and get their oldest child baptized. The squeaky wheel truly does get the oil. Shame does not hurt either.
In Jesus’ ministry, there are many examples of his table fellowship and home visits, as well. In particular, Christ enjoyed a very close friendship with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and no doubt knew well the struggles of family life, as well as the need to be connected with family in order to show the love of God more profoundly.
In his apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, Pope St. John Paul II engages this concept. St. John Paul writes, “The Church thus finds in the family, born from the sacrament, the cradle and the setting in which she can enter the human generations, and where these in their turn can enter the Church” (No. 15).
In another reflection on family, Pope Francis echoed this theme by inviting priests to be pastors who know their people intimately. The pope proclaimed in his 2013 chrism Mass homily, “This I ask you: be shepherds, with the ‘odor of the sheep,’ make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.”
Obviously, this means being willing to step outside of comfort zones, but also being willing to extend ourselves to enter into people’s lives in a real way and meet them where they are.
I knew a priest who used to have a “Friday Nights with Father” program at his parish. He had a sign-up in the back of church for people to invite him on a Friday night to their house for dinner, or to go to a movie, or to do whatever they did on a Friday evening.
Initially, I thought that no one would take him up on the idea, but eventually it caught fire. He spent almost every Friday evening with a different family doing a whole host of activities — including indoor skydiving. He learned a great deal about his people and, as a result, said that his preaching, outreach and ministry to the parish became well focused and effective.
The people actually began to see him as “Father” to them, and he began to understand more deeply what it meant to love his people. Perhaps we are not all called to Friday skydiving, but hopefully we can feel at home with our people, whether they expect us there or not.
FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the parochial vicar at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.