Greg Popcak asks if you have ever thought of your family life as a liturgy?…
Does the domestic church discriminate?
Since January, I’ve been exploring ways to renew domestic church life. Overall, the feedback generally has been positive, but some readers have expressed the concern that the term “domestic church” potentially leaves out a lot of people. What about divorced households? What about single-parent households? Or singles? Or grandparents? What about all the other household arrangements that exist? Can you be a domestic church even if your family doesn’t look like the stereotypical “ideal Chrisitian household” (whatever that means)?
Here’s the good news. The term “domestic church” is specific, but it’s not exclusive. The first-century Christian idea of family represented a radical departure from the pagan Roman understanding. In Roman culture, the family was a tribe based on blood. You were either in or you were out.
One of the many reasons Christianity was viewed with suspicion by Roman society was that it challenged this tribalistic view of family. Christianity taught that all the baptised were God’s family. In fact, for Christians, ties of grace were even more binding than ties of blood. Through the waters of baptism, people from every walk of life were now united through grace. All the baptised were brothers and sisters in Christ, and those ties were meant to supersede all other earthly connections. This represented a radical revisioning of what it meant to be “family.”
We’re prone to thinking that the phrase “domestic church” is exclusive because, in our increasingly post-Christian world, we’ve unconsciously resorted to a pagan understanding of what family is. The idea of “domestic church” is rooted in the natural family, but it is simultaneously much broader, because it’s ultimately a divine institution, not merely a human one.
Although the Church does not provide an official definition of the term, I would suggest that a domestic church is best understood as this: a household of persons who are 1) united to God and each other through the sacramental life of the Church and 2) committed to living out the Christian/Trinitarian vision of love in their relationships with each other and the world. Let’s break this down.
“A household of persons united to God and each other through the sacramental life of the Church” means that it’s grace, not necessarily blood, that makes a household a domestic church. In fact, it was this understanding of family that gave rise to religious and monastic life. Religious brothers and sisters are not quasi-clergy. They’re actually a type of domestic church life. Like every other Christian family is called to be, monasteries and convents are households of persons united to God and each other through the sacramental life of the church.
Of course, just living under the same roof doesn’t make a domestic church happen any more than standing around in an empty church building makes Mass happen. In both cases, the people who are gathered together have to be intentional about serving a particular mission. That’s why, in addition to sharing a sacramental connection, a domestic church is also committed to “living out the Christian/Trinitarian vision of love in their relationships with each other and the world.”
The world offers lots of different ideas about what “love” means. At its core, being a Christian disciple means living a life that promotes a uniquely Christian vision of love. For Christians, loving another person means: 1) working to be in intimate communion with them — like the Trinity is; and 2) giving everything we have to help each other become everything God created us to be — like Jesus did. It is the effort to build deeply grace-filled, intimate relationships rooted in the commitment to work for each other’s ultimate good that gives a domestic church it’s mission and focus.
Whatever the makeup of your household, the degree to which you can say that the people you live with are united by sacramental grace and committed to living out the Christian/Trinitarian vision of love in all your relationships is the degree to which you can say your household represents a true domestic church. Likewise, the degree to which this isn’t true of your household is the degree to which God is calling you and yours to grow. Every domestic church lives in the tension that exists between the already present and not-yet-fulfilled kingdom of God.
It’s important to note that, in this model, households rooted in marriage rightfully enjoy special pride-of-place, but not because they represent some kind of human ideal. They deserve special respect because they share a stronger sacramental connection, and because, as “icons of the Trinity” they’re better equipped to witness to Trinitarian love. That doesn’t mean other households are lesser domestic churches or that married households are automatically “ideal.” It just means there are different kinds of domestic churches — all of which share some sacramental connection and each of which witnesses to Christian/Trinitarian love in the manner that’s most appropriate to its reason-for-being.
But what about single people? Aren’t they excluded by a too-narrow focus on domestic church life? Certainly not. For the Christian, there is no such thing as an individual. To be human is to be in relationship with others. Whenever possible, and even if they live separately, single Christians should actively seek out opportunities to participate and serve the domestic churches they grew up in or, in the case of elder Christians — grandparents, for example — gave rise to.
That said, if a person really does not have a viable connection to their own domestic church, we’re compelled to do everything we can to make them an active and welcome part of our domestic churches. The early church did not attend to widows and orphans by creating social welfare agencies. They opened their doors and welcomed the stranger into their midst as a true brother or sister in Christ. Certainly, social services are essential, but they can’t possibly replace the authentic opportunities for accompaniment that the domestic church can provide. The radical hospitality that Christian households are called to is meant to make sure that no one is alone. Every Catholic must be actively connected, not only to their parish but to a domestic church (whether a household, monastery or convent) where they can be supported in becoming intimate, intentional Christian disciples.
In this view, every person is welcome. Every person can contribute. Every person belongs. Promoting domestic church life doesn’t mean indulging in some Ozzie and Harriet fetish. It means calling all households to holiness and asserting the authentic communion in which every Christian person is called to live.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books and the executive director of the Peyton Institute for Domestic Church Life (peytonfamilyinstitute.org).