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The Domestic Church Thrives When the Tools Are Used

June 3, 2020


When the windows of my house are open, I can hear the church bells of my nearby parish ring the hours. During the difficult days of this pandemic the bells have been a reminder of the Masses I’ve missed and the feelings of isolation from my Catholic community, but there’s something hopeful and comforting about the sound too. Even when public Masses were suspended in our home state of Texas and we were all getting ever more familiar with the confining walls of our house while sheltering-in-place, the bells were still ringing in our home, reminding me that our priest was still offering Mass and praying for us.

Holy Week without public Masses was unimaginable—until it happened to all of us this year. I  don’t think I’ve recovered from the heartbreak of it—the strange, nauseating experience of not being able to celebrate Easter all together. I still feel the grief in the pit of my stomach. But as families everywhere prepared to watch live-streams of Holy Week services filmed in empty churches, “the domestic Church” wasn’t empty. Images on social media of my friends’ children waving palm branches, washing each other’s feet, baking hot cross buns, and feasting for Easter in spite of the anxiety of a pandemic and the separation from parish life was a consolation amidst the sorrow of the strangest Holy Week of our lives.

The Church has always upheld the importance of the life of faith in the family. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “The home is the first school of Christian life and ‘a school for human enrichment’ . . . [where] one learns . . . above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life” (CCC 1657). Even in the best of times, when the doors of our churches are open wide and we are free to worship without worry of pandemics or persecution, the domestic Church (the family) still plays an essential role in keeping the light of faith alive. This dark season has highlighted the beauty and the importance of the domestic Church for preserving our faith.

I returned from a short trip to LA, one of the first hot spots, in mid-March when everything was turning upside down. In case I had been exposed in my travels, we began self-quarantining as a household. My inbox alerted me when each of our typical family activities was cancelled one after another, as shelter-in-place was ordered and churches closed.

But reading aloud the daily Mass readings at the breakfast table kept us in tune with the season of Lent. While desperately missing the sacraments, our children prepared for Holy Week in our home with the same traditions they’ve known their whole lives: reading our picture books about Easter, praying the Stations of the Cross as a family, fasting on Good Friday, making hot cross buns, listening to Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, watching The Gospel of John during the great silence of Holy Saturday, and then feasting on Easter Sunday.

Of course, a live-streamed Mass (although I’m very grateful we have access to them!) can never make up for missing out on the glorious liturgy of the Easter Vigil. But even while watching Mass on our TV with a heavy heart and preparing our Easter meal without friends or extended family around the table, I could see that my children were Eastering. My eight-year-old daughter reminded me, “It’s still Easter. Even though this year is different, it still feels like Easter.” My children had walked through the hardest Lent of their lives and they were experiencing Easter joy despite being separated from public worship at our parish. Something spiritually significant was preserved in our home by observing the Resurrection in the domestic Church.

To show how powerful the domestic Church can be, we can look at the faith of the hidden Christians in Japan who went underground when Catholicism was outlawed, keeping Christianity alive there for hundreds of years without access to priests, confession, or the Blessed Sacrament. It goes without saying that our brief separation from the sacraments and Catholic community can in no way be compared to what the hidden Christians suffered and the horrific persecution they endured. But the resiliency of the domestic Church in Japan should inspire us. Despite every attempt to stamp out the faith, the Holy Spirit still worked through families, secretly passing on the truth of the Gospel in their homes for centuries. How then can the Holy Spirit work through our own families in good times and in bad?

Praise God the domestic Church in the United States does not have to go it alone indefinitely. Churches are reopening and the clergy has been creatively offering us the sacraments as best they can, like bishops who use a truck bed to bring Eucharistic processions through neighborhoods to keep our Lord close to his people, or our parish priest who hears confessions outside in the hot Texas sun. For a thriving Church we need vibrant faith in family life and vibrant communal worship and parish life, not one or the other. We desperately need the sacraments and to have the priesthood leading us. Without priests, public liturgies, and the sacraments, the Church in Japan, for example, struggled and often failed to remain free of heresy. But the fact that the faith survived at all in Japan speaks to the strength of Catholic families passing on the faith to their children in the worst circumstances.

But even in the best of times, when the doors of our churches are open wide, the sacraments are easily accessible, and we are free to worship without worry (of pandemics, persecution, or whatever the Church suffers around the globe), the family still plays an essential role in tending the light of faith. We can’t forget to cultivate the domestic Church. It doesn’t just keep the faith alive during a historic crisis; it’s an essential piece of the Church that cannot be replicated by parish programming—no matter how excellent. The bells of our faith should be ringing in our homes in good times and in bad, as the family brings life to the Church and the Church brings God’s grace to the family.

Anchored in Holy Time

From all the jokes online about people in lockdown not knowing what day it is, it’s clear that many have felt unmoored as their typical schedules of work and school have been upended. What day of the month is it? Is it Wednesday or Thursday? Does it matter if I sleep until noon if the office or the school day isn’t calling? The hours in the day and the days of the week may be melting together, but when the time pieces of the modern world stop ticking, we can find an anchor by keeping holy time.

By connecting with the ancient traditions of liturgical life, we do not have to be adrift when our usual routines and securities fail us—whether due to a global crisis like a pandemic or due to a difficult season for one household. It has been comforting for me to remember that while so many of us have been separated from friends and community over the past couple of months, monks and nuns are still chanting the hours and priests are still celebrating Mass each day, even where public Masses are still suspended. As lay people, we can join them by uniting with daily prayer and also by observing the Christian year in our homes.

Without the structure of work or school, we don’t have to feel like we’re floating in a sea of meaningless minutes. The domestic Church, the life of faith in the family that we cultivate in our homes, can embrace liturgical living during times of crisis (and times of normalcy, of course). By setting our clocks not by the secular world but by the traditions of the Church and daily prayer, even a pandemic cannot cut us off from the reality of our unity with our fellow Christians, despite being physically separated.

If we order our days by holy time, we can pray the Liturgy of the Hours with our Catholic brothers and sisters all over the world. Or we could start the day with the morning offering prayer and meditate on the daily Mass readings. We can refocus the day with the Angelus prayer at noon and end the day with evening prayer or a family rosary. The Church offers so many beautiful devotions that can give a simple but holy structure to the day, even if we’re sheltering-in-place.

Not only do the hours of the day take on significance if we make the home a place of prayer, but so do the days of the week. I doubt that replacing attending Mass with watching a Mass online has been easy on anyone, but closed churches doesn’t mean that Sundays can’t still be little Easters. We can set apart Sundays for sabbath rest and some holy feasting. We can count the days of the week by which mysteries of the rosary we pray. We can still join our fellow Catholics around the world by abstaining from meat on Fridays. Our Catholic traditions can still saturate our lives.