• Brian Myers

Family, Become What You Are


“Each family finds within itself a summons that cannot be ignored, and that specifies both its dignity and its responsibility: family, become what you are.”[1] These are strange words written by Pope Saint John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio. Family, become what you are. It is strange to speak of becoming what one already is or of being what one has not yet become. The family already is and has not yet become the domestic church.

When asked what family is, many people’s first response may be to identify who is in the family and how they are related. For example, when searching for “what is family,” Google provides “a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household”[2] as a definition. When understood in this way, it is impossible for the family to become what it already is or to be what it is not yet become. Either a birth or marriage or cohabitation has begun or has not begun. The family either is or it is not.

When instructing the family to become what you are, Pope Saint John Paul II was instructing the family to become more than a group of people defined by certain relationship statuses. In God’s plan the family is and is becoming a community of life and love. The Church shares in the “being, life, and energy of Christ”[3] and so does the family. The Holy Father went on to say, “the family has the mission to become more and more what it is, that is to say, a community of life and love, in an effort that will find fulfillment, as will everything created and redeemed, in the Kingdom of God.”[4] Love is both the family’s essence (what the family is) and the family’s mission (what the family is becoming) and this love is a sign of and a sharing in God’s love of humanity and in Christ’s love for the Church.

There is, of course, some importance in the Google definition of family. There are many communities of life and love in the Church and not all of them are families, even if they may be like families. Joining both aspects of family, family can be defined as “an intimate community of persons bound together by blood, marriage, or adoption for the whole of life.”[5] Marriage and family have been a part of the human experience since humanity’s creation, but there is a deeper significance to this experience for Christian families. The Order of Celebrating Matrimony says this about marriage, “the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish a lifelong partnership between themselves, derives its force and strength from creation, but for the Christian faithful it is also raised up to a higher dignity, since it is numbered among the Sacraments of the new covenant.”[6] Similarly, the basic experience of being family experienced by all humans since creation takes on deeper significance for Christian families. In the years since the Second Vatican Council, there has been significant development in the Church’s understanding of this deeper significance of the family, and at the heart of this development has been the understanding of the family as a domestic church.[7]

To identify the Christian family as a domestic church is to identify the family as the smallest community or manifestation of the Church.[8] The authors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church quoted Familiaris Consortio and asserted the Christian family should be called a domestic church because “the Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion.”[9] The US bishops used the term domestic church to express the truth that “a family is our first community and the most basic way in which the Lord gathers us, forms us, and acts in the world.”[10] A domestic church is a family with a “habit of interpreting its ordinary life – for better or worse – as the means through which family members are to seek, know, and love the God made known in Jesus Christ.”[11] The family is not only like the Church, but it truly is Church.[12]

[1] John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, November 22, 1981, 17, accessed August 27, 2016, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_jp-ii_exh_19811122_familiaris-consortio.pdf.

[2] https://www.google.com/search?q=what+is+family, accessed January 5, 2017.

[3] Robert Barron, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (New York: Image Books, 2011), 143.

[4] John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 17.

[5] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Family Perspective in Church and Society, Tenth Anniversary Edition (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1998), 17, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/promotion-and-defense-of-marriage/upload/A-Family-Perspective-2.pdf.

[6] The Order of Celebrating Matrimony, Second Edition (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2016), 1, accessed November 23, 2016, https://www.litpress.org/Products/GetSample/4641/9780814646410.

[7] Joseph C. Atkinson, “Family as Domestic Church: Developmental Trajectory, Legitimacy, and Problems of Appropriation,” Theological Studies 66, no. 3 (2005): 592, accessed August 6, 2016, http://cdn.theologicalstudies.net/66/66.3/66.3.4.pdf.

[8] Florence Caffrey Bourg, “Domestic Church: A New Frontier in Ecclesiology,” Horizons 29, no. 1 (April 2002): 42, accessed October 4, 2016, moodle.jesuitcp.org/mod/resource/view.php?id=72469.

[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 2204.

[10] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Follow the Way of Love: A Pastoral Message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to Families, November 17, 1993, sec. You Are the Church in Your Home, accessed August 27, 2016, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/follow-the-way-of-love.cfm.

[11] Florence Caffrey Bourg, Where Two or Three Are Gathered: Christian Families as Domestic Churches (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 132.

[12] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Family Perspective in Church and Society, 20.


© 2020 by Brian Myers