The Church is not oblivious of the myriads of challenges that confronts families in our world today, and there seems to be a deliberate and targeted attempt to detract from the real significance and value of the family by the renewed attack on marriage as an institution. The family is pivotal to the Church, and the recent lockdown of Churches by the Government due to the ravaging Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, should help the family to reawaken their role as the “sanctuary of life”, a vital cell of society and a community of mind and spirit; whereby exchange of ideas, convictions, values and attitudes takes place. Before delving into the family as the Domestic Church, it is important that we elucidate on the word “Church”. The Germanic word “Church” (Kirche, Kirk) stems from a popular Greek work, Kyriake meaning “House of God”.
Though the common word Ecclesia is a Greek word derived from the Greek translation of the Old Testament qahalyahweh. In this sense it denotes the assembly of all the free citizens of the state. According to the New Testament, the Church is the household of God (1Pet.2:5; 4:17; 1Tim 3:15; Heb.10:21). The Liturgy often describes the Church as the Familia Dei(Family of God). It is supposed to be a house for all; in it everyone should be permitted to feel at home and have a sense of belonging in the family. Hence, it is apposite to state that families need the Church and the Church needs families in order to be present in the midst of life and in the milieu of modern living. The dogmatic constitution on the Church sees the Church as a sacrament, a sign and instrument that is of communion with God and of unity among men.
This understanding of the church helps us to situate the family in its project: The family is a true “cell” of the church, a fundamental cell, the smallest, without doubt, but also the most basic of the celestial organism. In the post-Vatican II Church, there has been a resurgence of interest in the importance of Christian marriage and family. Since the Council, various official documents and theological writings have described the family as a “domestic church,” the foundational Church where holiness is nurtured and lived out. Domestic church, or as it has been recently called, “the Church of the home,” emphasizes that families can embody Christ in the day to day experiences of their lives and are connected precisely as foundational churches to the whole people of God.
In principle, domestic churches, as well as the wider Church community, incarnate ideals of reconciliation, justice, peace, hospitality and prayer. One of the key functions of the larger Church is to gather the foundational churches of homes into wider communities of faith and justice. The idea of domestic church has been expressed clearly in several Vatican II and post-Vatican II documents, and in subsequent theological and pastoral documents. According to Lumen Gentium, ApostolicamActuositatem, and Gaudium et Specs, the idea that Church begins and flourishes in the home is a significant teaching. All three documents discuss in detailed the ways in which Christian families, function as domestic churches and why this idea is so important.
Domestic church is a foundational experience of the Church. It springs from Christian marriage and enables families to make Christ present in day to day life. It stresses the importance of building faith in the family and recognizes the Christian family as a center of faith and mission, a witness to the message of Christ for families, and an agent of transformation for the Church and the world. Post-Vatican II papal writings have re-echoed these themes. Paul VI’s EvangeliiNuntiandi, for example, declares that the family should be called domestic church, a place “where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates.” Paul VI believes that the initial responsibility for evangelization is with Christian spouses, who have the unique opportunity to sanctify each other, children, extended family, and others.
When the home is the place where evangelization begins, a life rooted in faith has the opportunity to flourish. Pope John Paul II advances these ideas, particularly in FamiliarisConsortio, when he opined that the Christian Family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion and for this reason, it can and should be called the ‘domestic church’. Like Paul VI, he noted that a major purpose of the Christian Family is the transmission of gospel values and the building up of God’s reign. He asserts that there are many strong connections between the church of the home and the wider Church community, and states that the Christian family must work to establish an ecclesia domestica, so that “the family is a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the church”.
The Scripture presents God as taking Israel as His people, His family. Thus, as the term family typifies the relationship between God and His people, it is natural to think of family as the Church. The New Testament also reveals God Himself to be a family of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This presupposes therefore that the family is the image of the relationship between God and His people; and when this is applied to the Church, the Church is the people of God whose life derives from being the family of God. Likewise, individual families are not only an image of the Church, but find their deepest life in being part of the community called Church. Therefore, the understanding of calling Christian family the domestic Church has preserved this profound insight.
In order to grasp the profound reality which, the family as “domestic Church” offers us, we need to understand the relationship that exists between the “family” and “Church”. This relationship is referred to as “Participation”. The Christian family is akin to the Church because the family is placed at the service of the building up of the kingdom of God in history by The family as domestic church participating in the life and mission of the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesia communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic Church”. Its inclusion in the Catechism reveals that the term “domestic church” has become a fundamental concept in regard to the family.
Its essential meaning is that the domestic Church is not just an image of the love of Christ and His Church, but also that marriage is a participation in the Church as sacrament. Strictly speaking, Christ is the sacrament because his self-communication is not just through words or signs, but because Christ gives his own self. Sacraments are only possible because Christ became man and joined humanity with God. The domestic Church is therefore the specific revelation of this sacramental action. This implies that the Church as Mother gives birth toeducates and builds up the Christian family, by putting into effect in its regard the saving mission which was received from the Lord. By proclaiming the word of God, the Church reveals to the Christian family its true identity, what it is and should be according to the Lord’s plan; by the continuous proclamation of the new commandment of love; the Church encourages and guides the Christian family to the service of love, so that it may imitate and relive the same self-giving and sacrificial love that the Lord Jesus has for the entire human race.
In addition, the family as a domestic church is a true ministry through which the Gospel is transmitted and radiated; so that family life itself becomes an itinerary of faith and in some way a Christian initiation and a school following Christ. Hence, by virtue of their ministry of educating, parents are through the witness of their lives, the first heralds of the Gospel for their children and they are begetters not only of bodily life but also of the life that through the Spirit’s renewal flows from the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. However, the goal of living and sharing the ideal of domestic church is a significant challenge, which requires strong faith and the support of the larger Christian community. Most Christian communities need assistance to realize who they are, what they can become, and how they can influence the larger community.
While it may be easy for some families to recognize that they are ‘the church of the home’, significant evangelization and catechesis will be necessary for many. This can be achieved if Church communities provide the understanding catechesis for Christian families, perhaps beginning with existing programmes in local churches. The catechumenate, lay formation programmes, scripture study groups, and a host of other programmes can be tapped to incorporate components which emphasize the importance of domestic church for the entire community of faith. Finally, it is generally agreed that the family is the foundation of the society, its nucleus. It is the conjugal society that begets children for the larger society and it is the family that is the first place for the education of children. It is in the family that personalities are formed, characters are built and the foundation of values is laid. The ‘health’ of the family is essential to the health of the society.
The survival of the family is crucial to the survival of the larger society. No wonder, the decays found in society today have been traced to the brokenness found in many families. Hence, the ideal family is the family of God where the Gospel is transmitted and radiated, so that the family itself becomes the itinerary of faith in the society