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Living Church in the family.

This talk was delivered before a small group of Catholic families some time ago. It fits the general tenor of this edition which emphasizes that families must become resistant to hostile influences by deepening their commitment to Christ.


I intend to discuss the goals of Catholic family life, both in a general sense and how it relates to our family in particular. It is characteristic of our faith that the Church gives us the principles upon which to act, and leaves the practical application of those principles to each of us. In our family, we try to live a Catholic family life, yet I do not think that our way of doing so is either the only way or even the best way; it is, however, our way, with all the faults, false starts, and eccentricities that that implies.

Any discussion of this topic necessary hinges on our understanding of Catholicism, our understanding of the family, and, as parents, our understanding of our roles in the family. I hope to discuss these in turn, and if at times I seem to wander far from my subject, it is because, like every aspect of the lived experience of our faith, the subject is a universe of related ideas in which one can wander.

Embrace the cycle of feast and saints

First it is crucial to embrace the Church calendar, and to make it a living reality in our families. Lent and Easter are good examples. To do so, we need to be clear as to why the Church has given us these seasons. What is the point of Lent? Clearly, it is a time of preparation for Easter. Lent, with its fasting and sacrifice, its purple of penance, its self-denial, is not an end in itself. We mourn so we can be joyful, we do penance so we can rejoice, literally we fast so that we can eat, abstain so we can drink; in denying ourselves we find ourselves.

There are two errors that we can fall into: we can focus on the fast to the exclusion of Lent, and thus ally ourselves with all the puritans who deny the fundamental goodness of all that God has created, including wine, women, and song, or we can so be taken up with the hedonistic pursuit of created good as to forget the Giver of those gifts and His intention in giving them to us. The Church points the way for us between these two evils.

It is by following the Church calendar and her wisdom in providing feast days and fast days that we can avoid either becoming morbidly puritanical or selfishly hedonistic. But, as important as these things are, the Church points to an even greater gift than just the gifts of life and creation.

At Easter we anticipate the joy of our salvation, when Christ rose from the dead, after suffering a most cruel death, the capital punishment of a criminal. And the degree to which we participate in the Lenten season, and remember our part in the sufferings of Christ, is the degree to which we can rejoice with the Church in the Easter season. This is not rhetorical; it is the common experience of Catholics throughout the ages, Catholics who, incidentally, have always been out of step with their times. However, to enter into the life of the Church only as an afterthought to the routine of modern life is to deprive oneself and one's family of the basic fun of being a Catholic.

Is it fun being a Catholic? Yes, it is. We use such words as rejoice almost automatically, in order to insulate ourselves from what we perceive to be a kind of humdrum affair that has its joy on a higher plane, a kind of inner peace that is really only an inner equilibrium. I insist on the word fun, because that is what a Catholic life is, fun. If we cannot have fun at Easter, or Christmas, then there is something wrong with us, for the Church has given us these times to enjoy ourselves, and has sanctified that enjoyment with her blessing. But such is the instinct toward the puritan in us, and here I am talking from first-hand experience, that we shy away from the word fun and hide our gloominess in the word rejoice. But we will not have fun if we don't participate, and that participation begins with the Church and her seasons, whether as individuals or as a family.

Is the Church a refuge?

I have dwelt upon this in order to get at what exactly it is that we are trying to teach our children and what we actually are teaching them about our Catholic faith. There is a tendency to see our faith as a fence that keeps us safe inside, and indeed there is a way in which that is true. So we speak of the Bark of Peter, as prefigured by Noah's Ark, in which we safely ride out the storms of life and the ravages of a world that would drown us in its pettiness.

But this idea of the Church as our refuge can be misapplied. The Church does not put fences around us to keep us in, but rather she puts fences around hazards, to keep us out. We do not exist in a Catholic universe surrounded by a bigger universe of ideas and sins and behaviour that we are afraid of; we exist in the whole universe of ideas, some of which are so patently foolish and absurd as to actually harm us if we get too close to them. It is against these, the pits and the hazards, that the Church warns us. We must be clear about this, in spite of the propaganda to the contrary.

We are warned away from particular errors, and are given the freedom to choose whatever else we wish to think or do. I don't like analogies, but one obvious one presents itself. Those people who think that the Church curtails our freedom are like those who insist that the rules of nutrition curtail our freedom to eat barbed wire. There is no freedom in eating barbed wire, only stupidity. We don't approach a friend who insists on eating barbed wire with an attitude of benevolent tolerance, mumbling "to each his own" or "I myself do not choose to eat barbed wire, but I defend your right to do so, and your right to feed it to your family, and your right to encourage my children to do so as well, your right to advertise it, teach it, promote it, make laws about it, and have it recognized as a legitimate alternative to the more traditional consumption of meat and potatoes." This is idiotic.

Yet often we see our faith as a kind of cosmic kill-joy that will bring happiness at some indeterminate time in the future, but not something that we expect to be fun here and now. And this is the message that we all too easily can give our children, the idea that we are "stuck" with our faith, and wouldn't it be nice to be able to live like those fun-loving pagans all around us, but we can't because the Church says so.

So, by definition, a Catholic life is fun, Catholic family life is fun, Catholic marriage is fun, having and raising children in a Catholic home is fun, entering into the life of our Church and her calendar and living by her counsels is fun. I will go so far as to say it is riotous fun.

The Rosary

So, I have set up a tall order; and the objection can be made that this is all very well and good, but practically speaking making your children sit down for five decades of the Rosary isn't exactly a barrel of laughs. This is true, but the Rosary isn't necessarily drudgery either; it is what we make of it. It is a perfect example of what I am talking about, because it can be both very beautiful, and very difficult.

The Rosary cannot compete with television in the mind of a child. Any normal kid would rather watch cartoons, or even the news, than sit for 20 minutes saying the same thing over and over again, having to be quiet and getting yelled at when he fights. As parents, if this is how we set it up, this is how it will turn out. It is trite but nevertheless true that attitude is altitude. In the case of the Rosary, if we see it as drudgery, it will be so.

But we have a will, and we can simply choose to want to say it. So, by making it a priority, and a time when we get to present our cares and our concerns to our Lady as we repeat the prayers, we make it obvious to our children that it is very important to us. And practically, it can be made an enjoyable time. Our family says the daily Rosary in a manner we borrowed from other families with whom we have met and discussed this. We begin with a song, a good rousing song, in which the children get to sing together with us their parents. We offer those intentions with the Rosary for which our children want to pray. We end with another song, which provides a rousing finish. We don't drag it out, but try to say it in under 15 minutes.

The late afternoon is piano practice time, homework time, or help with the chores time, so the Rosary is a nice break in the midst of this. The television is not on at all on school nights; so the Rosary is not the thing that interferes with play time or TV time, but is part of a regular routine. Other people we know do it differently, probably much better than we do. But in our house, it is usually the children who remind us to say the Rosary, and who look forward to it. And this practice of daily Rosary started about six years ago as a Lenten ritual that we adopted as a family.

Make Church life come alive

The point I am getting at is that we can make things dreary or we can make them fun; it depends on us and what it is that we want. The life of the Church can be a real part of our family life, and the importance we place on it is the importance that our children will learn. Another example is Sunday Mass.

If Mass were just something that we had to fit in around the rest of our life, it would indeed become a disagreeable chore, something in the way of what we really hold important, like work or sports or whatever. Rushing off in foul humour early Sunday morning, or fitting Mass in Saturday afternoon so we can squeeze the rest of life around it sends a clear message that it is an addendum to our life. But Sunday Mass together, brunch afterwards, followed by a picnic or walk, or getting together with other families afterwards - these put Sunday Mass into a context for our children, and for ourselves, in which it is a central part of the normal and natural routine of a day set aside for our faith.

All these things can become family traditions, for a tradition is simply a context, or a semi-formal manifestation of our priorities. Traditions are those things which we do. And they will reflect our priorities.

Our family traditions include a daily Rosary, daily Mass for me, with one of our children coming with me quite often, daily Angelus at lunch, Sunday Mass, of course, and Sunday brunch afterwards, often with another family. They all arose out of a Lenten practice, which we continued after we acquired the habit.

Needless to say, there are bad traditions as well. Being hung over every Sunday morning is one of them, a routine that tears down family life and marriage.

Family traditions

We now examine the ideal that we should strive for in our family. Again, the Church gives us the principles, and it is up to us to put them to practice. Several considerations come to mind: first, the role of the parents, fathers and mothers, the inner life of the family, the relationship of the family to the larger community, and how to balance these considerations. Given the two points that I mentioned at the beginning, that the practice of the Catholic faith is fun, and that it is always out of step with every age, it should be clear that the living out of our faith is going to be both rewarding and difficult, with the rewards overshadowing the difficulties, but with the difficulties being nonetheless real.

Is it stretching the case to see the parallels to Lent and Easter in this as well? I don't think so. In fact, I think that this is one of the larger lessons that we learn from the Church, the many levels at which her lessons apply in our lives such as the need to have fixed dogmas and flexible conventions; the obvious antiquity of the dramatic rituals of our faith and their ability to pierce the modern facade and speak directly to the heart in a universal language; the very parochialism of Catholicism that makes it so universal; its ability to be grasped in its simplicity by children and yet engage the greatest minds of each age; its simultaneous grandeur and tawdriness. So we should not be surprised at the seeming paradox of a Catholic family life being both very difficult and incredible fun.

I seem to always come back to the fun thing. Perhaps this is because it came as such a pleasant surprise to me when I first started trying to live a Catholic family life. And this is because I was completely unprepared for how intoxicatingly free such a life is. Make no mistake, my wife and I are very much in process as we try to raise our children, but the freedom and fun is there in the very process itself, like Easter following Lent each year.

Role of the father

So, as to our family life, as fathers we have a duty to set the standard. That is simply our job. If we wimp out and drop it into our wives' laps, our children, especially the boys, will see that. Forget the nonsense about men who dare to cry and get in touch with their feelings; that's so much bunk. We need to put our shoulders back, ignore our tiredness, our stress, and be cheerful at home, generous with our time toward our children, tender to our wives, strict with ourselves, united with our wives in discipline, quick to apologize when at fault, and utterly inflexible toward anything that would threaten our family, such as the media, work, or our own selfishness.

Catholicism is a very martial faith, and many of the great saints were soldiers. Turning the other cheek is not about cowardice, but toughness and discipline and self-control. We set the atmosphere in the home for the hearts of the home, our wives, to thrive. Our duty is to evangelize, and our evangelizing begins with our wives and our children, whom we teach by example, not by exhortation. If our children only learn how we respect and love each other as husband and wife, they will have learned how to do something that is becoming increasingly rare these days.

Our families themselves must be sanctuaries in which the inner life of the family is nurtured. Yet we also must not be closed little islands of Catholicism unto ourselves, as if our faith were our own hobby. In the first place, our children would learn a distorted view of Catholicism. It is absolutely essential that they see their faith as a normal part of their lives. And to that end, Catholic families must get together and socialize so that their children can play together.

Children need to see other families who say the Rosary or grace or the Angelus, who know what the Church calendar is, who have a Catholic understanding of Christmas and Easter. We are doing our children a disservice to have them see Catholicism as simply one of their parents' eccentricities. As we socialize with other Catholic families, we will escape the temptation to become morbidly obsessed with the loss of faith around us. We do not want to raise little cynics, or sycophants, or rebels, but strong-willed, free-thinking Catholics who question the assumptions of the world around them, and who judge every action by a standard of what is right, not what is expedient.


We need to go to great lengths to give our children a normal childhood, not by living as everyone else does all around us, but by spending time with other Catholic families so that a Catholic family is the norm in our children's eyes. Our children need to grow up with the life of the Church as a normal part of the richness and routine every day, not as an added thing that they will outgrow. Catholicism should be equated with the more happy moments of our children's lives. To unwittingly teach by our attitude that Catholicism is a fundamentally negative thing of strictures and prohibitions is to rob our children of their Catholic faith. For, as countless Catholics have discovered in every age, Catholic family life is filled with fun.

David Beresford lives near Warsaw, Ontario, with his wife Theresa and their six children. A contributing editor of Gilbert!, the magazine of the American Chesterton Society, and publisher and editor of The Flying Inn, newsletter for the Peterborough Chesterton Society, Mr. Beresford is working toward his Masters in science at Trent University.
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Author:Beresford, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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