Domestic Church in Quarantine

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The Covid19 pandemic has left the whole world reeling. We woke up one day to find a new virus in our midst, one which killed the vulnerable and which spread remarkably easily. “We’ve never seen anything like it!” they said. “Our hospitals will be overwhelmed,” they worried. We must all gather our belongings, go home and stay there until further notice. We began to adapt to working from home while children and teachers grappled with ways to continue some semblance of formal academic education. But an additional stressor for Catholic families has been the loss of the sacraments. Depending on the country and diocese, some faithful have had access to confession or an open Church in which to pray, but most church buildings were locked up tight. What we all had in common – what we had all lost – was the ability to attend Mass.

That has been hard for many. The Mass is an hour of peace, where heaven touches Earth and where the worries of the world are put on hold, just for a little while. The Eucharist brings the sacramental grace we need, but now when we need it most, it’s not available to us. It has been a time of mourning and loss, and terrible sadness as we watched what seemed like every church in the world turn off the lights and place a ‘closed until further notice’ sign upon its door.

But we know that God brings good out of evil. God’s grace flows especially through the sacrament of the Eucharist, but graces flow in many other ways. What we have during this time of pandemic is the opportunity to rediscover the depth and meaning of the family as the domestic church. Faith formation classes have been cancelled for now, and there is no public Mass around which we can structure our week. It is for us to step up in leading our families in the faith, and being forced to do so has reminded us that, in fact, it has been up to us all along.

Despite the added strain of worrying about employment, or how to navigate working from home, this period of quarantine, or lockdown, or whatever you want to call it, has thrown us together and this is surely a good thing. We pay lip service to the importance of family mealtimes yet sitting around the dinner table is something not done by many families these days – parents are working late, children are submerged into virtual realities on their tablets, and when the two do come together it’s often to rush to a sports meet. This time has given us a wonderful opportunity to take walks together, to play games, to spend time talking, to take far too long to make dinner. We are able to go back to basics and get to know each other more deeply and, importantly, to rediscover the depth and the beauty of our Catholic faith.

St Paul frequently reminded the early Christians to become what they are, to put on the new man, to remember that in Christ, they are a new creation. The same is true for us and our families. Forward a couple of millennia and Pope St John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio said something similar: that “the family finds in the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what is it, but also its mission, what it can and should do.” (FC, 17) The family is a small community of love and a school of virtue. It is the place in which the faith is handed on, and for that reason the family has been referred to as the domestic church: “in it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state”(Lumen Gentium, 11). In the same way that language is best learned by immersion instead of a weekly hour-long language lesson, so too, learning the faith needs more than an hour of faith formation, if it is to be learned well. Still less can the faith be put into practice and lived with conviction if it remains something done at school rather than an integrated into our day, becoming the frame through which we view every aspect of our daily life. Whilst a priest, religious sister or other mentor may make an impression on a child, it is in the daily life of the family with its challenges and joys that the work of Christian formation really takes place. Each experience or news story is a life lesson or an opportunity to explain the faith to children in the context of the world in which we live. Because we are often with them when various questions arise and since we understand them best – how they think, how they learn, how sensitive they are – we know how much information to give them. It makes sense that the parent is the primary educator of their child, something which is both a right and a responsibility.

And so during these days, we are called to assume full responsibility for our children’s formation in the Catholic faith, and this forces us to be honest with ourselves about what we believe and how much of a priority we place on the spiritual life. How much do we pray? Do we read scripture? Do we use situations around us as opportunities to explain Catholic moral teaching to our children? Answering these questions may make us uncomfortably aware that we don’t really know the faith well enough ourselves!

At this time, having lost access to the Mass, we realise we need to ‘make up for it’, somehow. We can watch a live streamed Mass, either offered by a priest we know – our own parish perhaps – or ‘travel’ much further afield and experience a beautiful liturgy. It’s a pale imitation of being there in person, and it can be difficult to make viewing an online Mass an active experience when we are conditioned to view TV as a passive exercise, but for many of us, it helps us stay connected with the liturgical feasts and seasons. We can make the commitment to daily family rosary – I found it helpful to invite the least engaged child to lead as a way to encourage his or her participation. During Lent, in our house, we became more intentional about the stations of the cross, the added sadness of our own loss making the meditations on the sufferings of Christ a little more poignant. There are opportunities for podcasts and webinars, all designed to help us learn more and enrich our faith, if we are open to taking advantage of them. There has been a silver lining. We just have to look for it and learn to appreciate it.

And so the challenge is for us to use this time as a preparation for a return to the sacraments with renewed fervor when the time comes. Better formed, more appreciative, rested, in a sense, from the frantic lives that most of us live, we can emerge from this time stronger in our faith. The question for us now is whether we can make the commitment to maintain the rhythm of family prayer in our domestic church. Can we keep the habits we have cultivated, and perhaps even add more, such as observing saints feast days in some of the more traditional ways? We have the grace that we need, so we should continue to live each day in response to the challenge of John Paul II: ‘Families, become what you are’.

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