Building a domestic church

The Mack family's home with a statue of St. Francis of Assisi outside. Photo: Stephen Brashear The Mack family's home with a statue of St. Francis of Assisi outside. Photo: Stephen Brashear

‘Family, become what you are,’ said John Paul II. How one family is answering the call

Even before entering Keith and Heather Mack’s Oak Harbor home, you know you’re walking into a sacred space. Maybe you didn’t notice the statues of St. Francis and the Virgin Mary in the yard, but you can’t miss the large and ornate crucifix through the front-door window.

Inside, nearly every surface is covered with Catholic imagery — a Holy Family icon in the staircase, a smorgasbord of saints over the desk, Pope Francis on the fridge — intermingled with family photos and paintings of flowers, birds and monsters by their six kids, ages 3 to 14.

The mix of images is an apt illustration of the Macks’ effort to weave their faith into the fabric of their day-to-day family life — to truly be a domestic church.

But don’t let that phrase give you the wrong idea, Heather warned in an email: “If you are looking for a perfectly holy, quiet, and well-behaved bunch, we might not be your crew. We do messy, loud, crazy, fun, and love really well (with the appropriate amount of sibling arguments and messes strewn about). And we do love our Catholic faith.”

What is a domestic church?

The idea of the family as a domestic church goes back to the church fathers, said Sarah Bartel, who wrote about the domestic church for her doctoral dissertation at The Catholic University of America (and continues to write about it in Northwest Catholic). But after St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, there were about 1,500 years of “radio silence” on the subject in the Latin Church, she said.

The concept reemerged at the Second Vatican Council and was developed by Pope John Paul II in his 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio. Last year, Pope Francis used the phrase 10 times in his own apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia.

The domestic church would seem to be an idea whose time has come. But what does it mean to call the family a domestic church?

Mack FamilyKeith and Heather Mack with their children, Brigid, Maureen, Joseph, Patrick, Sean and Cecilia. Photo: Stephen Brashear

“It means,” Bartel said, “that the family is the smallest instance of church, the smallest iteration — that the Christian family, through baptism and the sacrament of marriage, is connected with the great church and exhibits all the characteristics of that church.”

Like the larger church, she explained, the domestic church is called to participate in Jesus’ prophetic, priestly and kingly mission. And so, according to John Paul II, the Christian family must be “1) a believing and evangelizing community, 2) a community in dialogue with God, and 3) a community at the service of man.”

‘Believing and evangelizing’

“The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That’s a responsibility Keith and Heather Mack take seriously.

“I think being the first teachers and really leading the family to God is what being the domestic church is all about,” Keith said.

Their parish, St. Mary in Anacortes, offers wonderful religious education, Heather said, “but I know that 45 minutes to an hour a week is not enough — it has to be a day-in-and-day-out thing.”

So, for instance, she talks with her kids about the saints of the day and what they’re known for, “asking if we either relate to their story or just have a ‘that’s crazy!’ response.”

Even a pizza dinner can become a teaching moment, as its genesis is traced back — through the store and the farm and the sun and the cosmos — to God.

Their home’s icon-heavy décor is also about evangelizing the kids, Heather said. “Just making sure that wherever we look we have something to remind us and bring our hearts toward heaven,” she said. “My words may or may not be falling on ears that are listening, but when they have their eyes constantly reminded of this great higher purpose in life, that’s part of it.”

Ultimately, Heather said, “I want them to know Christ.”

‘In dialogue with God’

The domestic church is also “the first place of education in prayer,” to quote the catechism.

As Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia, “A few minutes can be found each day to come together before the living God, to tell him our worries, to ask for the needs of our family, to pray for someone experiencing difficulty, to ask for help in showing love, to give thanks for life and for its blessings, and to ask Our Lady to protect us beneath her maternal mantle.”

At the Mack house, in addition to grace before and after meals, “we always call in prayer time” before bed, Heather said. “Where it happens in the house totally changes. Sometimes the kids will call out, ‘We want it in the office!’ ‘We want it in So-and-so’s room!’ ‘We want it on your bed!’ So we all pile in someplace together.”

They offer rote prayers (Our Father, Hail Mary, etc.), petitions, “thank yous” and intercessions for school friends and various religious orders.

They even pray in the car, Heather said. “We’re in the middle of nowhere — it takes us 20 minutes to get anywhere, which is a perfect amount of time to pray a rosary.”

The Macks at prayer.
The Macks at prayer. Photo: Stephen Brashear

‘At the service of man’

Within the domestic church, Bartel said, “the kingly office is about servant-leadership.” That could include helping your sibling with her chores, or inviting others into your home and “giving them that gift of participating in the warmth of your family’s life.”

Outside the home, the Macks have been heavily involved with their parish’s annual Faith on Fire Catholic Family Conference and with 4US, a nonprofit that raises money to buy ultrasound machines for pregnancy resource centers.

“I think it’s really important for the children to see that we spend that time, and that it’s a priority for us,” Keith said, “but that they get involved too.”

The Macks’ lives weren’t always so faith-infused. But when Heather was pregnant with their first daughter, she realized, “OK, we can’t take this lackadaisically. It’s no longer good enough to just be that Sunday-only Catholic.”

They didn’t revolutionize their lives overnight, she said, but through “little steps along the way” — a Bible study, a book recommendation, an invitation to eucharistic adoration — they’ve been guided “to a place where now we can look back and say, ‘I’m so grateful.’”

“We’re just kind of figuring it out as we go,” Keith said.

But, Heather added, “When we do integrate our faith into every aspect and we do really consciously become that domestic church within our homes, everything falls into place. …

“There’s a joy that cuts to the core when we follow the life — this radical life.”

Tools for building a domestic church

How can you build your own domestic church? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offers these suggestions:

Begin praying as a family and reading from Scripture daily, first thing in the morning or before bed.

Pray a family rosary — each member leads a decade, and everyone shares intentions.

Have a crucifix in a prominent place in the home, and in every bedroom.

Make the sacraments a regular celebration — take the whole family to confession and Mass.

Begin family traditions based on the seasons celebrated in the liturgical calendar.

Make your vacation a holy pilgrimage by visiting shrines and other holy sites.

Make worshiping God a priority. Never miss Mass, even while traveling.

Teach stewardship and charity to your children, through word and example.

Demonstrate love for your spouse, your children, your neighbors and the world.

Talk freely about the presence of God in the joys and sorrows of your life.

Welcome into your home and support priests, brothers, sisters, deacons and lay ministers.

Participate in the lay ministries and activities of your parish community.

Allow your children to witness you in private prayer, and encourage them to pray daily on their own.

Source: Adapted from

Northwest Catholic - March 2017

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at