Q: Archbishop J, what is the mission of the domestic Church?
The mission of the Church is always threefold: Sanctification, Teaching and Service.
‘Sanctification’ has to do with the life of prayer and liturgy. ‘Teaching’ focuses on growing in the faith, and service on the care and love of the poor. The big Church does these things consistently. And from within it, the Church miniature is called to fulfil its mission. This is an important movement in understanding the Catholic family as a domestic Church.
The mission of the family as outlined by the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity Apostolicam Actuositatem (11) falls into these basic categories. This week we will look at the first part which addresses sanctification:
The mission—to be the first and vital cell of society—the family has received from God. It will fulfil this mission if it appears as the domestic sanctuary of the Church by reason of mutual affection of its members and the prayer that they offer to God in common, if the whole family makes itself a part of the liturgical worship of the Church …
The first vital cell
The family’s mission, then, in essence is “to be the first and vital cell of society”. It is important to see how the big Church, positions the family for this. This positioning already gives a sense of the importance of the family to society as a whole.
In the first social encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII, arguing for the rights of the worker claimed that “the family, the ‘society’ of a man’s house—a society very small … nonetheless a true society, and one older than any State … has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State” 12.
Following this logic, we also need to say that the family is older than the parish: its rights and duties do not depend upon the parish.
We need to begin to see the family as a unit in its own right, with a mission uniquely its own. We cannot speak about the restoration of the nation, the Church or parish, without first addressing the need for the family to live its mission. It is in this sense that we need to understand the family as the first and vital cell of the State, the Church, and the parish. Without the renewal of the family, we cannot hope to renew the larger units.
The mission proceeds by way of sanctification: “It [the family] will fulfil this mission if it appears as the domestic sanctuary of the Church by reason of mutual affection of its members and the prayer that they offer to God in common.” This is a loaded statement.
From the concept of the domestic Church, we now move to the domestic sanctuary. Wow! The sanctuary is a place of safety and a refuge from danger. To see the family as a domestic sanctuary is to believe that the role of the family is to ensure every member of the family feels safe and knows what it is to be loved and protected from harm.
This is the first human need—safety, protection, and love. Our families need to be places of welcome and love where spouses, by their offering of themselves to each other create a culture of love and care for the children and each other.
Because of our wound, the Caribbean family can be vicious. We tend to point out the weaknesses of each other and magnify them, as a way of having fun. We unconsciously believe that to point out weaknesses is to help a child to grow and improve. It actually undermines the confidence of the child.
The family as sanctuary means that love and protection must come first. It is only through love that people grow and develop. It is through unconditional love that they come to deep transformation. The culture of each family needs to be evaluated from this perspective. Do all members of our family feel safe, protected, and loved?
The sanctuary also refers to a holy space that is set aside for God. To see family as a domestic sanctuary is to see the family as the most holy part of the big Church. In the church’s sanctuary we have the Blessed Sacrament, the lectern from which the Word is proclaimed and the altar of sacrifice.
In the family, Jesus is present in each of its members, with the Word being proclaimed through actions of love and sacrifice every day. Here, too, we need to see the family as the holy of holies, the place where God dwells among His people. By God coming into the world as a member of a family, He made all families holy. According to the teaching of the Church, the purpose of the family is the sanctification of spouses (Canon 1134).
The Church also expects that the family would have “prayer that they offer to God in common”. This is where the image of the domestic sanctuary comes alive.
This coming together of the members of the family to offer to God their prayer, is vital if a family is to be a domestic sanctuary.
Through our prayer we lift up and offer to God what was done in the day. The family also enters more deeply into union and strengthens its bonds with God as the glue. Each member of the family learns to lift his or her mind and heart to God in big and little things. The family is the first school of prayer.
My sister and brother-in-law had a beautiful family ritual. Just before the youngest child went off to bed, the family would gather. They would hold hands and pray. Everyone prayed! They prayed for each other, for people they knew and for whatever was happening. That is a domestic sanctuary.
This prayer in the domestic sanctuary is complete when it is united with the prayer of the big Church in the liturgy. The parish is a family of families. The gathering of the vital cells together in the liturgy gives the pastor the opportunity to invite each family to join in communion with each other and with God. It also gives to the family what is necessary to live its mission.
The family is the first and vital cell, a domestic sanctuary.
Assess your family. What steps could you take for it to be more a vital cell, a domestic sanctuary?