For centuries, marriage and family life have been seen as a "second class" way of life in the Churchthose called to "real holiness" were priests and religious. This faulty understanding has been corrected in recent decades, in particular through the Church's emphasis on a "universal call to holiness," a call to the fullness of sanctity for all the members of Christ's Body. The term "domestic church" has been resurrected from its ancient use to indicate the intrinsic holiness of marriage, and the marvelous means family life is for attaining the heights of holiness.
If someone were to suggest that your family was a church, you might be tempted to laugh. The pope, my local bishop, my priest, and the building down the streetyes, that's a church. But my familywith all its struggles, worries, and less than perfect people
You might be surprised to learn that both the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium, n. 2) and the new Catechism both urge Catholics to consider their family as a church! In fact, the Catechism states that "The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and
for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church" (CCC, n. 2204).
This idea is not really new. The problem was, that for many centuries, it was often thought that people who wanted to be "really" holy would go into some form of religious life. The vast majority would simply have to settle for marriage and family life.
The Biblical witness, however, is very different. Every person is called to become like Christ. Some are called to be priests; some are called to the religious life. But others, who are also called to holiness, will live out their call to become like Jesus precisely through their marriage and family relationships! As Paul wrote, "Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Corinthians 12:27). Thus, in the New Testament, we are all called to be saints, holy people of God.
Through marriage, husbands and wives are capable of great holiness. As a matter of fact, it is marriage (and not celibacy!) that Scripture uses to describe Jesus' relationship with His people (see Ephesians 5:32). It is important to note that the New Testament, after addressing the nature of salvation, deals with family relationships. Families are where we work out our salvation. It is precisely in the joy and sorrow, rough and tumbles of family life that we grow in holiness.
In the early Church, the life of the family was also closely linked to the life of faith. Augustine called the family "a domestica ecclesiaa domestic church." He felt that the father could be considered as carrying out the duties of the bishop in his own family. Chrysostom, on the other hand, called the family "a micra ecclesiaa little church." He emphasized the need to make the family members acquainted with God's Word. In every Christian home, he said there should be "both altars, one for food and the other for the sacred readings." Thus we see that from the New Testament onward, the family was of critical importance to the life of the Church.
After Augustine, however, the picture became somewhat muddied. The understanding of the family as a way of holiness began to weaken. This state of affairs lasted for centuries.
Vatican II, however, wanted to root theology strongly in the Biblical revelation. In the document on the Church there is a chapter on holiness. Here, there is a genuine recovery of the universal call to holiness: "Therefore, all in the Church
are called to holiness" (LG, n. 39).
By virtue of our baptism every man, woman, and child is called to follow and imitate Jesus. The document then shows how those who make up the Church follow this calling: bishops, priests, deacons
as well as those in the Christian family. This truly gives a profound vision of what the family is. It is the place where we can become holy.
Families are not made of perfect people. Rather they are made up of flesh and blood people walking together on the road to holiness. It is precisely through the joys and the struggles that holiness comes into play. It is as we allow Christ to be formed in us in the varied situations of family life that we walk towards holiness.
We learn to forgive, to share, to make sacrifices, and to love. In this way our familyimperfect as it may bebecomes a vehicle for Jesus' Presence in the world. In this way, our family becomes a church, the domestic church, where we can encounter Jesus.
Copyright © 2000 Joseph Atkinson
Joseph C. Atkinson is Assistant Professor of Theology at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC. He has written and lectured on the theology of the domestic church, the topic of his doctoral dissertation, the theology of Saints John and Paul, and the Christological Meaning of the Old Testament. His book review on the Theology of Fatherhood has recently appeared in Crisis Magazine and he is presently working on a forthcoming article concerning the Crisis in Paternity using the domestic church as a diagnostic tool.