Perhaps it would be an understatement to say that today much confusion surrounds the understanding of marriage and the family. This is certainly the case in the secular world; although from the experience of the two-year Synod on the family, it would appear that Catholics (clergy and laity alike) are not immune from the confusion. The reasons for this are too many to name for a short article. Rather, I would prefer to propose a solution, one that is both simple and challenging. The answer to the challenges of marriage and the family is holiness in the domestic church. This is actually good news for it places the responsibility for solving these problems outside of our reach since holiness, properly speaking, belongs to God alone (cf. Mk 10:18).
However, we are not let off the hook. Christians in general, and families in particular, have the vocation to holiness. To this end, the question must be asked: how precisely does the family pursue holiness? In this question we see the challenging element of my proposed solution since little has been written on the topic. Despite the lack of material devoted to this issue we can distil from the thought of the twentieth century theologian Henri de Lubac some valuable insights to assist in proposing a spirituality for the family.
Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) was the originator of the profound statement: “The Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church.”[i] It is a principle that shaped the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent theology of the Church, having been quoted in both the Catechism of the Catholic Church[ii] and Saint John Paul II’s last encyclical Eccelsia de Eucharistia (literally, “The Church, from the Eucharist”).[iii] There has been much written about de Lubac’s statement; so perhaps it would be best to focus on just two aspects in presenting a family spirituality. First, I will discuss the role of the Holy Spirit in effecting (bringing about) the communion and unity of the Church and the consequence of this for a eucharistic spirituality of the family. In the second section, I will look at the role that sacrifice plays in family holiness.
The Holy Spirit and the Unity of the Family
St. Augustine described the Holy Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son.[iv] As the personal bond of love, the Holy Spirit accomplishes the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer that the Church may be one as he and the Father are one (c.f. John 17:21). That is, the unity of the communion of the Church is the same unity-communion that binds the Father and the Son, it is Divine Love himself.
The Church’s unity is sacramentally and efficaciously brought about in every Eucharistic Liturgy. For example, in the Third Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite, the priest prays, “grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ” (author emphasis). Hence, we see that the participation in sacramental Communion deepens our union with Christ and draws us more deeply into the one Body of Christ, the Church. This takes place because the Holy Spirit who is at work in the Eucharist, transforming the offerings of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, is also at work in effecting the unity of the Church. This is why de Lubac could say that through the grace of the Holy Spirit “the Eucharist makes the Church.”
This has profound ramifications for our understanding of the family. The Holy Spirit, who is the source of the unity of the Church, in an analogous way, is the bond of unity in the family, founded as it is upon the one-flesh union of husband and wife. Beginning at their baptism, husband and wife became one with Christ when they were incorporated into the Church. In the Sacrament of Matrimony this unity with Christ is assumed more deeply into his love of the Church and becomes a sign of it. Furthermore, as the Catechism teaches, the Holy Spirit is poured out into the hearts of the spouses as their source of unity when it states: “[T]he spouses receive the Holy Spirit as the communion of love of Christ and the Church. The Holy Spirit is the seal of their covenant, the ever available source of their love and the strength to renew their fidelity.”[v]
Hence, the spouses’ baptismal immersion into Christ-Church, their further insertion in matrimony into the mystery of Christ’s lover for the Church, and the pouring out of the gift of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament, all accomplish and deepen a real unity of husband and wife. In short, the two truly become one. This unity is crowned, as it were, by Eucharistic Communion in the celebration of Matrimony within a Mass. The “Introduction” to The Order of Celebrating Matrimony expresses this unity of spouses with Christ through Communion when it states that in the: “Eucharistic Communion of both spouses… their charity is nurtured and they are raised up to communion with the Lord and with their neighbor.”[vi]
In summary then, in outlining a eucharistic spirituality for the family, we see that unity is the fruit, and task, of this spirituality: unity with Christ and the Church and unity in the family. As mentioned, spouses certainly receive this profound gift of unity in the sacramental celebration of Matrimony and this is renewed in each reception of holy Communion. This unity is, however, at the same time a task. There is much in contemporary western existence that mitigates against the unity of husband and wife and the family. In fact, it would almost seem that spouses must consciously pursue, work at, and invest in their spousal unity. I do not think that it would be inappropriate for Christian spouses to make as part of their regular (and hopefully frequent) examination of conscience an honest reflection on their commitment to unity with their husband or wife. Finally, unity can be pursued primarily, although not exclusively, through intentional communication, common activities, family meals, and prayer. The goal or mission of spousal holiness is to consciously reflect upon and return to the source their love and unity, the Holy Spirit, who is the bond and love of the Most Holy Trinity and the communion of the Church.
Love and Sacrifice
The second element of a spirituality for the family that we find in de Lubac’s writings is the theme of sacrifice. De Lubac considered sacrifice as central to unity, referring to suffering as the “very crucible wherein unity is forged.”[vii] Again, we are exploring the ramifications for the family of de Lubac’s great contribution to theology that the Eucharist makes the Church. As the Eucharist is itself a sacrifice (it is the sacrament of Christ’s passion and a memorial of his death), then it is sacrifice that is at the foundation of the Church. Thus, in applying this to the family, we can also say that sacrifice is at the heart of the family, the domestic Church.
In speaking of sacrifice in the family, we are not referring to a dour-faced stoicism. The sacrifice that makes the Church, and therefore the domestic Church, is Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Christ’s prayerful self-surrender into the hands of his Father is made present at every Mass. Furthermore, the Son’s sacrifice of thanksgiving (in Greek, his eucharistia) is the very meaning of the content of the Eucharistic Prayer, the prayer prayed by the priest at Mass that begins with the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy…”) and ends with the Doxology (“Through him, and with him, and in him…”). It is primarily in the Eucharistic Prayer that the Church joins in the Son’s thanksgiving to the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. As such, the sacrifice is one of prayerful thanksgiving and the self-surrender of love. It is love then that is at the foundation of the Church.
This eucharistic view of the family places self-sacrificial love at the heart of the domestic Church. Anyone who belongs to a family can testify that among the many joys of marriage and family life are to be found trials. In fact, when man and woman become husband and wife, the vow to love and honor each other through all of life’s blessings and challenges contains the very logic of self-sacrifice. It is these sacrifices, concrete expressions of authentic married love, which we unite to Christ’s sacrifice made present at each Mass.
The goal here is to unite our daily sacrifices (of which there are no doubt many) to Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross, through actively and consciously participating in the Mass. If we do this, we make the Eucharist the center of our marriage and family life. Through the grace of God, we will also make sacrifice the solid foundation of our homes. The sacrifice that unites the Church (and the domestic Church) is not the sacrifice of destruction. In City of God, St. Augustine describes sacrifice as “every work which allows us to unite ourselves to God in a holy fellowship.” It is the liturgy, the work of Christ in which the faithful participate, that unites the Church to God in holy fellowship. The liturgy makes present Calvary, and therefore it is the sacrifice of the Cross that is the path of love and union drawing spouses and their families to God. Through sharing in Christ’s death on Calvary we are assimilated into that purifying love of charity, and it is this love made present in the Eucharist that ultimately becomes the heart of the family, the domestic Church.
As I mentioned in my introduction, this solution—the holiness of the domestic church—is certainly a challenge. In fact, of all the many difficult undertakings that I have personally embarked on, pursuing holiness as a husband-father has been the hardest. It has also been the best and most rewarding.
At the same, it is the simplest because the outcome, the grace of holiness itself, rests in God’s merciful hands. And God will not be found wanting in response to our efforts. We must, therefore, entrust and seek through the Eucharist our unity as spouses and offer our daily self-sacrifices of love. The unity and love of holy Christian families is itself the eloquent witness that will answer the questions that the world has today about marriage and the family. These questions ultimately lead us to the true meaning of love, and therefore to the reality of the God who is love and who has been revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is to Christ and his union with his Father in the Spirit, and his unity with the Church, that the love and unity of the Christian family bears witness. Indeed, may husbands and wives and their families, truly be one as the Father and the Son are one so that through them the world may believe.
Dr. Owen Vyner, S.T.L., Ph.D is a lecturer in Liturgical and Sacramental Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia.
[i] Henri de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 88.
[ii] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Second Edition) (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997) (CCC), no. 1396: “The unity of the Mystical Body: the Eucharist makes the Church.”
[iii] John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia: Encyclical Letter on the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church (Washington D.C.: USCCB Publishing, 2003), no. 26: “If, as I have said, the Eucharist builds the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist…”
[iv] On the Trinity
[v] CCC, no. 1624.
[vi] The Order of Celebrating Matrimony (Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls Publications, 2015), no. 35.