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Parents must be the first and best catechists

Q: Archbishop J, what is the mission of the domestic Church? (Pt 2)

The mission of the Church, as we saw last week, 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, with the care and love of the poor.

Continuing our reflection on the mission of the family as outlined by the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem, this week we look at how the document addresses teaching:

Christian husbands and wives are cooperators in grace and witnesses of faith for each other, their children, and all others in their household. They are the first to communicate the faith to their children and to educate them by word and example for the Christian and apostolic life. They prudently help them in the choice of their vocation and carefully promote any sacred vocation which they may discern in them (Chap 1, 11).

The family becomes a domestic Church when the family is consciously the first teacher of the faith. This teaching is by word and example. Parents who are consciously living their faith, raise children who imbibe the faith, its propositions, ethos, and values. In this sense, faith is first caught not taught.


First teachers

Parents are the first catechists, first evangelisers and their children’s first teachers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2221–2231) spells out in great detail what is expected of the parents in the education of the children.

The whole section is worth a careful reading. It says: “‘The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute.’ The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable” (2221).

This role exists from the beginning (primordial) and it cannot be substituted (inalienable). This double character is vital to understand the parents’ role and what makes a family a domestic sanctuary or Church.

When parents abdicate their role as primary educator, or when parents themselves are not properly educated, then civilisation collapses. The family is the load-bearing wall of civilisation.

The first thing parents need to teach their children is to live as children of God (CCC 2222). This means being obedient to the Father in Heaven and putting God’s will first in everything. This could only be done by example.

Through witnessing to the primacy of God in the life of the family, parents teach their children in the best way.

The second topic is virtuous living and true freedom. The Catechism says: Parents bear witness to the first responsibility of educating their children, “first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery—the preconditions of all true freedom” (CCC 2223).

This is the ideal for the Catholic family. It gives us some stretch goals to aim towards.

Virtue formation is not an accident. It requires parents who are committed to practising excellence in virtues daily. This daily practice is the most important gift that children receive.

Seeing their parents dying to themselves daily, forgiving each other, acting tenderly, respecting each other and all people and living their marriage vow is a great gift.

To see them at prayer and wresting with God’s will in the little and big things of life is the foundation for active discipleship. We want freedom. But true freedom is not doing what one wants to do; it is doing what God wants us to do. Bending one’s heart to His will—ever day—is the path to growth in holiness.

The third topic is initiation into the sacred mystery: “Parents should teach their children to subordinate the ‘material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones’” (CCC 2223).

This is vital for today. We live in a world where the material and instinctual dimensions take precedence. Hedonism, wealth, and power are seen as the highest values today; and too many parents live by this creed.

The children learn that the material and the instinctual are dominant. This is creating a generation who cannot be satisfied and who live in idolisation of pleasure, money, and power.

The turn to the outer world as the really real, is the deepest challenge to the Catholic family today. How do we help the family to sacrifice for the sake of interior spiritual values and to make them priority?

This turn to the interior life, is at the core of the family becoming a domestic sanctuary. This is the great gift the big Church has to offer the little Church.

To give this gift we first need to practise it. We need to live with the interior as primary—above pleasure, wealth, and power. This requires great sacrifice and clear commitment.

This is the evangelisation mission of the family; it begins at home. CCC 2225 says: “Parents should initiate their children at an early age into the mysteries of the faith of which they are the ‘first heralds’ for their children.”

In the early Church the language was about sacred mysteries. St Paul speaks about marriage as a “great mystery” (Eph 5:32). A mystery is something into which we plunge; into which we enter and live. It is a sacred portal to the encounter with Christ. It is a way of seeing and being in the world. The whole world is filled with the mystery of God (cf Coloss 1:26).

The Latin word for mystery is ‘sacrament’, which has come to be understood as an act to be performed—the outward sign. How do we invite our families to enter into the sacred mystery and encounter the living God—the inner grace?

This is the fundamental challenge facing the Church, the ultimate responsibility of parents. This is the core of evangelisation. The parents are the first catechists; they need to be the best catechists.

Key Message:

Parents are the first teachers of the faith to their children. This is done by word and example, in little and big things.

Action Step:

Google Catechism of the Catholic Church 2221–2231. Read, meditate, and discuss this teaching in your family.

Scripture Reading:

CCC 2221–2231