How to Do 'Domestic Church'

The domestic church. Perhaps you've heard the term and have an idea that it refers to families living the Catholic faith at home.

Right you are. But do you know what such a household should look like?

One image you can dismiss is that of a father in a cassock, a mother in a habit and kids running around dressed as altar servers. (That would be a triumph of clericalism over family life.)

Yet, just because your home does not have soaring spires and stained-glass windows does not mean that it cannot serve, in the words of Pope John Paul II, as the “Church in miniature.”

In his writings on the family, the Holy Father refers often to the domestic church as a home where the faith is practiced and passed on naturally in the course of daily life. In short, it is a household that is a safe haven for the Catholic faith, “the first school of virtue.”

“The future of humanity passes by way of the family,” the Pope memorably said in his 1981 charter on faith and family, Familiaris Consortio. These words are inspiring, but how does the average Catholic family fare in the face of threats from schools, the media, music and the culture of death in general? The reality is that there are notable successes amid enormous struggles, and sometimes the best solutions are the simplest.

“We eat dinner together as a family and say grace before meals. Most nights, we read the Gospel of the day just before we say grace, and that gives us something to think about while eating.”

This describes the heart of the domestic church for Heidi and Peter Lyons of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the home-schooling parents of eight children.

Kayte and Tim Vesey of Modesto, Calif., who have four children adopted from four different Asian countries, also make prayer a natural part of a busy schedule. They teach in the local public school that their children attend.

“We pray several times a day with the children, on the way to school, at meals and whenever we are traveling together, whether it be a long trip or the local mall. We pray the rosary weekly on Sunday night as a family,” says Kayte. “We try to teach our children about our wonderful God by walking closely with him and asking His guidance daily.”

Small Sanctuary

Combating negative influences and seeking out positive ones is a vital and never-ending task. The four families interviewed for this article regulate TV time, but do not keep a lock on the set. The parents said there are good and educational shows, even beyond EWTN, and they don't want to cloister their children.

Kathleen and Ray Mylott, who live in New York's Manhattan with their 6-year-old daughter, are especially wary of the surrounding culture, given the city's aggressive secularism and sinful displays, from half-nude billboard models to two men kissing in public. The Mylotts make their small apartment a sanctuary, with regular prayer, meals together and religious books and videos.

“If you're a dad who comes home and flips on the television, your kid is going to suffer,” says Ray, a Wall Street lawyer.

The family also seeks out the many positive opportunities that New York offers.

“One good thing about Manhattan is that there are churches everywhere, five within walking distance of where we live,” Kathleen says. “Our parish church is just a block away, and Michaela grew up with daily Mass and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. You can't find that so easily in the suburbs.”

A stay-at-home mom who has suffered the heartbreak of multiple miscarriages, she walks her daughter about a half-mile to a Catholic school in the morning and picks her up in the afternoon.

“The city can be big and noisy, but, if you make an effort, you can find so many resources in your own little neighborhood,” she says. “In addition, you can be right on top of world events. When the hostage crisis in Beslan was going on, we went to the Russian consulate and joined people praying outside. Michaela will never forget that experience, praying for those poor schoolchildren half a world away.”

Home schooling their two sons until high school is an important part of establishing a domestic church for Diane and Daniel Lebel of Wallingford, Conn., but they do it a little differently than most. Daniel is the teacher as a stay-at-home dad and Diane goes off to work each day at the phone company in New Haven. She has worked there for more than 20 years and has excellent health-care and retirement benefits.

“It was a decision we came to based on what's best for the family, and I'm actually kind of proud of being a home-schooling father,” says Daniel. “We were both working when we decided that someone needed to stay home for the children, and I've found that a father is very capable of nurturing.”

“We turned our lives around,” Diane adds, “because at one point we were so money-centered and lived according to the standards of the world. Our children are given to us from God for a time, and we have to give them back at some point and give an accounting for the job we did.”

Diane is a leader in Familia, a movement sponsored by the Legionaries of Christ in which husbands and wives meet in separate groups to study the writings of John Paul II and support one another in remaining faithful to Church teachings.

At home, the Lebels “try to do the rosary every night and seek opportunities for Eucharistic adoration for our children,” Diane explains.

Heidi and Peter Lyons also pray the family rosary, but sometimes it's difficult to keep their eight children together for the whole time. Their oldest is a 14-year-old girl who graduated from home school to the local Catholic high school, where her father teaches religion.

“We rely on bedtime prayers,” Heidi says. “We have a routine of formal prayers, and then we go around and ask each child what he or she is thankful for that day. From all the thanks, we develop a special intention for that day. It gives them the sense that they can always place their needs before God.”

Ray Mylott said parents used to rely on Catholic-school nuns and brothers to instill the faith, but that's less often the case today. “To me, passing on the faith is a matter of love,” he says. “If you want to see your child not only in this life but forever in eternity, you better make sure that you live the faith and pass it on to your child. Otherwise, one of you is not going to make it to heaven. Eternal life is what the domestic church is all about.”

Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Connecticut.