“Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi pependit.” The priest on the TV chanted those salvific words three times as he and the rest of the Canons processed down the empty nave of St. John Cantius Church in the heart of Chicago, IL. The Church, usually standing room only at previous Good Friday services, stood silent and empty as the ancient chant echoed within the interior. And yet, the priest continued his sacred duties in order to lead his flock, via live-stream, through the Paschal Mysteries.
The priest on TV wasn’t the only priest leading his church. Throughout this time of the COVID-19 lock down and the stay-at-home orders many other priests have responded to the call to lead their flock. Bringing families together, giving blessings, providing counsel and leadership, baptizing children, and assisting their own churches to enter into the liturgical mysteries, fathers have led their congregations, acting out their own priesthood which they were called to participate in at their baptism.
While the priest in the empty church slowly unveiled that beautiful crucifix three times, fathers around the country unveiled their own crucifixes simultaneously. As the Canons each approached to venerate the wood of the cross, fathers held those same crucifixes for their families to venerate. When all other church doors are locked parents have risen up to exercise their role as priest by leading their own domestic churches.
A great chasm has erupted between the ministerial priest and his congregation over these past few months. First, public liturgies were curtailed, followed by funerals, baptisms, and weddings being postponed. Then anointing and confessions were limited. Finally, the doors to our churches began to be locked across the country; not allowing the faithful to attend Mass in person nor to visit Our Lord present within His churches.
For many, the government deeming the Church inessential caused a great amount of anxiety, frustration, and even depression. But for others, this was to become an opportunity for creativity and a time for the Church, in its most foundational level, to come alive. With no access to the sacraments nor the guidance of their local pastors to comfort and lead them, families were left to take ownership of their faith for themselves. Although places and buildings have importance, the Church instituted by Christ is not limited to four walls. The very Church is made up of “Living stones;” and in these days of the COVID pandemic it seems that we have been forced to become reliant upon these stones almost exclusively.
Faithful from throughout the country (and over the entire world) have reached out to us letting us know of the various ways in which they have been able to creatively incorporate the devotions, ceremonies, and life of the Church while being confined to their own homes. Tens of thousands of people have tuned in for live-streamed Masses, prayers, and devotions. However, the liturgical practice doesn’t end with merely pushing “play” on a laptop.
Without a priest to lead the faithful in person, the head of these smaller domestic churches, the father, has begun to exercise his priestly identity for his family. Mothers too have been assisting their husbands and joining in their baptismal call to priesthood. Letters, emails, pictures, and videos have all been sent to the Canons describing ways in which the heads of these families have taken ownership of the spiritual well being of their flock.
“Every home is called to become a ‘domestic church’ in which family life is completely centered on the lordship of Christ and the love of husband and wife mirrors the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church, his bride,” Pope Benedict XVI said in his Feb. 7, 2007, general audience remarks.
Not able to receive a blessing from a priest? Fathers have given blessings to their children before bed.
Not able to be present to attend Masses and other liturgies? Mothers have made sure that their children attentively participate in the live-streamed services.
Not able to receive sacramentals from your church on Sunday? Fathers have been enrolling their children in the scapular, sprinkling their house with Holy Water, providing hymns to sing, and in some cases encouraging a daily schedule of prayers for their families to keep them united in common prayer.
In the pictures of these families “attending” Mass from their homes, they are often gathered around their home altars with a laptop or tablet playing the live-streamed Mass. Everyone is dressed up, the children have prayer books and hymnals, and as a family, they sit, kneel, and stand at the proper times, while saying all of the responses.
Within the walls of the domestic church, the family is still able to grow together in holiness. The ordinariness and at times bits of chaos that tend to pervade these days under lockdown provide opportunities for learning, grace, and conversion. Truly, our homes are capable of becoming “schools for human enrichment.”
“It is here that the father of the family, the mother, children, and all members of the family exercise the priesthood of the baptized in a privileged way ‘by the reception of the sacraments, prayer and thanksgiving, the witness of a holy life, and self-denial and active charity.’ Thus the home is the first school of Christian life and ‘a school for human enrichment.’ Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous — even repeated — forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life” (CCC No. 1657).
What allows for the domestic church to flourish? The same thing that allows for our local parishes to grow: good, faithful, authentic liturgy.
Ideally, what we do at church should be what we do at home. There shouldn’t be a disconnect between the restoration of the sacred within church architecture, music, and liturgy and the restoration of the sacred within the family. The late Monsignor Martin Hellriegel of Holy Cross Parish in St. Louis, MO would frequently talk about the importance of the union between the two tables: the table of the altar which the faithful gather around and the table of the home which the family gathers around.
Just because the doors of our churches may, for a time, be locked doesn’t mean that the faithful cannot still participate in the liturgical year of grace. Fathers and mothers, exercising their priestly identity, can assist their families in helping the liturgical year “come alive” in their own homes.
Decorating a home altar, singing hymns, baking special foods for feast days, giving proper blessings, and creating ways for the entire family to be involved in the traditions and ceremonies that accompany the Church year are all ways in which our families can continue to keep the embers of the faith burning.
While we may not be able to gather around the table of the altar and receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, families have begun to gather around the table of their homes. In doing so, they’re able to receive each other in a manner that invites Our Lord to enter into His Domestic Church.