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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIX, No. 1
Pentecost 2014

The Domestic Church: The Covenant and the Cross

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Following is an address on Familiaris Consortio, Pope Saint John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation on the family issued after the 1980 Synod of Bishops on the Family. The address was presented to the tenth annual national conference of Women for Faith & Family held in St. Louis in October 1994.

“As the family goes, so goes the nation, so goes the world in which we live.”

These words of Pope John Paul II have been repeated often, and they are truly prophetic words; for they proclaim the truth about the central importance of the family in providing the essential moral, religious, and cultural framework on which any society is built. They are prophetic also, because they contain an implicit warning about what will happen to the nation and the world if we do not take care to make it possible for families to form and to function as the fundamental element in the construction of a just social order.

The Holy Father’s concern with the family did not begin this year [1994], with the proclamation of the International Year of the Family. In fact, his prophetic teaching on the family — on the relationship between men and women, and between individual persons and God; the covenant of love between a man and a woman which God willed “from the beginning” for the “fruitful” creation of families, for the care and nurture of children — has been a central theme of his entire pontificate. Like a true prophet, he has read the “signs of the times” and speaks especially to the people of this age.

The Pontifical Council on the Family was established following a Synod of Bishops on the Family held in 1980; and the apostolic letter Familiaris Consortio (1981) and the Charter of the Rights of the Family (1983) resulted from that synod.

In February of this year (1994), the Holy Father issued a Letter to Families in which he emphatically places the family “at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love. To the family is entrusted the task of striving ... to unleash the forces of Good.”  He prefaces this letter with a call to the “Domestic Churches” to prayer, which “gives rise to the inner strength of families as well as the power capable of uniting them in love and truth,” and the letter reaffirms the teaching of Familiaris Consortio.

The “Domestic Church”

Pope John Paul II has repeatedly called the family the domestic church, citing the revival of this term given to families by the Fathers of the Church. In a 1978 homily, he mentions that Saint John Chrysostom urged his faithful to “Make your home a church. When I said to you yesterday, ‘make your home a church,’ you burst into acclamations of jubilee and showed eloquently what joy had flooded your hearts on hearing these words.” This sacramental elevation of the family is referred to in Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church of the Second Vatican Council), which speaks of the “priestly community” brought into being by the sacraments of the church:

In virtue of the sacrament of Matrimony by which they signify and share (cf Eph 5:32) the mystery of the unity and faithful love between Christ and the Church, Christian married couples help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in the rearing of their children. Hence by reason of their state in life and of their position they have their own gifts in the People of God (cf I Cor. 7:7). From the marriage of Christians there comes the family in which new citizens of human society are born and, by the grace of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, those are made children of God so that the People of God may be perpetuated throughout the centuries.  In what might be regarded as the domestic Church, the parents, by word and example, are the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children. They must foster the vocation which is proper to each child, and this with special care if it be to religion.

Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state ... are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father Himself is perfect. (LG 11)

The pope has made an enormous contribution to the Church’s theology of the human person throughout his pontificate, and his work expands on this understanding of the sacramental nature of the family. We can only touch a few points today, but I hope it may encourage you to read for yourself the prophetic teaching contained in, not only in his theological works, like Love and Responsibility, and The Original Unity of Man and Woman, but in an entire series — Apostolic Letters and Encyclicals Familiaris Consortio, Christifidelis Laici, Mulieris Dignitatem, Veritatis Splendor, the Letter to Families, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The new encyclical on human life that will appear next year [Evangelium Vitae, “The Gospel of Life,” was published March 25, 1995] continues this effort to strengthen both our faith and our understanding. No pope in history has taught so much or so well. Nor was the need for (and perhaps also the desire) for Truth ever greater.

The Family as a Community of Love

In the Letter to Families the Holy Father explains that the family is rooted in the mystery of the Trinity. He says “the divine ‘we’ is the eternal pattern of the human ‘we,’ especially of that ‘we’ formed by the man and the woman created in the divine image and likeness.” This we establishes the family as a “community of persons,” which originates in a “covenant in which man and women ‘give themselves to each other and accept each other.” The family, established in “the sacrament of matrimony … a covenant of persons in love,” creates a “community of persons” which “is thus the first human society.”

He calls the family “the great mystery of God. As the domestic church, it is the bride of Christ. The universal Church, and every particular church in her, is most immediately revealed as the bride of Christ in the domestic church and in its experience of love: conjugal love, paternal and maternal love, fraternal love, the love of a community of persons and of generations.... Only if husbands and wives share in that love and in that great mystery can they love ‘to the end.’  Unless they share in it, they do not know ... what love truly is and how radical are its demands.” 

“Radical demands” refers to the concept of “self-giving,” of sacrificial love — a concept now often rejected by our society that is preoccupied with “rights” of the individual, and by ideologies based on modern rationalism, which has created a radical split between body and spirit. This profound error about the meaning of human life has resulted in the terrible danger to all human life that comes from regarding the body as “raw material,” as a commodity to be enjoyed or disposed of at will.

It is by only the self-giving love of God for man, the covenant of love that led to the sacrifice of the Cross, that the world can be saved from the self-destructive course it seems fixed on —  from what the pope calls a “civilization of death.”

The family, Familiaris Consortio says, “has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love.... Every particular task of the family is an expression and concrete actuation of that fundamental mission.” The document outlines “four general tasks for the family: 1) forming a community of persons; 2) serving life; 3) participating in the development of society; and 4) sharing in the life and mission of the Church.” (FC §17) Through the efforts to accomplish these tasks, the family becomes what it is.  The role of the family in society is to establish these “communities of love,” without which a just social order is impossible. Its role in the Church is to nurture faithfulness and loving unity with each other and with God in each of its members. The two roles — social and ecclesial — cannot be separated from one another. 

Family as Nurturing Ground of Faith

It is principally through the education of children that the family equips its members to withstand the continual onslaught against it by a culture that distorts the meaning of what it is to be human, of what it is to be a man or a woman, of the very value of human life.  Abortion and euthanasia, divorce and abandonment, child and spouse abuse, pornography, alcohol and drug abuse, violence of all kinds, teenage pregnancy, rampant promiscuity, sexual aberrations and diseases — all these social ills that plague our society can be traced to this profound confusion about the meaning of human life and human sexuality, of what it means to be human beings in relation to each other and in relation to God.

Traditional moral norms have been undermined by the very institutions that provided continuity and protection in the past — including schools and churches. Schools (even religious schools), which in earlier times helped parents transmit not only information on academic subjects, but also social values and moral and ethical principles, now often work against parents instead of supporting them. 

Churches, too, were a reliable source of guidance, not only for religious belief and doctrines, but also for inculcating moral and ethical principles and protecting the expected norm for responsible behavior toward others. However, churches have frequently capitulated to the “progressive” impulse, which regards such norms and traditional principles of human conduct as oppressive leftovers from a patriarchal age. Some religious leaders actively promote attitudes that are actually destructive, all in the name of “progress” and “justice.” 

In addition to the lack of support from its former allies, families are further weakened by confusion and indecision.  Parents increasingly lack confidence in themselves to exercise their responsibility in the formation and education of their own children.  They have come to rely heavily on experts — psychologists, educational theorists, and other professionals who are constantly telling mothers and fathers how they may damage their children in various ways by transmitting onto their offspring their own “rigid” beliefs and “outmoded” attitudes.

Undermined from all sides, confused about what they should be doing and weakened further by their own indecision and the “natural” resistance of their children, too many parents have withdrawn from any sustained attempt to take an active role in the moral formation of their children.  Parents have been taught to avoid interfering with the natural development of their children and of imposing “guilt-inducing morality” on them. For this reason the pope emphasizes the primary responsibility of parents in the education of their children.  He does not hesitate, either, to say that exercising this responsibility will involve difficulties and personal sacrifice.  But he also offers fathers and mothers the support they need for their difficult primary task by assuring them that this is, in fact, their vocation and their mission. Their responsibility is also their right.

The right and duty of parents to give education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others.” (FC §36)

The pope amplifies his point about the basic right and responsibility of parents to educate their children by emphasizing that parental love is the “basic element,” the “animating principle and therefore the norm inspiring and guiding all concrete educational activity, enriching it with the values of kindness, constancy, goodness, service, disinterestedness and self-sacrifice that are the most precious fruits of love.” (FC §36)

Grounded and animated by love and given to parents as a “ministry” or “vocation” by the sacrament of marriage, then, the Holy Father outlines the parents’ task in education as involving two principal areas: 1) educating in the essential values of human life, and 2) introducing children to their “first experience of the Church.” (FC §39) 

These two areas — moral education and religious education — are closely related. In the first category, the pope explains,

Children must grow up with a correct attitude of freedom with regard to material goods, by adopting a simple and austere life style and being fully convinced that “man is more precious for what he is than for what he has”… The family is the first and fundamental school of social living; as a community of love, it finds in self-giving the law that guides it and makes it grow… (FC §37)

“Education in love as self-giving” calls parents to “give their children a clear and delicate sex education, the Holy Father continues,

Faced with a culture that largely reduces human sexuality to the level of something commonplace … linking it solely with the body and with selfish pleasure, the educational service of parents must aim firmly at a training in the area of sex that is truly and fully personal; for sexuality is an enrichment of the whole person — body, emotions, and soul — and it manifests its inmost meaning to leading the person to the gift of self in love. (FC §37)

“Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them.” The school is bound to observe the principle of subsidiarity with regard to parents when it cooperates with parents in sex education (which should include “education for chastity.”)  Thus the Church is “firmly opposed” to “imparting sex information dissociated from moral principles.” (FC §37)

In the second category — religious formation — the pope stresses the link between moral and religious education when he says:

The mission to educate demands that Christian parents should present to their children all the topics that are necessary for the gradual maturing of their personality from a Christian and ecclesial point of view.  They will [take care] to show their children the depths of significance to which the faith and love of Jesus Christ can lead. (FC §39)

He quotes the Second Vatican Council, which described the content of Christian education:

Such an education does not merely strive to foster maturity … in the human person.  Rather its principal aims are these: that as baptized persons are gradually introduced into a knowledge of the mystery of salvation, they may daily grow more conscious of the gift of faith which they have received; that they may learn to adore God the Father in spirit and in truth, especially through liturgical worship; that they may be trained to conduct their personal life in true righteousness and holiness, according to their new nature, and thus grow to maturity to the stature of the fullness of Christ, and devote themselves to the upbuilding of the Mystical Body. Moreover … [they must give] witness to the hope that is in them and [promote] the Christian transformation of the world. (FC §39, emphasis added)

The pope calls parents “the first heralds of the Gospel for their children” through their ministry of educating them.  By this instruction, by praying with their children, by introducing them to the liturgy of the Church, parents “become fully parents, in that they are begetting not only of bodily life but also of the life that through the Spirit’s renewal flows from the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.” (FC §39)

And to help Christian parents in assuming this task by which families share in the priestly [sacrifice, self-giving] and prophetic [teaching] mission of Christ and the Church, the Holy Father expresses the hope of the Synod Fathers that “a suitable catechism for families would be prepared, one that would be clear, brief and easily assimilated by all” and he invites the various episcopal conferences to contribute to producing this catechism.

(In 1994, nearly 14 years after the pope wrote these words, the Catechism of the Catholic Church appeared for the first time in English.)

Through education in the true faith of Christ in which the message of love as self-giving subsists, families can extend this love beyond their own homes to other people and thus respond with “spiritual fecundity” and genuine compassion to all those in need.  The family members’ commitment to Christ provides the “inner dynamism” that manifests itself in service to life; and this service is also their witness to the world outside of “the faith that is in them.”

Sharing the Life and Mission of the Church

Pope John Paul examines the link between the Christian family and the Church and says that families not only receive the love of Christ, but become a principal means of communicating Christ’s love to the world.  The family as a community of persons is not only saved, but becomes itself a saving community. Thus the family is a “domestic Church” — Ecclesia domestica — a “living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church.” (FC §49)  It is sign, symbol, witness, and participant of the Church’s “motherhood.” 

Through the human experience of conjugal love and love between parents and children “lived in the Spirit of Christ,” we discover the plan of God and learn “the obedience of faith.” For this reason, the Holy Father says, “the little domestic Church, like the greater Church, needs to be constantly and intensely evangelized: hence its duty regarding permanent education in the faith.” (FC §51)

On the Christian family’s ministry of evangelization, Familiaris Consortio quotes Pope Paul VI:

“The family, like the Church, ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates.  In a family which is conscious of this mission, all the members evangelize and are evangelized.  The parents not only communicate the Gospel to their children, but from their children they can themselves receive the same Gospel as deeply lived by them. And such a family becomes the evangelizer of many other families, and of the neighborhood of which it forms part.” (FC §52)

And from Pope John Paul II’s own 1979 exhortation Catechesi tradendae we learn:

In places where anti-religious legislation endeavors even to prevent education in the faith, and in places where widespread unbelief or invasive secularism makes real religious growth practically impossible, “the Church of the home” remains the one place where children and young people can receive an authentic catechesis.

The pope emphasizes the family’s ecclesial service, or service to the Church.  He calls the parents’ ministry of evangelization “original and irreplaceable.” He describes the authentically Christian family as “the primary and most excellent seedbed of vocations to a life of consecration to the Kingdom of God.” (FC §53)

Even challenges presented by adolescent and young adult children who may reject the faith should not deter parents from their evangelical responsibility, says the pope. “Just as in the Church the work of evangelization can never be separated from the sufferings of the apostle, so in the Christian family parents must face with courage and great interior serenity the difficulties that their ministry of evangelization sometimes encounters in their own children.”  In fact, the Holy Father emphasizes that this “catechesis of the Church of the home” is a genuine ecclesial ministry, in that it “is rooted in and derives from the one mission of the Church and is ordained to the upbuilding of the one Body of Christ.” (FC §53, emphasis added)

The Christian family participates in the priestly role of Christ and His Church in and through sacramental communion with the whole Church.  The sacraments — baptism and marriage in particular — are sources of power and nourishment by which the family is both called to holiness and brings holiness into the Church and to the world.  But also prayer — private prayer and liturgical prayer — is a vital and necessary part of the family’s path towards holiness.

In imitation of Christ’s prophetic role, parents have the specific responsibility to teach — beginning with teaching their children to pray, both by example and by direct instruction, Pope John Paul says. This instruction in prayer includes preparation of children to receive the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation as well as teaching them the traditional prayers of the Church.

The Holy Father suggests that it is not enough to send our children to classes for instruction.  What children hear from parents and what they see us doing will make an indelible imprint on their lives that, in the pope’s words, “will leave an impression that the future events in their lives will not be able to efface.”  Thus our “concrete example” and “living witness” is “fundamental and irreplaceable” in teaching our children to pray.

He gives specific examples of prayers children should be taught, in addition to liturgical prayers and morning and evening prayers and mealtime grace; they include devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, popular devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and, especially, the Rosary. (FC §60)

Prayer is urgent, the pope makes clear, for the family’s exercise of its responsibilities:

The Christian family’s actual participation in the Church’s life and mission is in direct proportion to the fidelity and intensity of the prayer with which it is united with the fruitful vine that is Christ the Lord.  The fruitfulness of the Christian family which “cannot but lead to the transformation of the world” depends on its living union with Christ, nourished by the Liturgy, by self-oblation and by prayer.

The fruitfulness of the Christian family in its specific service to human advancement, which of itself cannot but lead to the transformation of the world, derives from its living union with Christ, nourished by Liturgy, by self-oblation and by prayer. (FC §62, emphasis added)

Pastoral Care of the Family: Stages, Structures, Agents, and Situations

The final topic Pope John Paul addresses in detail in Part Four of this apostolic exhortation on the family is the need for adequate marriage preparation and his insights on dealing with problems that arise.

The Church’s pastoral concern will not be limited only to the Christian families closest at hand; it will extend its horizons in harmony with the Heart of Christ, and will show itself to be even more lively for families in general and for those families in particular which are in difficult or irregular situations. For all of them the Church will have a word of truth, goodness, understanding, hope and deep sympathy with their sometimes tragic difficulties. To all of them she will offer her disinterested help so that they can come closer to that model of a family which the Creator intended from “the beginning” and which Christ has renewed with His redeeming grace. (FC §65)

Author’s addendum: This section on pastoral care covers not only marriage preparation and celebration (§§66-69), but also includes marriages of “non-believing baptized persons” and pastoral care after marriage. There is also a section on “difficult cases” such as “mixed marriages” and “irregular situations” (§§79-84), including, notably, “divorced persons who have remarried.”  Concerning this problem, which is of current relevance considering the Extraordinary Synod on the Family to take place in October 2014, Familiaris Consortio states:

… the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. Reconciliation in the Sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. (§84)

At the close of Familiaris Consortio, the pope invokes the protection of the Holy Family, the prototype and example for all Christian families who strive to become the “community of life and love” — which is our essential vocation, our purpose, and our mission.

The essence of the Holy Father’s teaching on the role of the Christian family in the modern world is that to build the Body of Christ, it is necessary to start with the foundation — we can only build from the ground up, not from the top down.  The “foundation stones” are Christian families, formed by the grace of God and in the obedience of faith into solid “communities of life and love.”  If these foundation stones are threatened, if they are weakened or collapse, the whole state of Christ’s Church on earth will be damaged, and the entire social order — and human life itself — is endangered.

The future of humanity passes by way of the family.

The Power of the Cross

At the end of Veritatis Splendor, his great encyclical on the Church’s moral teaching, Pope John Paul II says, “No absolution offered by beguiling doctrines, even in the areas of philosophy and theology can make man truly happy: only the Cross and the glory of the Risen Christ can grant peace to his conscience and salvation to his life.” Then he addresses a prayer to Mary, the Mother of the whole Church and Mother of Mercy, to “watch over all people that the Cross of Christ may not be emptied of its power, that man may not stray from the path of the good, or become blind to sin; but may put his hope ever more fully in God who is ‘rich in mercy,’” and to “live completely ‘for the praise of His glory.’”

The power of the Cross.

The Cross that stood on Golgotha one Friday afternoon nearly 2,000 years ago is our cross:

It is a prophetic sign; the sign of contradiction, which speaks prophetically against all evil, sin, and death — against all that is not love.

It is a priestly sign; the sign of covenant, sealed with the blood, the suffering, the pain, the merciful sacrificial love of the Son of God, the Son of Mary. It is a eucharistic sign, the Sign of Christ the Bridegroom’s covenant with His Bride, the Church.

It is also a kingly sign; a sign of victory — as of a flag planted on a battlefield. By this Cross Christ redeems sinful man and claims us for His own. Because of this, it is our sign of hope.

As we come to the end of this International Year of the Family [1994] and approach the beginning of a new millenium Anno Domini, it is fitting for every Catholic family to reflect ever more deeply on the meaning of the Cross of Christ.  And to give thanks to God for our being given the burden — which is also our privilege — of bearing even one small chip.




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