The following article is part of our ongoing series on the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life. To learn more, join our Facebook discussion group: CatholicHŌM (Households on Mission)–Family Discipleship.
In his presentation at the Symposium on Catholic Family Life and Spirituality, (and in the upcoming book, Renewing Catholic Family Life, OSV, 2020) theologian Tim O’Malley criticized the tendency to have an overly romanticized, Rockwellian vision of the “domestic church” as a large, perfectly happy, family who drives a huge van, takes vacations to pilgrimage sites and whose home is chock-full of liturgically-oriented art-and-craft projects. He says:
This romanticized account of family life tends to bypass the experience of actual families. It is an almost idolatrous vision of family life that passes over the difficulties that a family will experience in becoming a civilization of love. There are families suffering from the plague of domestic violence. Some couples are unable to have children, experiencing the agony of infertility rather than the communion that leads to a large brood of Catholic children singing along to the Salve Regina. In the United States, migrant families are separated, attempting to make a life apart from each other—sometimes by choice and sometimes because of political policy. Families in the United States suffer from poverty, unable to keep a roof over their heads let alone enjoy a meal together. Parents agonize as their children are arrested, struggle with alcohol and drug addiction, experience divorce, and even die prematurely. If the term “domestic church” is to function prophetically within society, it must take into the fullness of the human condition—not only an idealized, upper middle class account of Christian life.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the Church hasn’t provided us with an official definition of what it means by the term, “domestic church.” Inevitably, that causes people to make up their own definitions that either exclude huge swaths of people or cause them to worry that maybe even they don’t belong.
Even so, looking at the way the Church has related to this phrase over the years, I would suggest that while “domestic church” is a specific term, it isn’t an exclusive one. Just like the Kingdom of God is both already present and not-yet-fulfilled, the domestic church lives in a state of constant tension between what it’s meant to be and the messy world it actually lives in. And both can be legitimate expressions of domestic-church life.
Domestic Church: A Working Definition
My own working definition of “domestic church” is, “a household of persons united to God and each other through the sacramental life of the Church, and committed to living out the Christian/Trinitarian vision of love in their home and in the world.”
In this vision of the domestic church, grace supersedes both blood and outward appearances. Being a domestic church is less about how you’re related to each other and what your household looks like from the outside, and more about what you are working together to help each other become through a shared experience of the sacraments and a life of grace.
Icons of the Trinity
Of course, Christian families that are united through the sacrament of marriage do deserve special consideration and respect because of their role as “icons of the Trinity.” We honor these families, not because Catholicism has a Leave It To Beaver fetish, but because every Christian is called to exemplify the love that lives at the heart of the Trinity in all we do.
For all its many faults and imperfections, a Christian family that is both united through the sacrament of marriage and genuinely intentional about living out the Christian vision of love in their homes really is the best witness to the Communion of Saints that we can manage to create this side of Heaven. Even so, this kind of family doesn’t earn this “pride of place” (for want of a better way to put it)on its own merits or because of outward appearances. Rather, I would suggest that a domestic church rooted in the unity and grace afforded by the Sacrament of Matrimony is honorable because of what it represents and what it is aspiring to become. These families are on exactly the same journey that every other Christian–and Christian household–is on. We look to these families–not as an idol or a finish line–but as a living sign that even in the face of our brokenness and sinfulness, it is still both possible and worthwhile to strive to exemplify Trinitarian love in our own lives and relationships.
Broadening Our Understanding
But even if all the above is true, Domestic Church life does not begin and end with intact, married households with children. I would argue that any Christian household that is 1) united to God and each other through the sacramental life of the Church and 2) intentionally and actively trying to live out Christ’s love in their relationships with each other and the world is a domestic church. The more you can say this about your household–whatever its composition–the more “domestic churchy” your domestic church is.
It’s exactly this broader understanding of “domestic church” that gave rise to religious communities and monasteries. Historically, these Christian communities were considered to be a kind of domestic church. Christianity overturned the notion of what constituted a family. The traditional Roman view of family was tribal. If you were related by blood, you were in the club. If you weren’t, you were out. Pure and simple. Cut and dried.
But in the Christian view of family, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Religious communities and monasteries were never intended to be alternative forms of clergy, or even a kind of Religious SuperLaity. They were just a different variation on the Christian understanding of what a family actually is. That’s why religious communities have “brothers” and “sisters” and “fathers” and “mothers.” The Christian family is not defined by blood but by grace and the desire of the members of a particular household to support each other in living the Trinitarian vision of love in their lives.
The Domestic Church: What’s It All About?
All that said, being a domestic church requires effort and intention. The Liturgy of the Eucharist doesn’t just happen because you walk into a church building and stand around with a bunch of other people. You have to actually be intentional about celebrating the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In a similar way, a household doesn’t automatically celebrate the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life by living together under the same roof and sharing a data plan. To be a domestic church–whatever your household looks like on the outside–the people under your roof have to be about the business of supporting each other in living a sacramental life and exemplifying Trinitarian love. “Domestic Church” is more verb than noun.
No Family? You Still Belong
But how do people without their own families fit into this model? Again, the Christian vision of family as domestic church is different from the secular “Roman” idea of family. In the secular vision of family, if you don’t have one, you’re plumb out of luck. But in the Christian vision of “family-as-domestic-church,” everyone who loves Christ is part of God’s family. The domestic church is a physical representation of that larger, broader community where we all belong to one another in Christ (c.f., Rom 12:5).
In the early Church, if you were single, or a widow, or an orphan, or you lost your biological family for any reason (or if your biological family was attempting to pull you away from the Family of God), it was expected that other Christian households would welcome you to be an active and integral part of their domestic church. I’d suggest that this is the logical, radical, conclusion of what I call “the Rite of Reaching Out.” If anyone believes themselves to be without a family, they need to be invited to become full, integrated members of our own, particular, domestic churches. No Christian should ever feel that they are not part of our family. If they do, we have failed the Body of Christ.
The Way Forward
As the world continues to wrestle with what it means to be family, Christians need to overcome our lazy tendency to simply take secular, “Roman” and contemporary secular models of family and slap the label “domestic church” on them. We need to rediscover and reassert the unique identity, mission, and dignity that constitutes the domestic church; an intentional community of persons united to God and each other through the sacramental life of the Church and dedicated to living out the Christian/Trinitarian vision of love in their relationships with each other and the world.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the executive director of both Catholic Counselors.com and the Peyton Institute for Domestic Church Life. The author of over 20 books, you can hear him and his wife, Lisa, on their radio program, More2Life, airing each weekday at 10amE/9C on the EWTN Radio Network and SiriusXM130.