In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1964, the family is called the “domestic church”. Pope John Paul II continued this verbiage in both his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio and his 1994 Letter to Families. Pope Francis, in his recently published apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, describes families as domestic churches eleven different times.
Domestic Church a “Community of Love”
So what does a “domestic church” look like? Modeled after the Holy Family, the ideal domestic church is often viewed as a school of love encompassing a father, a mother, and children. Some families are closer to this ideal than others; but regardless of where one’s family falls on the spectrum of holiness, there comes a time when the domestic church downsizes, and parents wave goodbye to children leaving the nest.
Is there still a domestic church when no children live at home? Both Popes Francis and St. John Paul II offer a resounding, “Yes!” In Familiaris Consortio St. John Paul II describes the family as “the first and fundamental school of social living: as a community of love…” (Op. cit., § 37). He goes on to state that the relationships of this community include not only the relationship between husband and wife or between parents and children, but also the relationships that span all the generations of a family.
In Amoris Laetitia, Francis speaks of the valuable role that grandparents play in the faith formation of families:
The elderly help us to appreciate “the continuity of the generations”, by their “charism of bridging the gap.” Very often it is grandparents who ensure that the most important values are passed down to their grandchildren. (Op. cit., § 192)
The Side Chapel
But do not expect your post-children domestic church to look and feel like it did when all the chicks were in the nest.
If you look at the grand churches of Europe or some of the larger basilicas in the United States you will see that there is a primary worship space that is surrounded by beautiful smaller chapels. You can go from chapel to chapel and nourish your soul a little differently in each one.
The empty nest domestic church is like one of these side chapels. Your home is no longer the center of family catechesis. That distinction has moved to the homes of your children. However, your home can still be an important source of spiritual nourishment and you still have a role to play in faith formation. The challenge is figuring out how to fulfill that role.
If you want to be a welcomed influence on the lives of your adult children and on the lives of their children, you must understand that you are no longer setting the boundaries. Your adult children decide if, when, and in what capacity you will be included in their lives. You no longer command. You ask. You no longer assign chores or dictate schedules. You invite. Failure to respect the boundaries usually prompts your children to include you less and less.
A Grandparenting Strategy
We did not use the same parenting strategy when our children were fifteen as we did when they were five. There is no reason to expect our parenting style to be unchanged when they are twenty-five. This does not mean we are unable to nurture holiness in our adult children. It just means that, while in some ways they will always be our babies, we have to learn to respect their autonomy as adults.
We look in the mirror and see the gray hairs acquired after years and years of experiences. It seems inconceivable that our children do not want to take advantage of our vast wisdom. Yet our words of advice are not nearly as powerful as the examples of our lives. If you want to continue to catechize your adult children, let them see the joy faith brings to your life. Let them see you pray. Let them see you live out your faith in every aspect of your life. Our adult children are still watching and learning from us.
It is a blessing to have your spouse alive and present with you during these empty-nest years, because it presents a unique opportunity to live as witnesses to the vocation of marriage. Your domestic church did not begin with the birth of your first child. It began when you exchanged your wedding vows and pledged to join your lives in the service of God. The post-children domestic church continues to be a dynamic center of evolving holiness, as spouses are still called to lead each other towards Heaven.
Demonstrate to your adult children that this shared journey towards Heaven need not be a somber pilgrimage. Cherish every day with your spouse and take joy in each other’s company. Having kids tends to condition us to delayed gratification. But we can also get so used to thinking that some day we will do something that we fail to recognize when that some day is today.
Life can change in the blink of an eye at any age. But the fact is, the older we get the greater the chances that some life-altering illness or accident will strike. We are joined in Holy Matrimony until death do us part, and that parting will come to each of our marriages. Do not let a day go by without declaring and demonstrating your love for each other. Tomorrow may be too late.
An Intergenerational Network
If our own parents are still alive, our children are watching us and learning how to deal with the challenges of caring for and loving the elderly. Looking once again at Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis says,
A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future. (Op. cit., § 193)
Cultural support for assisted suicide and euthanasia is growing, especially when it is applied to the elderly. Our families can serve as a counter to this deadly trend by becoming schools of love that embrace all of our family members from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. No degree of age or infirmity ever renders the elderly in our families as disposable. The way we care for our parents teaches our children how to care for us.
Whether our children include us as a daily confidant or rarely speak to us, we are their parents and we will always love them. We cannot control their choices but we can always pray for them. Look to St. Monica as the epitome of parental patience and prayer. She never gave up on her wayward son, Augustine, and trusted that God would eventually answer her prayers. It took years, but her son did eventually repent and became both a great saint and one of the most influential Doctors of the Church.
While our domestic church may downsize when the children leave home, its value as a source of holiness does not diminish. This is because our domestic church does not exist in isolation. It is part of an intergenerational network of families. Our place in this network evolves as we transition from newlyweds, to new parents, to experienced parents to grandparents. From the oldest to the youngest member of our family we help each other learn the virtues of charity, patience, and generosity. We learn to pray. And perhaps most importantly, we learn the joy of love.