Every family has the perfect model in the Christmas story’s family. During the Christmas season, we celebrate the Holy Family’s feast day, which is Dec. 30 this year.
Indeed, Blessed John Paul II called the Holy Family of Nazareth “the prototype and example for all Christian families.”

In November, on his trip to Benin in West Africa, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about forming families according to God’s design and “in fidelity to his plan for Christian marriage” so they grow to be “true domestic churches.”

Back in 1981, in Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), John Paul II discussed “establishing the family as a ‘Church in miniature’ (Ecclesia domestica)” because “in its own way the family is a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church.”

The Second Vatican Council used the term Ecclesia domestica too. So does the Catechism. “The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith,” the Catechism tells us (1666). “For this reason the family home is rightly called ‘the domestic church.’”

This dynamic concept was used in the early Church, particularly by Sts. Augustine and John Chrysostom.

Today it’s so necessary to recover this teaching in light of tremendous attacks on the family, according to Joseph Atkinson, associate professor at the John Paul II Pontifical Institute in Washington and host of The Domestic Church series on EWTN. He recently launched TheDomesticChurch.com and is completing a companion guide book for his series, which is now available on DVD.

Atkinson details how God always brings salvation through the family: “The family is the carrier of the covenant. No family, no covenant.”

The theology of the family was laid out in the Old Testament, and our understanding of the purpose and structure of the family comes through the lens of Christ.

“The real, deep meaning of family is the means by which the covenant with Jesus Christ is passed on from generation to generation,” Atkinson says.

“The family is the means, by and large, of how God is going to save the world,” he says. “We baptize our children, bringing them into the covenant of Christ. Because of the power of baptism, Christ lives in us. So parents are the first heralds of the Gospel, by bringing their child into baptism and then teaching and forming their child in the Lord. The (baptized) family is carrying out the Church’s mission in a concrete way and is designed by God specifically to carry out this mission.”

Recapturing this vision of marriage and the family begins with the Holy Family, the first domestic church, because “Christ is the center of the Holy Family, literally present in the Holy Family,” notes Atkinson.

When people say they can’t use the Holy Family as their model since the Nazareth family’s life was so simple, evangelist Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers (DeaconHarold.com) responds, “They were not spared the difficulties and hardships of family life. They way they handled that — with compete trust in God — is an essential model for family life today.”

Mary and Joseph’s parenthood started in a stable, so they understand family hardships. Husbands and fathers can look to St. Joseph as their example, while wives and mothers can look to Mary. And children can look to the Christ Child.

The domestic church also has the role, with Christ, of priest, prophet and king in society. First, in the priestly role, families need to attend Mass, celebrate the sacraments and pray together. Burke-Sivers stresses that Mass and the Eucharist must be the heart of family life. “When the Blessed Mother becomes pregnant with the Eucharist, her first action is to evangelize: She brings Jesus — salvation — out to the world,” he says. “We bring the Eucharist from Mass to the home, and it’s at the home and in family life that children fall in love with Jesus. If they will have a deep, lasting faith, they have to be in love with Jesus.”

Then, in the prophet role, a family must be courageous as a sign of contradiction and evangelization in the world. For instance, “We don’t end up allowing any kinds of entertainment the world likes into our home,” Atkinson says.

In terms of kingship, the family follows Christ, the true King who came to serve, in their service to one another and those around them.

As pastor of St. Lawrence Church in Tampa, Fla., Father Tom Morgan helps families become domestic churches. At the end of Mass he always provides a question for families to discuss and encourages parents to talk about the homily on their way home.

And with the parish’s discipleship program for children, “the emphasis is on doing things together as a family,” says Father Morgan. For instance, families visit the church’s Marian Shrine together.

In Folsom, La., Carlos and Emily Gamundi are consciously building a domestic church with their four children, twin 6-year-old sons and 3-year-old and 1-year-old daughters.

“We realize that our children’s first introduction to the faith is going to be through us,” says Carlos, “so we have a great responsibility to introduce them to the faith.”

The Gamundis do practical things on a daily basis. They pray together before and after every meal to remind each other that their food — and everything else — is a gift from God.

As they attend daily Mass together, Carlos and Emily remind their children that this is the most important thing they can do each day.

On the way to Mass they pray together for special intentions. When the children voice their intentions, Carlos and Emily tell them to make sure they pray for them too, so “they can see we’re not perfect, and that’s why we turn to Jesus and Mary as our perfect models,” explains Carlos.

They also pray the Angelus at noon, the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3pm, and the Rosary after dinner.

“Prayer is pretty important to us,” Carlos says. “When we stop prayer, we start forgetting who we are, and we stop being the domestic church.”

As the Catechism stresses, “The Christian family is the first place of education in prayer. Based on the sacrament of marriage, the family is the ‘domestic church’ where God’s children learn to pray ‘as the Church’ and to persevere in prayer. For young children in particular, daily family prayer is the first witness of the Church’s living memory, as awakened patiently by the Holy Spirit” (2685).

“Our family becomes and is a domestic church because we’re always looking at Mary and Joseph as our guides and our models, who let us know the true meaning of motherhood and fatherhood,” Carlos says. “We are who we are because of the Holy Family.”

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.