The Liturgy of Domestic Church Life
A newly articulated vision for family spirituality and family ministry
Dr. Greg Popcak 0
If the Church learned anything from its experience of the pandemic, it’s that Catholics struggle to live their faith in the home and that we need to think differently about the role of the domestic church in the life of the Church.
As Cardinal Mario Grech, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops in Rome explained in an interview in La Civilta Cattolica, the Church’s experience of the pandemic “suggests that the future of the Church lies … in rehabilitating the domestic church and giving it more space, a Church-family consisting of a number of families-Church. We must live the Church within our families” (Oct. 23, 2020). Cardinal Grech also noted the need for a “new ecclesiology” — one that expected the domestic church to be a true and active partner in the life and mission of the Church.
But what does it mean, practically speaking, to “live the Church within our families”? Serendipitously, just before the pandemic our organization, the Pastoral Solutions Institute, associated with our partners at the Our Sunday Visitor Institute, Holy Cross Family Ministries and the McGrath Institute for Church Life, began seeking answers to this question. Together, we organized the Symposium on Catholic Family Life and Spirituality at the University of Notre Dame in the summer of 2019. The symposium was a multidisciplinary, ideologically and culturally diverse gathering of over 50 theologians, social scientists, pastoral ministry professionals and Church leaders, all chosen for their expertise in family well-being and spirituality.
Participants explored four critical questions related to the renewal of Catholic family life:
1) In light of the Catholic vision of the family, are Catholic families called to relate differently to each other than our non-Catholic and non-Christian counterparts?
2) Given that most practices associated with Catholic spirituality are drawn from the monastic/clerical tradition and can be challenging to integrate into family life, what would an authentic, domestic-church-based spirituality look like in practice?
3) Because so many of the Church’s ministry efforts are spent chasing after sheep that should never have been lost in the first place — that is, children raised in Catholic homes — what more can be done to help Catholic families become forges of intentional discipleship and raise the next generation of intentional disciples?
4) How can Catholic families be equipped to participate more effectively in the life and mission of the Church, serving as the primary outposts of evangelization and positive social change?
Two significant insights emerged from this effort.
Practical Definition of ‘Domestic Church’
The first was the need for a practical definition of the term “domestic church.” Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church theologically defines a domestic church as “a specific revelation … of ecclesial communion” (No. 2204), that definition offers little practical insight into what it requires to establish or maintain a healthy, dynamic, domestic church life. Drawing on the research presented at the symposium, we developed a working definition of a “domestic church” as a household of persons united to God and one another through the sacramental life of the Church and committed to living out the Christian/Trinitarian vision of love in relationships with one another and the world.
The more a particular household reflects this vision, the more that household already is a domestic church. By contrast, the more a specific household struggles to reflect this vision, the more that household is being called to become an even more dynamic domestic church.
This working definition appropriately includes all types of Catholic households — for example, married and divorced households, single-parent families, grandparenting families, foster families, etc. — while still giving proper due to households rooted in the Sacrament of Matrimony. This is important because while all types of domestic churches participate in the life of the Church, every domestic church must ultimately be ordered toward Christian marriage — both in terms of its own call to share in the grace of marriage and in its responsibility to raise children who are well-prepared to celebrate the fullness of Christian marriage in adulthood.
Cooperating with Grace
The second fruit of the symposium was the ability to articulate the specific elements of what we call “the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life.” In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis writes, “The spirituality of family love is made up of thousands of small but real gestures” (No. 315).
Through this lens, we see that the small, family practices that make up the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life give families both implicit and explicit means by which they can cooperate with the grace of all the sacraments — especially the Eucharist — and be transformed into dynamic domestic churches. In the words of Archbishop Michael Mouradian, the Armenian Catholic Eparch of North America, “The Liturgy of Domestic Church Life represents the mystical vehicle that communicates Eucharistic grace to the whole world through the living Body of Christ.”
A liturgy is an act of worship instituted by God (not invented by humans) to heal the damage sin does to our relationship with God and others. For instance, the Eucharist was not invented by human beings. It was instituted by Christ to heal the damage sin does to our ability to achieve union with God and communion with others.
At the beginning of time, God created families, not humans. In his design of the human family, God ordained certain practices to help them be healthy. Social science shows that all healthy families throughout history and across cultures practice certain habits. As Leo Tolstoy put it in “Anna Karenina,” “All happy families are the same.”
When these divinely instituted, healthy family habits are united with sacramental grace, they not only become a blueprint for a healthy family life. They also become a little way of holiness. When families strive to do what they were created to do for the greater glory of God, every simple act of family life becomes an actual liturgy, an act of worship instituted by God for the express purpose of healing the damage that sin does to the very root of society — the human family.
The Liturgy of Domestic Church Life is simply a new label that refers to the collected, divinely instituted practices that enable families to live healthy, holy lives. In a sense, it could be considered the primordial liturgy that accompanies what St. John Paul referred to as the “primordial sacrament” of marriage.
The Liturgy of Domestic Church Life is composed of three rites:
• The Rite of Christian Relationship
• The Rite of Family Rituals
• The Rite of Reaching Out
On a natural level, these rites are supported by decades of social science research highlighting the practices associated with healthy family functioning around the world and throughout history. On a spiritual level, these rites are rooted in the priestly, prophetic and royal missions of baptism, respectively.
The Rite of Christian Relationship helps families live out the priestly mission of baptism. It suggests four simple practices that enable families to consecrate their daily lives to God by infusing every interaction with the sacrificial love of Christ. These include:
• Prioritizing family time over other activities: A family’s ability to form Christian disciples depends entirely on its ability to make time to create intimate communion in the home.
• Sharing generous affection and affirmation: Christ’s love is incarnate, embodied and extravagant. Families model Christ’s superabundant, incarnational love through generous displays of appropriate affection and healthy affirmation.
• Prompt, generous, consistent and cheerful attention to one another’s needs: Intimate communion in family life depends upon that family’s capacity for mutual self-giving.
• Discipleship Discipline: Based on St. John Bosco’s preventive system of childrearing, Discipleship Discipline is a relationally based approach to parenting that focuses on cultivating virtue and deep faith through a combination of high expectations, a loving guidance approach to discipline and an intentional program of faith formation in the home. This approach is the basis of Salesian spirituality and is central to the spirituality of domestic church life.
The Rite of Family Rituals helps families exercise the prophetic mission of baptism. Through their words and actions, prophets call people to live godly lives (cf. CCC, No. 905). When Christian families create meaningful rituals for working, playing, talking and praying together, they prophetically call one another to cultivate Christian attitudes toward work, fun, relationships and faith.
The Rite of Reaching Out helps families celebrate the royal mission of baptism. To reign with Christ is to serve with him (cf. Lumen Gentium, No. 36). In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis reminds us that caring for others is integral to family spirituality (cf. No. 313). The Rite of Reaching Out suggests four practical ways every family can be God’s blessing to one another and the world. These include:
• Generous service in the home.
• Living daily life in a manner that is mindful of others, such as budgeting for charitable giving, Christian hospitality, stewardship, making meals/doing service for neighbors.
• Intentionally practicing kindness and generosity to strangers as we go about our business in the world.
• Serving together, as a family (domestic church), in the parish and in the community. This allows families to not only do good works but inspire others with their witness of love as they serve together.
Additionally, the practices encouraged by the Rite of Reaching Out can help families discern the unique mission and charism God has given their particular domestic church.
A Real Church
In the Catholic view, a Church cannot exist without a liturgy that enables it to do its work. The same is true of the priesthood. But if that’s true, what is the liturgy that makes an ordinary family a domestic church? What is the liturgy that allows the common priesthood of the laity to consecrate the world to Christ?
Until now, this liturgy has not been defined. This has led to a multitude of problems, including deep confusion about how to communicate an authentically Catholic vision of family life, the sidelining of the domestic church in the life of the Church and, ultimately, clericalism, because if the common priesthood doesn’t have a liturgy, then it isn’t a real priesthood and the ministerial priesthood is the only priesthood that “counts.”
Teaching families to live the practices that make up the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life addresses these problems. It provides a simple, clear, comprehensive framework for communicating the Catholic vision of the family. It makes it possible to define what a domestic church is, how it is formed, and what its responsibilities should be in the life of the Church. Finally, it helps to flesh out the proper dignity and authority of the common priesthood of the laity without clericalizing the laity.
Most importantly, it’s simple to teach. To the degree that they are healthy, many families are already implicitly celebrating at least some aspect of the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life. This framework allows families to be more intentional about these practices and experience more significant benefits from them.
The Liturgy of Domestic Church Life is an ancient idea whose time has come. By helping families live this liturgy in their daily lives and in the face of the challenges they encounter, we can help families become true domestic churches, active participants in the life and mission of the Church, and outposts of grace in a hurting world.
DR. GREG POPCAK is the executive director of the Peyton Institute for Domestic Church Life and founder of the CatholicHOM App.
Online Family Ministry Platform
The CatholicHOM App (Catholic Households on Mission), created by the Peyton Institute for Domestic Church Life, is an online family ministry platform dedicated to teaching and supporting families in living the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life with personalized mentoring, creative resources and fun family activities. The CatholicHOM app has been downloaded by thousands of families and family ministry professionals worldwide.