During Holy Week our online ministry was swamped with emails from panicked Catholic parents asking some version of the following:
How are we going to celebrate on Sunday with our family? We can’t go to church, our living room is already strewn with toys, forts, and paints, and our kids are already screen saturated! Putting on the TV one more time feels like the opposite of what we need to do. How do we pray with our kids?
So we got busy putting together ideas for parents who want more for their children than just turning on the TV to “watch Mass.” And it struck us that the common complaint of catechists and priests that parents aren’t involved in their children’s religious education has been turned on its head during the Covid-19 pandemic. For better or worse, parents now find themselves the primary religious educators of their children after all!
But, according to the Church, this is how it’s always been: “The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it, parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children” (Lumen Gentium 11).
This is an unprecedented time, but it is also a time for parents to take up the mantle of spiritual leadership. Parents are the priests of the domestic church of the home. At a time when so many families cannot go to Mass, it is even more clear that the spiritual responsibility for children rests firmly in the hands of parents.
Because God has chosen to reveal Himself as Father, dads in particular have a leadership role in the spiritual life of the family. To many fathers who have only ever led their children in grace before meals, this may feel like a daunting task, but this is just the moment for them to step confidently into this role as spiritual heads of the home. God has equipped both fathers and mothers to spiritually lead their children using the grace he provides in the sacrament of marriage:
By means of the sacrament of marriage, in which it is rooted and from which it draws its nourishment, the Christian family is continuously vivified by the Lord Jesus… through the offering of one’s life and through prayer. In this priestly role, the Christian family is called to be sanctified and to sanctify the ecclesial community and the world (Familiaris Consortio 55).
The Church is a “family of families,” as Pope Francis has said. Strong families are needed for a strong Church, and while parents are lacking the support they are used to having in parishes, we should be strengthening parents by encouraging them to step into their role and providing the resources for them to do so.
We have heard from many parents who have had difficulty with streaming Masses because they have small children who can barely pay attention when they are in Mass. Now, in the same space where they just watched Frozen 2, the kids are understandably distracted. Parents should take heart and as the “priests in the home” they could consider leading their family in prayer in a new way.
We affirm with all our hearts that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Faith. It cannot be replaced. We long for the day when we can return to the table of the Lord, but families should remember that praying within the home is also necessary, and especially when we cannot physically attend Mass, there are several options for families to pray together and honor Our Lord in the home. For many families with young children, finding a way to keep Sundays holy may even require turning off the televised Mass and finding a means of prayer that best fits their situation.
The Church has given us many objective means of grace that we can have present in our homes all the time. First among these is Sacred Scripture—every Catholic home should have a physical Bible, not just an app on a tablet or phone, as convenient as these may be. Reading God’s Word is a tangible way that Christ can be present in a gathering of the baptized.
The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body (Dei Verbum, No. 21).
A wonderful way to incorporate Scripture into your daily life in harmony with the Church worldwide is the Liturgy of the Hours, which, as the Church teaches, “is ‘so devised that the whole course of the day and night is made holy by the praise of God.’ In this ‘public prayer of the Church,’ the faithful (clergy, religious, and lay people) exercise the royal priesthood of the baptized. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1174).
For families with small children, we have designed a home-based Sunday Service for the Messy Family Project, in which we encourage families to create a “prayer focal point” such as an altar by putting a small table against the wall beneath a crucifix, statue, or picture of Jesus. Drape it with a cloth, add candles, and place the family Bible on the altar along with holy water and other sacramentals. Reading from a physical Bible is important: children learn through experience and through their environment. Further, families can bless each other, renew their baptismal promises, or even do a procession and bless their homes and yards.
When families pray together, one important principle—and an advantage of praying at home—is to feel free to adapt if something doesn’t seem to be working as planned. Prayer in the home is not the same as official liturgy of the Holy Mass, so doing it perfectly is not the goal.
Parents should also remember that they cannot force a child to pray, because prayer is an action of both the will and the heart. What they can do is create an environment, offer the tools of prayer, and then change their own hearts. Though parents cannot make kids pray, they can make themselves pray. Also, when parents tell us that prayer becomes a wrestling match or playtime, we suggest that after removing items of distraction, it is best to ignore distracting behavior from children and turn your own mind and heart to God.
If parents and older children have a heartfelt attitude of prayer, they set the right tone and example for their family. Remember, our heavenly Father loves our best efforts to honor him and will take our “messy” offerings and return them with grace and favor.