What Makes Catholic Families Different?

At the beginning of any journey, you need good directions, or a GPS, so you’ll know where you’re going. If you begin a trip plan­ning to make your way up as you go, you might not ever arrive at your intended destination. Even if you have a set of old directions that used to be correct, who’s to say that the route hasn’t changed? You need the most current directions to help you get from A to B.

The same might be said for your spiritual journey with your kids. If you want to arrive at your destination — the point where your kids are ready to launch out into the world as faithful, Catho­lic young adults — you can’t just wing it. And the directions your parents or grandparents used might not get you there. It’s a dif­ferent world with a completely new landscape and more roads than ever for you and your kids to get lost on. To get where you’re going, you will have to begin your journey with a clear sense of the route ahead, and you will need to be more intentional than ever about making sure you stay on the right roads.

Finding the Address

To start, you have to ask yourself, “Is it enough for me to raise basically faithful kids?” In other words, do you want to help your kids arrive safely at the address marked “Faithful Catholic Adult­hood,” or is any other address in the neighborhood (e.g., “Faith­ful Nondenominational Christian” or “Spiritual, Not Religious”) just as good?

Assuming that you’re more particular about helping your kids get to the address marked “Faithful Catholic Adulthood,” you will have to give them an example of Catholic family life that’s worth repeating in adulthood. This involves two things.


  1. Parents have to give their kids a family life that they experience as truly better — not necessarily perfect, but more honest, intimate, generous, and joyful — than most of their non-Catholic friends’ experience of family.
  2. Your children have to know in their guts that it is your love for Jesus Christ and your Catholic faith that are responsible for that more honest, intimate, joyful, and generous experience of family life. Why is this so im­portant? As you will see, the research is clear: for most people, but especially for kids, faith development is all about relationship. If your kids don’t experience their uniquely Catholic faith making a positive, tangible dif­ference in their everyday lives, their faith won’t survive to adulthood — especially not in today’s world with so many other lifestyles from which to choose.

Identifying the Catholic Difference

Catholic Families

This article is adapted from Discovering God Together, which is now available in ebook and paperback.

How are Catholic families supposed to be different from other families? We don’t mean different in the sense of putting on airs, pretending to be holier than thou, or acting weird in some way. But if you read the Church’s writings on marriage and fam­ily life, you’ll see that the Church is on a mission to promote a particular vision of family life that is different from that of other families, in the sense that it is more intimate, more joyful, more “together.”

In The Gospel of Life, St. John Paul the Great put forth what might be considered the mission statement for Catholic parents in contemporary times.

By word and example, in the daily round of relations and choices, and through concrete actions and signs, parents lead their children to authentic freedom, actualized in the sincere gift of self, and they cultivate in them respect for others, a sense of justice, cordial openness, dialogue, generous service, solidarity and all the other values which help people to live life as a gift. (no. 92)

This is the unique, Catholic vision of family life Catholic parents are called to uphold. Clearly it is a different vision of family life from the one that the world has to offer.

Sadly, too many Catholic kids are being raised in homes that don’t look any different from the homes of their secular or Prot­estant friends except for the prayers they say and maybe the rules they have. As a result, Catholic parents are undermining their own best efforts to raise faithful children and to bear witness to the joy of the gospel. As Christians, we are called to be salt and light in the world — God wants to change the world through the example of love lived out in our families — but how can we change the world if we look and act exactly like everyone else? In order for our faith to seem relevant to our children and to the world at large, Catholic couples and families must present a vision of love that shows our children that our Catholic faith can satisfy the longings of their heart, a vision of love that makes the world stand up and take notice.

Living the Mission: Five Marks of Catholic Families

So how do we do it? How do we enable our kids to experience the practical, positive, tangible difference our faith should make in our family life? We suggest that the following five traits distin­guish a family seeking to live the authentic Catholic difference in their daily lives.

  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 Mass together on Sundays and holy days (and at other times as we are able), and we actively participate in our parish.

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.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What would we need to do to get to Mass as a family more often?
  2. How could we make going to Mass as a family a more intimate and relationship-building experience?
  3. What could we do to get to Confession as a family at least once a month?
  4. Catholic families pray together. The Church refers to the family as the “domestic church” because family life is where the faith is supposed to be lived out every day. Catholic families are called to love each other not only with their human love but also with the love that flows from God’s heart. As Catholic families, 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 and our worship with our parish communities, we gather together both as husband and wife and also as a family for prayer each day.

In these times, we:

  • praise and thank God for his blessings
  • ask forgiveness for the times we did not love him and each other as we ought
  • ask for the grace to love each other and the world better
  • seek his will for our lives
  • pray for 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.”

Questions for Reflection

  1. What could we do to make family prayer happen every day?
  2. What could we do to make family prayer a more inti­mate and relationship-building experience?
  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. As St. Jean Vianney said, “Prayer is nothing less than union with God.”1

We recognize that families are “schools of love” in which we learn how to love God and each other. Therefore, as a family, we constantly challenge ourselves to seek new ways to be more open with and loving toward 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 our openness to life and by working hard on the quality of our relationships with each other.

Further, we cultivate marriage and parenting practices that make all members of the family willing to open up to one another and to give themselves freely to create a deeper “community of love” and practice all the virtues.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What do we see as obstacles to our sharing our thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, and needs with each other?
  2. What do we need to do to overcome those obstacles to sharing our hearts more deeply as a family and be­coming the “community of love” we are meant to be? What resources (books, courses) or assistance (classes, spiritual direction, or professional counseling) might we need to overcome those obstacles?
  3. 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 in our week. 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 dinners, family prayer and worship, game nights and “family days,” and regular, scheduled 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.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What are the favorite activities we do to work, play, talk, and pray together as a family?
  2. How could we make those activities happen more regu­larly as a family? What changes would we need to make to prioritize daily and weekly times to work, play, talk, and pray as a family?
  3. The Catholic family is a witness and a 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, we strive to exhibit — in every way possible in our daily interactions — the closeness, love, and intimacy for which every human heart longs.

Second, we carry this love outside the home by serving the world at large in a manner that is responsible and respectful of the integrity of our family relationships. We do this by commit­ting ourselves and our families to the intentional practice of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy in the home and outside it. To this end, the ways in which we, as a family, try to fulfill this responsibility will be a regular topic of conversation in our homes.

Questions for Reflection

  1. In our daily life, when do we feel closest as a family? What would we need to do to make these times hap­pen more often?
  1. How do we serve the Church and community as a fam­ily? Of the things we do to serve the Church or the community, what enables us to draw closer as a family?

This might be an incomplete list. Nevertheless, we believe it represents the kind of effort that we parents must undertake if we want to raise kids who have a faith that sticks with them as they enter into adulthood and seek to form their own families.

Don’t Worry, Be Catholic

In reviewing this list, you might feel as if you fall a little short. Don’t worry about it. No family is perfect. You don’t have to be all of these things overnight, and this book is dedicated to help­ing you live up to the mission we’ve described in this chapter. But however you imagine your family compares with the mission we’ve laid out, we hope you will let this list be your roadmap.

Let these five marks of a Catholic family be the vision you look to as you make decisions about the activities your kids are involved in, the way you set your schedule, organize your priori­ties, make decisions, and plan your day. Keep these five points in mind as you explore even more ways for you and your children to discover God together as he draws you closer to him through the ups and downs and ins and outs of your everyday family life.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Discovering God Togetherwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

Dr Greg & Lisa Popcak


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. He also writes extensively on the Theology of the Body and regularly blogs at Faith on the Couch. Lisa Popcak, CFLC is the Vice-President of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. She is a professional educator, a lactation consultant, and Certified Family-Life Coach. An expert in learning styles/strategies, early childhood development, adoptive family issues, and women’s spirituality. She co-hosts More 2 Life Radio with Greg, her husband.

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