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Family and the big Church

Q: Archbishop J, what does the Church teach us about the domestic Church?

The term domestic Church first appears in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, when bishops, theologians and observers from all over the world met in Rome four times, between 1962 and 1965, to discuss matters critical to the life of the Church universal.

This Council is the guiding light for the Church in our age. It sets the agenda for our theology and pastoral action. Its teaching is vital to understanding the mind of the Church in our modern world.

The first reference in the documents appears in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, where the term is mentioned almost tentatively, “the family is, so to speak the domestic church”, (11).  The text gives the theology of marriage and expresses the hope for the Christian family.

I will quote the passage in full:

“Finally, Christian spouses, in virtue of the sacrament of Matrimony, whereby they signify and partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church, help each other to attain to holiness in their married life and in the rearing and education of their children. By reason of their state and rank in life they have their own special gift among the people of God. From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. 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; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state.”

In Christian marriage, the spouses “partake of the mystery of that unity and fruitful love which exists between Christ and His Church”. Here the Council is making direct reference to Ephesians 5:32 where St Paul calls marriage a “great mystery”. This outward sign of the union of the couple, points to the inner grace of the union of Christ to His bride the Church.

Thus, Christian marriage is not just about the two people it involves so much more than that. It is a miniature of the whole economy of salvation and the relationship between God and His people. This requires deep reflection.

The great mystery of Marriage

Marriage, for the Catholic, is not just a civil contract. It is a participation in a covenant, a revelation of a profound mystery. It is a portal to glimpse the deepest truth of the relationship between Christ and His Church, which is cast as a marriage covenant, one which is indissoluble and fruitful.

Because marriage is a covenant and a “great mystery”; because it speaks to Christ and His Church, it is a sacrament that is indissoluble. This is why the marriage promise says: “’Till death do us part.” Christ will never leave His Church, so too the spouse should never leave the other.

The next line speaks to the heart of marriage. There is a purpose—to gain holiness. Each spouse offers the other the road to holiness—to be configured to Christ; in simple language, to become the best version of himself or herself.

By learning to put the other first in all things, Christian spouses learn day by day to die to themselves so others may have life. The road to holiness is not outside the day-to-day experience of living. It is not something esoteric or purely spiritual; it is precisely there in the domestic Church, in the daily sacrifice of dying to self that the spouses are being configured to Christ.

Marriage is fruitful. The ultimate end is the procreation and education of children. I need you to hear this line through the whole understanding of the Catholic DNA. The Church is not speaking about accreditation or degrees. It is speaking about the process of transformation into Christ, forming the children to live as children of God and great citizens of their nation and the world community.

If every family gave the children what they needed to live as children of God, the family and the nation would be very different. This is why family life is essential to good order in the nation and the world.

Family as a community of love

When parents recognise and live marriage as a vocation, a call from God with very special grace, the children experience an infusion of grace in all aspects of their lives. This is what it means to ignite the Catholic DNA in the family.

It calls all members of the family to live as a community of life and love. This is how we transform the Church, the nation, and the world.

The last part of the statement is vital. By naming the family as a domestic Church, there is now an analogy between the family and the big Church.

The big Church preaches: the parents preach by word and example. In baptism parents are told they are the first teachers of the faith to their children. Then it continues: “May you be the best of teachers”.

When the family is conscious of living the Catholic DNA, then marriage is fruitful not just by producing children, but also and more importantly by producing saints.

The last part of the statement puts the burden of vocation on the parents. The parents should discern and encourage their children towards a vocation that is suitable to them.

They are also mandated to keep the prospect of a vocation to the sacred state to the fore of their family life and in the imagination of their children.

As we reflect on the Church’s rich teaching on marriage and the family, we—big Church—need to assist all families to discover and live their vocation as the domestic Church.

Key Message:

When Catholics live their vocation of marriage consciously, they make a great contribution to the Church, the nation, and the world.

Action Step:

Reflect on your family and families that you know. Are they living as domestic Church?  What is one step you can take to assist your family, or a family to live their vocation more fully?

Scripture Reading:

Ephesians 5:25–33

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