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The Christian Family and the Renewal of the Church

By: Deacon Keith A Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC

In his encyclical letter entitled, "The Splendor of Truth" John Paul II refers to the Sermon on the Mount as the "Magna Carta" of the Christian life. When the history of his Pontificate is written, another one of his wonderful letters, entitled, "The Christian Family in the Modern World" will be referred to as the "Magna Carta" of Christian Family life.

The wealth of teaching and practical foundations he sets forth in this very readable letter lays a foundation for the recovery of the Christian family, and, through the Christian Family, the renewal of the Church, which is a family of families. It also lays the ground for a true family outreach to a secular culture pining for a return to healthy and happy family life.

The letter develops a much-needed missionary model that is family-centered. It helps us to recover the ancient Christian understanding that the Christian family is a "church in miniature", a missionary cell of the broader family of the Church. Only then can we comprehend the relational model that the early church used to transform the first millennium.

This relational model is the one through which the new evangelization of the contemporary age must now be undertaken. This family-based missionary outreach will bring about the "New Springtime" of Christianity that John Paul prophetically proclaims. The task is now ours, as Christian families, to undertake the work in earnest. We live in a new missionary age. The challenge and the opportunity are unparalleled!

John Paul reminds us "the future of humanity passes by way of the family." He states that as the "domestic church"," a society in its own original right" and the "first and vital cell of society" the baptized Christian family is the key which unlocks the treasure house of the "new humanism"(authentic Christianity) which we are called to build. It also provides the roadmap. This "culture of life" and "civilization of love", which is an authentically human culture, can only be established upon an authentically renewed Christian family life.

This teaching on family as the foundation for authentic human flourishing is the antidote to the sickness caused by drinking at the poisoned well of the atomistic "culture of death" in the latter part of the twentieth century. There is a "close link between Catholic teaching on this matter and the view of the human person which the Church proposes" writes John Paul. In fact, only this view of the human person as flourishing in and through the first community, the family, can transform our culture of use into a culture of love.

The message of this letter will involve, in its application, a lifetime of work. Its implementation will require generations of reflection and application. The devastation which modern secularism has reaped upon the family will require extraordinary prayer and heroic sacrifice to heal. Fortunately, the wisdom of this encyclical letter, a distillation of classical Christian teaching, is presented in a well written format which lends itself well to study groups and can be assimilated and applied in the practical stuff of daily family life--if we will do the work.

This missionary methodology that engages families as the new missionary communities of the new evangelization follows the path of the hope-filled approach to cultural recovery which is so much a part of this Pope's pastoral and prophetic style. He wants those living Christian family vocations to understand that in order to fully comprehend the meaning of marriage and family we must go back to the "beginning". This letter takes us there through a biblical exegesis.

After a re-founding of the meaning of marriage through insights gained from the Book of Genesis, he examines the transformation of marriage, and family, through baptism into Christ. He then examines the vocational nature of Christian marriage and family. It is not something we do; rather it is a response to the Gospel and a school for holiness.

Only when we begin to grasp the sacramental nature of Christian family can we comprehend and seek to live the existential and missionary call implied in the phrase that the pope uses so effectively in the beginning of this powerful letter-- "family, become what you are".

We who live in the Christian family are to truly become a "domestic church", in the home, in the broader family of the Church and, through our participation in Christ (and therefore in His Body), in the broader Christian mission of evangelization, sanctification and transformation.

What is perhaps most profound however is the marked move in this encyclical from analogy (comparison) to ontology (identification) in its' discussion of the vocational nature of a "call" to Christian family.

For example, John Paul cites his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, and his great encyclical letter entitled "Evangelization in the Modern World". In that letter we find an example of the language of analogy: "The family, like the Church... ." However, in his immediate sentence of application of the text John Paul then refers back to an instruction he gave at a conference at Puebla, Mexico and states "...the future of evangelization depends in great part on the Church of the Home".

No longer does the occupant of Peter's chair use only the language of analogy in discussing the Christian family as a church but rather the language of ontological participation. The Christian family is not just like the Church, it IS the Church.

In his discussion of the missionary task of the Church in affecting the international order, a task most would think beyond the reach of most families, he writes, "Insofar as it is a "small scale Church", the Christian family is called upon, like the "large scale Church", to be a sign of unity for the world and in this way to exercise its prophetic role...."

Section IV of the encyclical letter is entitled "Sharing in the Life and Mission of the Church". It is even more pronounced in its evolution of analogical language to ontological language :"In turn, the Christian family is grafted into the mystery of the Church to such a degree as to become a sharer, in its own way, in the saving mission proper to the Church by virtue of the sacrament"

This approach is also detailed in the explanation of the educational mission of the Christian family found in paragraph 38, and is most profoundly expressed in the following: "Thus in the case of baptized people, the family, called together by word and sacrament as the Church of the home, is both teacher and mother, the same as the worldwide Church".

Truth, like the beauty of a flower, or the maturation of a plant, unfolds. Both, to their most minute cell, already contain the genetic make-up in their seed form, which will be fully evidenced in their mature expression. This is true of each one of us as well. We are what we were...and we are still becoming. This fundamental truth is also at the heart of understanding the authentic development of doctrine in theology.

The seed of the truth that a baptized Christian family IS a Church in the home is found in the sacred Scriptures, in the great fathers, the Councils, and in the tradition. However, the trajectory of teaching from the Second Vatican Council, this encyclical letter and all that is contained in the body of wisdom given by John Paul leads us along this development of doctrine concerning the baptized Christian family as a domestic church.

This understanding and its application will provide the material needed for the reconstruction of the devastated vineyard of the "domestic Church" of the family. Through the renewal of authentic Christian family life we will also find the path and the insights needed for the authentic renewal of the Universal Church. After all, it is a family of families!

Only through this kind of organic, substantial, and relational renewal can the Church have the real influence on the culture that the task of the "New Evangelization" will require by proclaiming, demonstrating and living the Truth. For that Truth is a Person, Jesus Christ, who still manifests Himself in the flesh through His body, the Church.

The smallest cell of that Body is the Christian family, the domestic church.


Keith Fournier is a married Roman Catholic Deacon, who also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Church with approval. He is a human rights lawyer and a graduate of the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University, Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law. He is a co-founder of the Your Catholic Voice Movement and the founder of Common Good.


Common Good VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Founder, President, 757 546-9580



Family as domestic church

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