FEELING AT HOME IN CHURCH

 

by Dermott J Mullan (mullan@bartol.udel.edu)

 

 

Summary: what happens in a Catholic home should be connected in some way with what happens in Church.

 

 

 

In the years since Vatican II, the term “domestic Church” has become a popular phrase to use to describe life in a Catholic family. The term implies that there is (or should be) some sort of connection between what happens at home and what happens in Church.

 

How might such a connection operate? I remember well how it operated when I was growing up in Ireland. Important parts of the connection were provided by devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and by the Rosary.

 

In my home town, the Catholic Church sits on a prominent spot in town. The Church was constructed around the year 1900, when my grandfather and other men of the parish formed a committee to replace an older structure. The Church is an imposing building, with two tall steeples which are visible from the countryside for miles around.

 

The Church is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Upon entering the Church, the feature that immediately catches one’s eye is a huge stained glass window which occupies most of the west wall behind the high altar. The centerpiece of this window shows the event that gives the Church its name: Jesus revealing His Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary.

 

For reasons that I do not fully understand, devotion to the Sacred Heart is not mentioned today as much as it was a few decades ago.  The devotion can be traced to a convent in France during the 1670’s, at a time when the Church in France was undergoing the hardships of the heresy called Jansenism. Under this heresy, people were led to a false humility which had the effect that they would no longer receive Holy Communion. Without the benefits of this spiritual food, spiritual warmth and life was slowly ebbing away from the hearts of many Catholics in France.

 

Into this climate, Christ Himself stepped personally in order to impart a dramatic message.  The person He chose to receive His message was a nun, Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque, who lived in an enclosed convent in a remote village called Paray-le-Monial. Christ had been preparing Margaret Mary ever since she was young for her mission. She had fallen in love with Christ from her earliest years, as much a child prodigy as regards the things of God as Mozart would later be in the area of music.

And it was during what started as a day like any other in her convent that Our Lord chose to appear to Margaret Mary, and reveal to her His Sacred Heart. The words He used to her on this occasion were striking for their passionate tone: “Behold this Heart that has loved men so much… and yet I receive from the greater number nothing but ingratitude… and coldness in the Sacrament of my love”. It was a vivid description of the coldness which was seeping into the hearts of French Catholics in that day and age. 

Our Lord asked Margaret Mary if she would be willing to make up to Him for this coldness of her compatriots. As a specific way of achieving this, He asked for a new feast-day in the Church, and He asked her personally to spend more time visiting Him in the Blessed Sacrament.  So from that time on, Margaret Mary spent an hour in the chapel every Thursday evening. Why Thursday? Because it was on a Thursday, after working the great miracle of the Eucharist, that Jesus had chided his apostles with the words: “Could you not stay awake with me for even one hour?” (Matt. 26, 40).

The revelation of the Sacred Heart was too important to remain locked up inside a cloistered convent. Margaret Mary was instructed to spread the message of the devotion to the Church. To those who practiced the devotion, Christ promised great spiritual riches.

And here is where some direct and specific effects on family life enter the picture. Among the promises were the following amazing items: (i) I will establish peace in their homes; (ii) I will bless every place in which an image of my Heart shall be exposed and honored; (iii) I will give them all the graces necessary in their state of life; (iv) I will comfort them in all their afflictions.

            It is hard to imagine anything more specifically tailored to the needs of family life. Peace, blessing, the grace of state, and comfort are among the most important things that parents would wish for themselves and their children. Although I was at first amazed by these promises, I suppose I should have known better. It should not have surprised me that Jesus would take such a personal interest in family life: after all, He himself personally spent 90 percent of His earthly life in the quietness of a family. And He considered family life such a primary location for the operation of His saving power that, when the time came for Him to start public ministry, He chose a wedding ceremony as the place for His first miracle.

The story of how devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus spread in the course of the 1700’s and 1800’s is a wonderful page in the history of the western Church.  Over the course of two or three centuries, this devotion expanded to become one of the most distinctive features of Latin-rite Catholicism. It helped to revitalize Catholics whose faith had grown cold, and not only in France, but in other countries also.

Ireland was no exception: Jansenism had unfortunately spread its poison there also, and as an antidote, the Sacred Heart devotion became widespread in the 1800’s. By the time my grandfather and his colleagues were planning for a new Church in the 1890’s, it was not at all inappropriate for them to choose the Sacred Heart as the patron of their new building. When my father was born in 1906, the Church was in place for him to receive Baptism and the other sacraments of initiation. And when he died in 1990, it was once again to Sacred Heart Church that my brothers and I carried his coffin for the funeral Mass.

Two of my daughters visited that Church last month. Regrettably, I could not go with them, but they brought me back some beautiful photographs. The exterior of the Church looks much better than it used to thanks to some much-needed sand-blasting. But in the interior, the focus of attention remains just as it was when I was growing up in the 1950’s: the sunlight streaming through the stained glass window with the brilliant image of the Sacred Heart.

 

Because of the promises that Our Lord had made about family life, my parents decided at a certain point in time to have our family dedicated to the Sacred Heart.  In order to do this, they obtained a large picture of the Sacred Heart, and had it framed and mounted in a place of honor in our living room. On the picture, there was space for writing in the names of the family members (my parents plus their four children), the date on which the family was dedicated (January 9, 1952), and the name of the priest who performed the ceremony (Father O’Doherty). 

As I grew up, that picture of the Sacred Heart occupied such a prominent position that there was no way to overlook it while sitting in, or walking through, the living room. My parents would gather us around the picture in the evening and kneel down for family prayers.

As a result of my parents’ actions, I witnessed a direct and obvious connection between prayer life in our home and prayer life in the Church: both occurred in the presence of a prominent image of the Sacred Heart.  In the best sense of the word, the family where I grew up was a domestic Church, even though that phrase was not in widespread use in those days.

Because of the continual visibility of the Sacred Heart in our living room and in the parish Church, it became almost an effortless task over the years for me to absorb the lesson that Christ’s love is not merely general and broad-based. Rather, Christ’s love for me is specific, personal, and real. 

When teenage years arrived, and I began to think about the big questions of life (e.g. what does it mean to love and to be loved by another person?), the image of Christ was already close at hand with a powerful and utterly convincing message: “I already love you personally”. Many years later, I learned to appreciate the fact that Christ’s love has a communal aspect as well: in the powerful phrase of Cardinal de Lubac, “Christ loves me individually but not separately”.

And when I finally learned that message, the Catholic Church was at hand to provide me with the community where I could become an active member of God’s family.

Catholic teaching has also reminded me of another way in which the family in which I grew up in Ireland was a domestic Church: this has to do with the Rosary, the prayer our family said together. It was not only at home that I heard the Rosary being recited: the Rosary was also said often in Church. Every Sunday evening of the year, a priest of the parish would lead us in the Rosary and Benediction. And during the Marian months of May and October, we were provided with Rosary and Benediction every single evening.

I always suspected that it was a good thing to pray the Rosary as a family (“the family that prays together stays together”), but I never realized how much the Church values the practice until I read about the indulgences attached to the Rosary. In the revised teaching on indulgences issued by Pope Paul VI in 1969, there is a statement to the effect that a plenary indulgence is granted if the Rosary is recited in a Church. Not too surprising, perhaps, in view of the specialness of God’s house. But the next phrase fairly caught my attention: “A plenary indulgence is also granted if the Rosary is recited IN A FAMILY GROUP”!

This is a truly stunning teaching. It provides what I regard as the strongest indication that the  title “domestic Church” is not mere window dressing: when family members honor the Blessed Mother by saying the Rosary together, the family reaps the same benefit as if they were all in Church praying together.

Now that I have a family of my own, I find that I am still reaping the benefits of those Sacred Heart blessings which were earned by my parents. For a time, we lived close to a hospital called Sacred Heart Hospital, and three of our children were born there. Because of the connection with the apparitions at Paray-le-Monial,  my wife and I decided that the first of our daughters who was born there should be christened Margaret Mary. By the grace of God, our youngest son recently professed as a religious in a part of Europe that was not too far from Paray-le-Monial. My wife and I drove there with our son, and we attended Mass in the very chapel where the Sacred Heart apparitions had occurred. The body of St Margaret Mary lies beneath one of the altars in the chapel. The nuns are still cloistered, just as they were three centuries ago, so we could not see them behind their grille. But we could hear their voices joining in with us in the hymns. It was like being in the presence of angels.

Here in America, our family has been blessed over the years by several priests who have generously offered to celebrate Mass in our home for various occasions, e.g. blessing of the home, wedding anniversary, thanksgiving for a child’s recovery to health. It is surely the greatest blessing a family can receive, that Jesus in the Eucharist comes right into our home. Then the home becomes surely a “domestic Church” par excellence!

Moreover, in our parish Church, there is a life-size statue of the Sacred Heart right beside the entrance door. When I see the statue, the message is still the same as I heard when I was growing up many years ago in Ireland: “Behold this Heart which has loved you so much…”

It’s good to feel at home in Church.