This Easter, due to the suspension of parish activity in the current crisis, will be much different than any most of us have ever experienced. Without in-person access to sacramental liturgy, many families are seeking ways to pray and worship within their homes during this most sacred time of year. I suggest that we should draw inspiration from Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi prayer for the coronavirus pandemic. In this powerful and well-received service, which he led from an empty St. Peter’s Square, the Holy Father provided a blueprint that every Catholic family can follow this Holy Week to create an extraordinary moment of prayer within their household. In the same way the Pope’s special prayer event relied heavily on scripture and symbolism rather than the formal sacramental liturgy, we can have meaningful and profound Holy Week prayer and worship in our homes. Moreover, Pope Francis would likely welcome such efforts, as he has repeatedly encouraged the idea of fostering a “domestic church.”
The term “ecclesia domestica” (household or domestic church) was used in the Second Vatican Council to emphasize the family’s role in faith formation. (See Lumen Gentium, 11.) Every pope since then has repeated the term. St. Paul VI said that each Christian family should reflect “the various aspects of the entire Church” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 11). John Paul I called the family “a most relevant apostolate for the twentieth century” (Address to American Bishops). St. John Paul II said that “Among the fundamental tasks of the Christian family is its ecclesial task,” which renders it “a Church in miniature” (Familiaris Consortio, 49). And Pope Benedict XVI said that “The new evangelization depends largely on the Domestic Church” (Address to the Pontifical Council on the Family).
Pope Francis, however, seems ready to take this principle to the next level—already envisioned by his predecessors—of having families take concrete steps to live out their rightful role. Where earlier popes focused on how the family mirrors the Church, in his exhortation following the Synod on the Family, Francis noted that “the Church, in order fully to understand her mystery, looks to the Christian family” (Amoris Laetitia, 67). It’s a two-way street: “The Church is good for the family, and the family is good for the Church” (Ibid., 87). And Francis called for “all pastoral work on behalf of the family” to prepare them to be in the driver’s seat and “allow people to be interiorly fashioned and formed as members of the domestic church” (Ibid., 227).
Francis also puts flesh on the bone in a way no previous pontiff had, and he provides examples that are relevant for Holy Week. “I had the great blessing of growing up in a family in which faith was lived in a simple, practical way,” Francis said in an address early in his papacy. He spoke about the special role that his paternal grandmother Rosa played in his faith formation. “I always remember that on the evening of Good Friday she would take us to the candle-light procession,” the Pontiff recalled. Rosa would have the children kneel before the statue of the lifeless Jesus as it passed and she would tell them: “Look, he is dead, but tomorrow he will rise.” The Pontiff credits his grandmother for catechizing him: “This is really beautiful! The first proclamation [of the faith] at home, in the family!” He noted the way mothers and grandmothers pass down the faith to their children in similar fashion all around the world.
The idea of the home as a church long predates the Second Vatican Council and harkens back to the early Christian era, when “house churches” offered the first gathering places for Christian worship, fellowship and prayer. Pope Francis acknowledged the domestic church run by Aquila and Priscilla mentioned by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans at a recent General Audience (Cf. Rom 16:3,5). Other house churches mentioned in the New Testament were run by early Christians with names such as Philemon and Apphia (Phlm 1:1-2); Nympha (Col 4:15); Lydia (Acts 16:40); and Mary (Acts 12:12). The ancient Christian house churches were notable in that so many of them were run by women and by couples, because they signify the absence of presbyters or disciples in charge of these houses of worship. Another important factor is that the house churches were a response to the needs of the moment. In an era that included the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the persecution of Christians, desperate times called for desperate measures.
The ancient household churches and the modern-day promotion of the “ecclesia domestica” by the Council fueled a movement in Latin America that sought to shift Christian life from the clerical environs of the parish church to the informal settings of the laity. Christian Base Communities, also called Christian Ecclesial Communities or CEBs, arose in Brazil during the 1960s and became a powerful grassroots movement over the next two decades. The CEBs were small cells, sometimes with as few as ten individuals, meeting in homes, community centers, or parish offices. Their meetings were structured but informal, in keeping with their familiar settings. They featured lay-led scripture reading and liturgical reflections by lay leaders called Delegates of the Word. Some have posited that, in the face of declining numbers in the priesthood and in the absence of alternative leadership models (for example, the ordination of viri probati discussed at the recent Amazon synod), CEBs may provide church communities with a new organizing paradigm. The Final Document of the 2007 meeting of the Latin American Bishops, overseen by then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, noted the importance of CEBs by calling the Church “a community of communities” (Aparecida, 179). In 2013, Pope Bergoglio developed the phrase in terms that are relevant to this reflection, calling the Church “a family of families” (Evangelii Gaudium, 87).
If tweaking ecclesial structures around lay units seems a bridge too far, popular piety is a principle in the Latin American Church experience that has been endorsed by recent pontiffs, including (and especially) Francis, that may meet the needs of the moment. Popular piety includes such folk expressions of the faith as “patronal saint celebrations, novenas, rosaries, the Way of the Cross, processions, dances and songs of religious folklore, affection for the saints and angels, solemn promises, and family prayer” (Aparecida, 258). Like Francis’ Urbi et Orbi, popular piety expresses the content of the faith “more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning” (Evangelii Gaudium, 124). Pope Francis writes: “I think of the steadfast faith of those mothers tending their sick children who, though perhaps barely familiar with the articles of the creed, cling to a rosary; or of all the hope poured into a candle lighted in a humble home with a prayer for help from Mary, or in the gaze of tender love directed to Christ crucified” (Ibid., 125).
In Latin America, Holy Week is an auspicious time to put the household church into practice, as the laity participate and lead many of the largescale activities in the pageantry of the celebrations—from the multitudinous street processions to the intimate family practices of fasting and prayer. A couple of years ago, my family and I were in Antigua, Guatemala—a Mecca for Holy Week in Central America—where the entire city is shut down for packed processions every Friday of Lent, culminating in the final ‘Semana Santa’ blowout. Families register beforehand with the local parish for the privilege of putting together an elaborate mat of colored sawdust that the procession will trample over (and destroy) when it passes in front of their house. As a child growing up in neighboring El Salvador, I remember a similar custom where families would volunteer to set up shrines in front of their houses for each of the Stations of the Cross for the Via Crucis procession to stop at as it wound its way around the parish.
Pope Francis has mused that sometimes “it seems the clock has stopped” on the vaunted “hour of the laity” (Letter to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America). For us, that hour is here. There are so many things we can do to bring Holy Week into our homes. We can pray. We can fast. We can light a candle. We can meditate the stations of the cross. Even watch a movie. My daughter and I have watched the 1927 silent “King of Kings” for Holy Week every year for about five years. Why don’t you try to create a decorative mat with grass and flowers in your back yard, if you have one. Or draw one with chalk on your sidewalk. You can make a shrine to one (or more) of the Stations of the Cross. On Good Friday, meditate the seven last words of Jesus on the Cross, or have a moment of quiet prayer and have your family venerate and kiss the Crucifix. We are, as St. Oscar Romero said, “The Church of Easter” and this is our Paschal hour.
Images 1 and 3: Wikimedia Commons. By Erik Albers – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48347495, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48347503
Image 2: Carlos Colorado. Used with Permission.