Five Marks of a Catholic Family

In part one of this series, I looked at the challenge of articulating the uniquely Catholic vision of family life that is spelled out in documents like Gaudium et Spes,  Familiaris Consortio, and other post-conciliar documents.  In other words, “Should Catholic families be different in some way from other families (other than in the ways we pray and the rules we follow) and, if so, what does that look like?” 

Most Catholics, I think would answer “yes, we should be different.”  But at the same time, most Catholics, I think, would be hard-pressed to say whether or not the particular secular or Protestant experts they were relying on for advice on how to build their marriage or raise their kids were actually articulating ideas that were consistent with a Catholic view of marriage and family life.   In my experience, most Catholics think that as long as they say Catholic prayers in their home and go to Church on Sunday, they can rely on whatever sources they choose to tell them how to treat each other.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

The Church cares deeply how we treat one another especially in our marriages and families.  The problem is that it can be difficult to translate theory into practice.  You shouldn’t have to have a degree in theology to know how to be a Catholic couple or family.  There needs to be some kind of articulation of the Catholic vision of marriage and family life that even the simplest, poorest-formed Catholic (or non-Catholic for that matter) can point to as the ideal Catholic couples and parents should be striving for.

In my response to the survey for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, I suggest 5 Marks of a Catholic Family.  I don’t suggest that this is a complete list.  There may be some glaring omissions. The point is to get a conversation going about what a practical guide to Catholic family life (as articulated by the relevant post-conciliar documents on family life) should look like.  Here are my modest suggestions.

The Five “Marks” of a Catholic Family

1.  Catholic Families Worship Together–The Eucharist is the source of our love and the sign of the intimacy to which we are called.  Therefore, as a family, we attend Sunday mass weekly (and Holy Days and at other times as we are able) and we actively participate in parish life–our spiritual home away from home.   We also recognize that as fallen persons, we struggle to be the loving community we are called to be.  Therefore, as a family, we regularly go to confession (recommended: monthly) to seek God’s healing and grace so we might better live his vision of love in our lives and homes.

2. Catholic Families Pray Together–As “domestic church” we recognize that we cannot love one another as God loves us unless we ask him, together, to teach us what this means.  Therefore, in addition to our individual prayer life, we gather together as husband and wife and also as a family for prayer each day.  In that time, we praise and thank God for his blessings, we ask him for the grace to love each other and the world better, we seek his will for our lives, and we pray for both our needs and the needs of the Family of God. We recognize in the words of Servant of God, Fr. Patrick Peyton, “the family that prays together, stays together.”

 3. Catholic Families are Called to Intimacy–Tertullian once proclaimed, “The world says, ‘Look at those Christians, see how they love one another!’”  The Christian life is first and foremost a call to intimate communion. We recognize that families are “Schools of Love.”  Therefore, as a family, we constantly challenge ourselves to seek to discover new ways to be even more open with and loving to each other as husband and wife, parents and children.  We recognize that children are to be a visible sign of the loving union between husband and wife and we work to make this a reality in our homes both in the quality of our relationships and in our openness to life.  Further, we cultivate marriage and parenting practices that make each member of the family–husband and wife, parents and children– willingly open up to one another and seek to freely give themselves to create a deeper “community of love” and practice all the virtues that help us live life as a gift.

4.  Catholic Families Put Family First–We recognize that– because our family relationships are the primary vehicle God uses to perfect us and challenge us to become everything we were created to be–family life, itself,  is the most important activity.  To protect the intimacy we are called to cultivate as the domestic church, we recognize the importance of regular family rituals  and we are intentional about creating and protecting those activities such as family dinner, family prayer and worship, a game night and/or “family day”, and regular time for one-on-one communication and relationship-building.  We hold these activities as sacred rituals of the domestic church and value them over all other activities that would seek to compete with them.

 5.  The Catholic Family is a Witness and Sign–God wants to change the world through our families.  We allow ourselves to be part of his plan for changing the world in two ways.  First, by striving to exhibit– in every way possible in our daily interactions as husband and wife, parents and children– the love and intimacy that every human heart longs for. We must show the world that this love is a possible dream worth striving for.   Second, we will carry this love outside the home by serving the world-at-large in a manner that is responsible and respectful of the integrity of the family unit. We do this by committing ourselves and our families to the intentional practice of all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy within the home and outside of it.  To this end, the ways we, as a family, are trying to fulfill this responsibility will be a regular topic of conversation in our homes.

As I said above, I have no doubt that this may be an incomplete list.  Nevertheless, I believe it represents the kind of effort that must be undertaken by the Church to evangelize families.  People do not know how to be a family anymore much less what it means to be a “Catholic family.”  I think the faithful deserve concrete, practical recommendations  (drawn from the relevant documents)  that can serve as an effective launching point for delving more deeply into the Catholic vision of marriage and family life.

My hope is that this post can start the discussion of what this may look like.

For more thoughts and ideas on raising a Catholic family, check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the author’s Patheos Blog and is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Dr. Gregory Popcak

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Dr. Gregory Popcak is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.

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  • Mary C Donahue

    The “ideal” Catholic family unaffected by the world and serious sin.

    Or it could even still qualify by saying how does a Catholic family affected by divorce,drug abuse & abortion, still live out the Catholic identity it proposes to seek .

    Repent and continue to seek God in the Sacramental life of His Church and be open to healing and restoration offered through the Sacraments.

  • Wayne

    Pertaining #4 (putting family first), a subtle attack on family life is organized sports and activities – the demands of which are unrealistic.

  • klohre

    How does one maintain these fine guidelines? They are great , but what if your husband works long shifts? Some family dynamics make these difficult to achieve regularly as beneficial as they (guidelines) are.

  • noelfitz

    Great article thanks.
    Reading it shows me how I have failed. But we should all hope in God’s mercy. Catholics commit sin and fall short of the ideal. There is room for sinners in the Church.

  • suegonzalez

    I think you have to look at them as the ideal, and then look to your particular circumstances to see how you can inject aspects of these ideals into your own family’s daily routines. We may fall short, even on a daily basis, but the idea is to keep trying. God sees our struggles, He sees that we want to achieve a Godly, Christ-centered family life, and He will shower us with the graces to get there. Best of luck to you!

  • klohre

    Oh, yes, definitely … it’s just SO much better when dad is in on the prayers too.. keeps the flow and ‘glue’ together–not to mention the great example dad gives when there. :) Thank you!

  • Rose

    I agree and I’d also like to add that technology often comes at the expense of families. We are too hooked into our devices.

  • Lilla

    Regarding #2: I have always seen prayer as something you do only in church, or at home by yourself. It has always made me uncomfortable to pray aloud with others. However, your article has caused me to reconsider. I now realize how important it is to pray together as a family. Much of what is on my heart and brought to God through prayer, is never said aloud. What if my husband and daughter don’t know just how much they are prayed for and loved? And how will my baby girl learn to pray if not through the example of her mother and/or father? This suddenly seems devastating to me. It is now my top priority to learn to be comfortable praying out loud and as a family. I will make a new tradition of bedtime prayer with my daughter that goes beyond “now I lay me down to sleep…” Perhaps just a couple of prayers over my her and husband will let them know just how much they are truly loved and give them the peace of knowing that petitions are brought to God on their behalf. How wonderful would it have been to have someone pray over me each night as I was growing up?? Hopefully my daughter will come to cherish this act of love. Thank you for your article!

  • WSquared

    I’m going to piggy-back on your comment, Wayne.

    Another attack on the family is materialism– here, I don’t mean materialism qua consumerism (although that, too, takes an obvious toll), but the metaphysical assumption that matter is all there is. A lot of the way our culture approaches parenting is highly materialistic, because it reduces almost everything to the biological– take for example putting a premium on having our “own” kids (which is one of the reasons why IVF is gravely sinful). Materialism seriously compromises our ability to view the children that we’ve been given as God’s children, not “our” children. Materialism compromises our ability to detach as we necessarily must so that we may act in our children’s best interests. And there, it is God who calls the shots, not our constricted ideas of the good.

    Couple that materialism with your point about an obsession with organized sports, and certainly success for the sake of success (nothing wrong with success per se, but success as an end in itself is meaningless, and success for God looks decidedly different), and we have a recipe for undermining the people that God wants our children to be. How many parents, for example, deeply wound their children by denigrating or rejecting the gifts that God has actually given those children, choosing instead a more utilitarian view of the world in terms of what studies are “useful” (whereby if a child is gifted in the Humanities instead of the Sciences, for example, then that child is “stupid” and “useless,” because the Humanities are supposedly “easy G.P.A. boosters,” and for “stupid people”)? How many Catholic parents discourage vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, because they neither understand nor respect those vocations, virginity, and celibacy? I’m going to be blunt here: if Catholics claim to believe what we profess every Sunday Mass, and that human beings are matter and spirit, not one or the other, we have no excuse.

    There is a subtle, and yet clear and present danger to seeing parenthood as exclusively biological, too: almost all discussion of NFP in Catholic circles is about family size– next to no mention of Sacramental grace, whatsoever. As a result, “holiness in motherhood” or “heroic parenthood” gets boiled down to how big a family we have, and Catholics therefore unwittingly enable the culture’s false dichotomy where the only choices are providentialism or the pill. What should have Catholics highly outraged is that this is not what the Church teaches. I would argue that not paying attention to this slowly undermines what Dr. Popcak mentions in his third point. It is also ultimately disrespectful to women, as Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out while head of the CDF, and it has meant that many Catholics have ceded way too much ground to any “war on women.”

  • Kelli

    If we lead by example and teach our children before they leave our home, how to have a personal relationship with Jesus through Eucharistic holy hours. I have seen this to be very fruitful with my family. A mother can take an older child or a dad can take a couple children with him. Even in all the daily hustle, if I can only run in and say hi Jesus it really helps. It also teaches little ones that Jesus misses us and wants to see us. So family prayer doesn’t have to be daily organized, it can be very spontaneous. I pray with the children quickly before we shop for what we need. it works! I take my children on outings centered around a pilgrimage site or shrine or a church we’ve never seen. I live in rural Nebraska and in 18 years I’ve never run out of possibilities, because God is so creative;) But the part that is hard for our family is Family Fun with many ages of children and little money, it’s a challenge. But I’m going to work on this in the coming year. And for all those folks who suffer being at different places in their married life spiritually, keep growing and don’t wait for your spouse to lead. It is ideal if he does, but there are so many things you can do without him having an awareness of your daily prayer. The difficult part is growing to be silent so you don’t crucify him for his lack of prayer. Although this list looks rigid and lacks the life that each family will bring to it, I see it as a blank canvas. These are what your projects should include, make it as colorful as you want it to be! The world needs to see Catholic families full of life and joy!! With a little prayer and creativity it can happen. And as always, work on one little part and each year you will become a little better, a little closer, and little more loving. Articles like this can overwhelm us, make us throw in the towel and say,”it can’t be done!” Don’t let is discourage, that it encourage the beginning of your new life in Christ. God bless everyone on their journey to becoming a Catholic family.

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