The Domestic Church: Catholicism’s Secret Weapon

The days are darkening, and I am angry.

Yes, angry, along with so many others who observe with growing pain and confusion what is happening to our Church from within, far more grievously than from outside. But this anger isn’t a bitter, despairing anger; rather, it is a zealous, irrepressible anger that pulses hot against my skin. Perhaps it is a smaller-scale, imperfect version of what I like to think of as “The Michael Anger”: the holy anger that once swelled up in Heaven into a raging cry that poured over the rupture of ugliness and began the cosmic battle that is still ongoing. Who is like God?

We have to acknowledge the truth that, to quote from Catholic bestselling author Michael D. O’Brien’s debut novel Father Elijah, “The Church bleeds from many wounds.” Those of us who treasure and adhere to our Catholic Faith in its most traditional, reverent, and staunchly orthodox (but attacked and undermined) forms – in short, those of us who revere the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and who strive to live out that same reverence in our daily realities – are finding it woefully easier to see wounds gushing dark blood than to see even a small patch of vibrant, healthy skin radiating light and truth.

These wounds are many and grave. These are the wounds of decades-long liturgical abuse and subsequent deterioration of tradition. These are the wounds of having collectively turned our hearts from the upward Supreme Good (ad orientem) down to the inward self (versus populum); these are the wounds of having abandoned the spirit of awe and self-effacement in worship and replaced it with one of familiarity and entitlement. These are the wounds of modernism, materialism, and liberalism; these are the wounds of having fashioned Christ into a warm fantasy that functions solely as our friend and inclusively tolerant forgiver (no matter what our lifestyle), simultaneously forgetting that He is also our Conqueror King, our High Priest, our Just Judge, and our Mighty God, Whom the angels adore prostrate. These are the wounds of neglecting Mary as our sovereign Queen and sinless Mother. These are the wounds of pride, compromise, and selfishness, of having been deceived by folly. These are the wounds brought about by many members of the Church, clergy and laity alike, who have forgotten – or wanted to forget – who they really are, and who the Church really is.

These are the wounds of a Church groaning under vicious, unprecedented attack.

Once, when confronted by these grim realities, I found it easy to rotate through a cycle of comforting phrases, such as The Church has always been under attack, or Every generation believed that its time was the worst, or to simply quote Matthew 16:18, where Christ assures, “Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it.” And I would blithely reason, Why worry? No matter what happens, or who falls, the Church won’t fall, because Christ promised. No need to get upset and panic. Now let me find that chocolate bar…

Yes, Christ promised. Yes, Satan and His demons will never succeed in destroying the Church, the Body of Christ. Any Catholic who believes otherwise has despaired, has snapped his sword in two and walked away from the battlefield before the fight is over. The Church is still His Church: one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic. No matter how battered or unfaithful, she will never cease being the Bride of Christ, her truths will never become obsolete, and He will claim her at the end of time.

But even in the context of Matthew 16:18, there nevertheless are certain things Christ did not say. He never said: My Church will not be attacked. My Church will not be maimed from within. My Church will not bleed, will not weep. My Shepherds will remain true. My sheep will never need to summon all their strength and courage for the Pearl, for the battle that will cost them all they have. The darkness will never appear overwhelming. The light will always be visible.

Because of this truth, my pacifying phrases of comfort no longer hold any effect. It is time for battle. It has been time for battle since the dawn of history, but never more so than now. It isn’t time to merely ride out the storm, to huddle together and weakly murmur, Everything will be fine in the end. It is time to pull down the visor of our battle helmets, grit our teeth, and sprint forward as we’ve never sprinted before.

This basic truth, this need for radically increased spiritual battle on our part, all concerned Catholics will agree upon. But the how of this renewed fight presents greatly varying opinions and disagreements. There are so many wounds, we don’t know where the effective starting point would be for tourniquets. Where do we draw the new battle lines? Whom do we call out? The papacy? The bishops? The clergy? The laity? What weapons do we use? Where should we form our bases? Do we form societies, write publications, start movements? Our heads swim from the cacophony and urgency of what we must do, and meanwhile, all around us, countless others go on smiling and speaking of the Church as thriving and progressing, as daily becoming more welcoming and inclusive toward the “marginalized,” extending Christ’s “compassion and mercy” toward those in “difficult situations,” and we are subsequently accused of being radical, judgmental and traditionalist.

Firstly, to these, I would give a resounding yes. Yes, we are and should be ever radical – radical for Christ, radical for truth, radical for upright moral living that includes far fewer gray areas and exceptions than modern society would have us think. Yes, we should be always judgmental, perceiving and judging the exterior sin (though not the inward person) as we would do poison, out of a spirit of urgent charity and correction for the sake of souls who are going astray. And yes, we should be forever traditionalist; we should hold dearer and more sacred than all our possessions that which our fathers did; our liturgy, our traditions, our prayers; all that made the Church ablaze with beauty, reverence, and splendor for over a thousand years and which visibly reminded us Who God Is, and who we are not.

And secondly, on the heels of all that I’ve described above, I would like to present a weapon for this spiritual battle of ours that is perhaps often overlooked. In fact, I’ve only gradually discovered the power of it through prayer and experience. It is tremendously formidable because it is small, like a tiny dagger that can pierce through vulnerable crevices in otherwise impenetrable armor. It is formidable because it is so numerous, and because of this it can wield incredible potency. It is common, yet unique; ordinary, and yet one of the most sacred and powerful weapons of this spiritual warfare, but only if it is sharpened, kept ready, and used frequently.

It is called Ecclesia domestica, or rather, the Domestic Church.

The domestic church, I firmly believe, is where the battle will be won. Here, cosmic and spiritual realities are distilled down into a single cell: the family. Every pope, bishop, priest, clergyman, and religious sprang from a domestic church; they were and are a direct product of the sharpness, or lack thereof, of this spiritual dagger. And it is from our domestic churches alone that our next pope, our next bishops, priests, clergymen, religious, and lay people, are going to emerge, for better or worse, into the world.

We can try to correct, prune, and tear down the corruption above us as desperately and zealously as we want, but if the very root is rotting, how effective can we ever be? In the domestic church, however, we have been allowed to go underground; we’ve been given a little branch of this root as our weapon. It’s daily within our reach and constantly under our influence, and from it, spiritual life or death will spread to the other root-branches and will eventually swell through the root, the trunk, and the tree that is the Church.

Can we imagine the potential magnitude of effect on our bleeding Church if thousands upon thousands of these underground branches blossomed to life and began flooding the root with prayer, penance, merits, and grace? What if thousands of these daggers were sharpened and plunged into the cracks of our Enemy’s armor – the very same Enemy wreaking corruption from inside our Church on both the hierarchy and the laity?

What if thousands upon thousands of domestic churches became afire with zeal for intense prayer and penance; orthodox worship; and upright, pure, joyous living? What would happen?

The wounds would begin to heal.

So how do we sharpen the dagger that is our domestic church? How do we begin to restore the root of our Church with our own tiny branches?

The answer is simple, and yet the answer is a staggering challenge; it requires all our strength, yet through it Christ bestows even more strength than we use. The answer? We become what we ought to be. Through small but courageous steps, we become authentically, robustly, unmistakably Catholic families. We make our homes, our domestic church, into a place where striving for sanctity is both expected and possible. We open ourselves to life and keep the marital covenant sacred, permanent, and fruitful. With love and discipline, we instruct our children in the way they should go and realize they have a far greater capacity for understanding and embracing the truths of the faith than we might initially suppose. We bless one another’s foreheads at night with holy water. We wear scapulars and use holy cards for bookmarks.

We frequent the Sacrament of Penance weekly and the Eucharist even more often. We cultivate virtue in our homes through patience and example. We zealously defend the liturgy and attend Mass wherever it is offered reverently; devoutly; and, if at all possible, ad orientem to remind ourselves of Who God Is and who we are not. We treasure and study the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, even if we’re not able to attend it. We urge our sons to serve at the altar and our daughters to veil their heads during Mass out of reverence and gratitude for their femininity. We sing old, traditional hymns that honor the Trinity instead of Diversity and bow our heads at the names of Jesus and Mary. We name our children after the saints. We bond with, eat with, and pray with other families who are striving as we are striving. We encourage one another.

We become families who pray the rosary daily, and who pray often in Latin and often on our knees. We become families who, for penance’s sake, fast from meals more than just twice a year and abstain on Fridays even when we’re not required to by current canon law – countless others have done it before us, and it did them good. We revive the Ember Days. We read together about the saints; we display holy images, crucifixes, and icons in our homes and place our homes under the blessing of a priest. We laugh and we love; we embrace our roles as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, and siblings as gifts from God for our own sanctification, and that of the world. We beg for the conversion of the world, of society, and of those inflicting wounds on our beloved Church. We raise our children to give God first choice in their vocations, and we are not afraid to let them go out into the harvest if they are so called. We love Christ more than life itself; we love Him to the point of death.

We do all of this, not with an attitude of drear or of priggishness, but with a spirit of authentic joy, of gratitude, and of profound love and adoration of the Most Blessed Trinity. We pour out our lives as libations; we give without counting the cost. If we become what we ought to be, our domestic church will spring to life, and the dagger will be sharp and continually fighting.

Today, at this very moment, we have all been given anew the opportunity and mission to sharpen the weapon we already hold in our hands for the good of the Church. We have this opportunity now, when all seems grievous, dark, and grim. We must return to wielding the weapon of the domestic church faithfully and effectively. We cannot be satisfied with the mediocre now. Our homes must become alive with zeal for our Father’s House. This is how we will, slowly but surely, prune the corruption of today. This is how we will rear the pope, the clergy, and the laity of the next generation. This is one of the greatest weapons by which Christ will one day win the battle in which we are currently engulfed.

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