The use of the term “domestic church” to refer to the family goes back to early Christianity. The Second Vatican Council affirms this by saying, “The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children” (Lumen Gentium, No. 11).
In his Apostolic Exhortation on the Family, Pope John Paul II takes up this image of family as domestic church and probes some of its meaning. “The family is placed at the service of the building up of the kingdom of God in history by participating in the life and mission of the church” (Familiaris Consortio, No. 49).
The family is called a domestic church on the basis of four aspects of Church, i.e., the Church as people of God, as a community of Christ’s followers, as a worshipping community and as a servant people in the kingdom of God.
People of God
In the dogmatic Constitution of the Church, the bishops of Vatican II describe the Church as the people of God. If we are serious about referring to the family as a domestic church, then we need to view it as people of God. God’s call for all of us is to be part of a family. No one is born in a vacuum. No one can survive without others who love and care. Family, then, is a gift. It is grace. It is intended to be God’s way of calling us into being and of providing an environment in which we can grow in all the unique dimensions of our individuality. God calls and empowers a couple to enter into a marital relationship, create a family and become people united with Him through their union with one another.
Molding one’s family into “a people of God” involves forming it into a community. Becoming people of God means that, in making decisions and in choosing how to treat and relate to one another, the members strive to be influenced by the Spirit of God. The family members make an effort to be directed not merely by their own will, but by the will of God.
Followers of Christ
The Christian family becomes domestic church to the degree that it grows in its faithfulness and loving commitment to Christ. Among the many images to describe the relationship between Christ and His followers are: body of Christ, vine and branches, and sacrament of Christ.
(i) Body of Christ: The family is brought into union with Christ by the power of the one Spirit. In the family, as in the entire Church as body of Christ, all members, female and male, adult and children, have a basic equality in dignity as human beings united in the one Christ (Eph 4:1-5). It is essential that there is mutual respect for the personhood, the uniqueness and the rights of each person.
As domestic church, the family is a unit within the total body of Christ. That means that it needs the rest of the Church, and that the wider Church needs it. Both must speak to one another in mutual nurturing and fulfillment. The family grows by deepening its faith and love of Christ and by being receptive to Christ’s Spirit. This involves a sharing of faith, openness to the Spirit, a nurturing of prayer life and mutual encouragement to grow in the image of Christ, according to each person’s unique giftedness.
(ii) The Vine and the Branches: In the Last Supper discourse in John’s Gospel (Jn 15:1-6), Jesus describes his relationship to the disciples through the metaphor of the vine. Jesus is the true vine, and His followers are the branches (Jn 15:5). Applying this metaphor to the Christian family reveals the depth of intimacy that can exist between the family and Christ. Christ makes his dwelling place in their home. He is the center of the family, drawing the members to Him and empowering them to grow in union with each other. This perception of Christ’s indwelling leads them to mutual respect and affirmation that encourage all to bring forth greater fruit.
(iii) Sacrament of Christ: The Christian family as a domestic church is called to be a sign, a sacrament of Christ to the wider Church and to the world. Family members can respond to this call in five ways.
First, they give witness to their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The word of God, enfleshed in Jesus Christ, is for them the guiding principle and source of inspiration for their decisions, both as individuals and as family.
Second, they give witness to the sacrificial love that Christ displayed throughout His life and in His death on a cross. They stretch their arms out in openness and love for one another.
Third, the family is called to be a sign of Christ’s forgiveness.
Fourth, the family sacramentalizes Christ’s compassion through their own empathy with the sufferings of others. Learning to be empathetic with one another enables the family to reach out with compassion to the homeless, the oppressed and the afflicted in the wider human family.
Fifth, they give sign to the Gospels’ values proclaimed by Jesus. This is done in the family especially by living a lifestyle based on the Gospel values. By respond to these five calls, the Christian family can become a sacrament of Christ.
A Worshipping Community
Familiaris Consortio speaks of the “Church’s sanctuary in the home. . . By means of the sacrament of marriage, in which it is rooted and from which it draws its nourishment, the Christian family is continuously vivified by the Lord Jesus and called and engaged by Him in a dialogue with God through the sacraments, through the offering of one’s life and through prayer” (FC, No. 55). The prayer life of the family centers in a special way around the celebration of the sacraments. The most frequent way in which the family as domestic church demonstrates its relationship to the wider Church is in the celebration of the Eucharist.
By participating with others in this central act of ecclesial worship, families form a parish community, and in turn, are deepened in their own formation as churches of the home. Gathering together in prayer and worship takes on its real value when it enables family members to incarnate the word of God in the daily offering of their lives and in shaping their behavior.
A Servant People In the Kingdom of God
The Church, following in the footsteps of Jesus, is called to be a servant people. It is challenged to advance the Kingdom of God by serving the causes of truth, justice and peacemaking. As a domestic church, the family participates in this ecclesial mission.
First, it serves the cause of truth. Family intimacy is created in terms of individuals getting in touch with the truth within themselves and in sharing the truth with each other: the truth of who they are, the truth of what it means to be human, and the truth about the God of Jesus Christ. Lumen Gentium speaks of parents as being “the first preachers of the faith to their children” (LG, No. 11).
Second, the domestic church of the family serves the cause of justice. The experience of growing in the ability of respecting one another’s rights within the domicile and learning how to share among themselves in an equitable way can help sensitize a family to the countless injustices that take place outside its walls and to the inequities that wound and destroy the lives of millions of fellow human beings.
Third, as a servant people, the Christian family is called to serve the cause of peace. The family that can work out its differences with understanding, mutual respect, sensitivity and charity achieves the peace and contributes, like a leaven in the dough, to the building of peace in the global village.
The reality of the family as a domestic church is never a given to be taken for granted. Rather it is a challenge, a task to be accomplished. It takes place to the degree that family members, together, open themselves to the spirit, who calls and empowers us to be a gathering in the name of the Lord.
FATHER SINGARAYAR, S.V.D., a member of the Divine Word Province in India, has written various articles in international and national journals. Presently, he is pursuing a Masters in Anthropology and resides at Divine Word Seminary, Pune-India.