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For families, returning to normal shouldn’t mean ‘doing church as usual’

In many places throughout the country, parishes are returning to at least limited public celebrations of the Mass. Like most of you, I am relieved, hopeful and eager to be able to receive the Eucharist once again. I join all of you in praying for an orderly, safe and healthy return to some semblance of normalcy.

Psychology tells us that within about six months of a major event, most people return to their normal ways of being. It doesn’t matter whether the major event involved winning the lottery or suffering a major trauma.

The good news in this factoid is that there are solid reasons to hope that we’ll all be able to move past the worry, anxiety and tension that has gripped the world these last several weeks and months. That will be a welcome change indeed. Of course, the dark side of this same fact is that it’s often easy to forget the lessons we learned as we went through the change, to simply say, “Thank God that’s done with,” and get back to doing everything the same way we did before. In light of that, I would like to ask that we all resist the temptation to think that returning to normal means going back to doing church as usual. To be honest, that approach wasn’t working before, and I’m not sure it could ever work again.

It seems clear to me, at least, that through these last several months God has been asking us to take a long, hard look at the state of our domestic church life. Back in January, before all this happened, I used this column to propose a resolution that we make 2020 a year for renewing the domestic church. Little did I know how prophetic that proposal would turn out to be. Before the pandemic, I wonder how many Catholics were even aware of the phrase “domestic church.” Fewer still ever gave it a second thought. As Catholics, we assumed that our faith life was meant to be lived at the parish. The domestic church was just the place Catholics lived when they weren’t at Mass. Of course that’s entirely wrongheaded, but I think it’s fair to say that that’s what most people thought.

As we return to parish life, I’d like to ask that we all remember the importance of our domestic church life and that we all keep working hard to develop it. The domestic church is meant to be the primary place we encounter God’s love, grow in holiness and coordinate our efforts to spread the Gospel and build the kingdom. The fact is, Catholic ecclesiology — that is, the “theology of church” — tells us that the domestic church does not exist to support the parish. Rather, the parish exists to support the Christian life and ministerial efforts of the domestic church — the family. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis refers to the Church as a “family of families” (No. 87). He pointedly does not refer to it as a community of parishes. This is a significant point. It means that before the pandemic, most of the Church functioned in a manner that was contrary to its own vision of the way it was meant to operate. Rather than directing the grace of Christ out to the world from the parish through the households of faithful families, families treated parishes as the vending machines for grace that kept us going until we could get back to the vending machine the following week. It would be devastating to return to that flawed vision after everything we’ve been through.

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