In late 2006, Nielsen Media Research reported that the average American household has a television turned on eight hours and 14 minutes per day. More than 70% of homes have more than one TV set. And the average residence houses more televisions than people (2.73 screens vs. 2.55 souls, to be precise).
Consider these statistics in light of Pope John Paul II’s many exhortations to see the family as the “domestic church.” As such, it follows that the family’s living space ought to be a sort of sanctuary, a place that honors God and fosters virtue by its very bearing.
“The Church began in the home, and so there’s always been a natural communion of home and Church,” points out Father James Farnan of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Bethel Park, Pa. “The home is the domestic church.”
Many Catholic homes are putting that preaching into practice. Some are ditching their TVs altogether. Others are keeping a set but banishing it from the center of family activity, the living room.
And an increasing number from both those camps are setting up a home chapel — a room specifically set aside for God and used for prayer, contemplation, Bible study and silence. These might include shrines, altars or simple prayer stations with meditative prompts such as crucifixes, icons or candle-lit statues.
“The altar focuses attention and makes everyone aware there’s a special presence in their midst,” Father Farnan says of the burgeoning custom. It’s a reminder, he says, that God’s grace is at work in the family.
Miguel and Melody Vasquez know the value of the home altar. They have one in their new house in Port Chester, N.Y., just as they did in the living room of their former house.
“God should be the center of everything,” says Melody. “I’m a visual person myself, and the altar helps me tremendously by providing a focal point.” Children are easily distracted, she adds, so it helps to give them something holy to look at during family prayer.
The Vasquez family, eight members strong, prays a daily Rosary in their home chapel. It’s adorned with a crucifix and images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. “The Holy Family is very important to my husband and me,” explains Melody. Also present are likenesses of St. Gemma, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II. And rosary beads for the praying. Lots of rosary beads.
These, says Father Farnan, are “not just associated with our prayers but capture little kids’ attention.” They, along with the sacred art, help get sacramental grace flowing freely through kids’ hearts.
Thanks to the Incarnation, the Catholic faith is “sense-oriented,” the priest points out. “Signs and symbols are among the ways Our Lord relates to us.”
Melody is seeing the fruits from the graces God gives in the home chapel. When 5-year-old Miguel gets frustrated, she says, he now stops in and prays. His siblings are showing similar signs of a budding relationship with Jesus. And Melody is drawn to the special room at various times throughout the day.
In Parks, La., Joseph and Linzy Liuzza have set up home altars in their living room and bedroom. The latter has old and storied statues of the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, the Child Jesus holding the Eucharist, blessed candles and other sacramentals.
“We feel the presence of the Holy Family perpetually with that altar,” says Linzy. “When we go to sleep, we see Jesus and Mary. When we wake up, we see Jesus and Mary.”
The living-room mantle serves as the main altar. Above it is an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the mantle are statues of saints special to the family, along with a crucifix, a Pietà and statuettes of adoring angels.
Nearby is a shrine to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Above her are pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which have been enthroned and enshrined. Holy water is available for beginning prayer with the Sign of the Cross.
This altar is often the place for the family Rosary, devotions to the Sacred Heart, and the Liturgy of the Hours. “Our living room is one big altar,” says Linzy.
While a handful of families have made a single room into a chapel, the Liuzzas have turned their whole house into a chapel.
Explains Linzy, “Every room is actually adorned with sacred or heavenly images. Our home is ultimately another small church for Jesus.”
Among the highlights is the kitchen’s statue of St. Anne, who is “the guardian of my domestic work and cooking,” says Linzy. “I always pray to her to intercede for me to cook well for my husband and everyone who comes over, and that I might clean well.”
The altar in another room has images of Our Lady Rosa Mystica and the Infant of Prague. Blessed candles like the one by Our Lady of Prompt Succor are in every room, as is an image of St. Michael. Every sacred image has been blessed by a priest — and all survived Hurricane Katrina even though the storm destroyed the Liuzza’s former home.
Even when temporarily homeless before buying a new home in Parks, the Liuzzas set up a small altar in their shelter, which goes to show that home chapels aren’t just for homeowners. Apartment dwellers and even room renters can make do, too.
Suitable for Saints
Items for a home altar always start with a crucifix and image of the Blessed Mother. When Father Farnan marries couples, he puts a crucifix on the church altar and gives it to them as a wedding gift.”
“I tell them to always have that hanging in their bedroom, reminding them of the level of love they’re called to and to be a witness of that to the world,” he says. “That would be the best way to begin a home chapel.”
“Our Lady should be there because she knew the domestic church in a very real way,” he continues. Along with the imagery and devotionals, most home-chapel families place a Bible, Catechism and spiritual reading materials within easy reach.
Be careful, adds the priest, to keep altar areas clear of clutter. Cleanliness points to holiness. And “simplicity,” he says, “has nobility to it.”
Perhaps Joseph Liuzza best captures the biggest benefit of setting up a home chapel. “It reminds us that only the kinds of speaking, thinking and activities that would be pleasing to Our Lord and Our Lady and our friends the saints are suitable in our home.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.