Thirty-three years ago, united in the sacrament of marriage, Peter and I began an exciting and mysterious adventure. We charted a course for our life that wasn’t based on romantic feelings or wishful thinking. Although we had financial, career and family goals, we had one principal aim that informed the rest. Our deepest desire was to live with God forever and to help each other, our family and those God placed in our lives to get to heaven. This objective may sound cliché, abstract or in the very distant future, but it is actually concrete and practical, lived out each day in the context of marriage and family life.
The family is the primary social unit in which life in Christ and the life of the church are experienced and lived. Therefore, the church refers to the family as the domestic church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church beautifully describes the Christian family and our role as parents:
- “The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith.For this reason, the family home is rightly called ‘the domestic church,’ a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity … It is a community of faith, hope, and charity.” (CCC, 1666, 2204)
- “Parents are the principal and first educators of their children.In this sense, the fundamental task of marriage and family is to be at the service of life.” (CCC, 1653)
- “The home is the first school of Christian life and ‘a school for human enrichment.’Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous — even repeated — forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life.” (CCC, 1657)
- “The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. In the procreation and education of children it reflects the Father’s work of creation. It is called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Christ. Daily prayer and the reading of the Word of God strengthen it in charity.” (CCC, 2205)
- “The family is the original cell of social life. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.” (CCC, 2207)
Under the lordship of Jesus
This vision of the family as the domestic church is an inspiring and noble ideal. Yet as we began to have children and we faced our own inadequacies, the demands of daily life and the challenges of a post-Christian culture, this call seemed overwhelming and unattainable. We decided to focus on two fundamental principles for our domestic church that have helped us live out the call of evangelization and discipleship.
First and foremost, we began our married life by putting our marriage under the lordship of Jesus, and we continue to do this daily because we know that “unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build” (Ps 127:1). Five years into my marriage, I realized that physical attraction, common interests and emotions — all parts of the house, but not the foundation — would not be enough to sustain and deepen a marriage. Father Thomas Dubay wrote: “It takes conversion to be able to love another, it takes deep conversion to love that person deeply.”
The foundation for deep marital and familial love is Jesus Christ. We put our individual lives under the lordship of Jesus, and he (not my spouse) is my only savior. The spiritual leadership and formation of our family flowed from a life of discipleship in which we were both striving to seek first the kingdom of God and “to please him, whether we are at home or away” (2 Cor 5:9). Our time, money, possessions, talents, friendships, sexual relationship, children, extended family, the past, present and future all belong to Christ.
There were practical implications. We were committed to daily personal prayer and supporting each other in our spiritual growth. Our trust in God and each other was expressed by practicing natural family planning and obeying the teachings of the church. And although we didn’t always agree on everything, our desire to live as disciples and the common goal to evangelize our kids oriented our decisions. Weekly Mass attendance, reception of the sacraments, family meals, daily prayer and learning to give and receive forgiveness were just some of the non-negotiables that helped our family life reflect the domestic church.
Ultimately, living under the lordship of Jesus meant we were not free to make it up as we went along, to do it our own way or concede to the cultural norms, even if it seemed easier.
Focused on family first
Although Peter and I have been actively involved in ministry and evangelization in the church our whole married life, we recognized early on that our mission begins at home — our own family is our primary field of evangelization. Quite honestly, though, we had to fight hard to keep our focus and efforts there. I remember times as a young mother when I struggled to balance the demands of home life and a desire to be “doing more for God.” One day in prayer, Jesus spoke clearly to my heart: “If you evangelize the whole world, and your own children don’t have the opportunity to know me, you haven’t done your job as their mother.”
As our family grew, we shaped and expressed our domestic mission at home in four concrete ways.
- We tried to live our faith as authentically and consistently as possible. Our relationships with Jesus are personal but never private. Our children saw us taking daily prayer time, studying the Scriptures, facing trials with hope and treating each other with love, honor and respect.
- As the principal educators, we learned how to transmit and incarnate the truths of the faith. We wove together the customs and traditions of my Jewish heritage and the Catholic liturgical year, and our family developed a rhythm of life and a unique identity as Herbecks. Although our children attended Catholic schools and youth groups, we were careful not to abdicate our role to others. As our kids entered adolescence and began to ask questions and push boundaries, we tried not just to dispense rules but to help them understand the reason behind them and to eventually take personal ownership of them.
- We invited faith-filled people into our home whom our kids saw as attractive, credible witnesses. We cultivated friendships with Catholic families and regularly invited them to join us for Saturday evening Lord’s Days, brunch after Mass or backyard games.
- We tried to remember that we were not just raising kids, we were making disciples. We knew that if we didn’t intentionally and actively evangelize our kids, the culture would quickly replace us as the loudest and most influential voice in their lives. As our children grew, we provided opportunities for them to encounter Christ personally and grow in their faith through junior high camps, mission trips, service, Bible studies and youth events. It often meant sacrifices of time, money and energy, but it was always worth it as we watched them take ownership of their faith and begin to lead others.
Today, our four children are faith-filled Catholic young adults, and some are married and raising their own families now. As we begin this new chapter of our domestic church life, it is a joy and a blessing to witness the continuing legacy of faith and love that we began many years ago. We still have the same end in sight: to help one another and our family know the love of Jesus and arrive safely home.