Catechetical Sunday 2017 Theme: Living as Missionary Disciples

Catechesis and the Church's Commitment to the Family in Our Day

Timothy P. O'Malley

In Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis addresses challenges to the family in late modern society. He notes:

The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with one another despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children. Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. But the indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple (EG §66).

In this sense, one of the essential missionary tasks for catechesis in the 21st century in the United States is ministry for the renewal of marriage and family life. This renewal is not merely the Church providing outreach for the family but the formation of the domestic church for its unique charism in the New Evangelization.

The Sacramental Structure of Marriage

The 1997 General Directory for Catechesis describes the liturgical task of catechesis not simply as an education into the meaning of the rites, but a formation into a liturgical form of life (GDC §85). Catechesis for marriage, in particular, requires this deeper education into the sacramental structure of marriage.

As John Paul II notes in Familiaris Consortio, the institution of marriage has been established by God as a way for men and women, created in the image of God, to form a  communion of love that is a reflection of the communion of love is the life of the Trinity:

God is love and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion. Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love includes the human body, and the body is made a sharer in spiritual love (FC §11).

The marital communion is so integral to the human person that it is taken up in the Old Testament as a privileged way of understanding God's own solicitous love of Israel and in the New Testament as a symbol of the mystery of the Church. In the Gospel of John, blood and water come forth from the side of Christ upon the cross just as Eve came forth from the side of Adam in the book of Genesis. This blood and water, representing baptism and the Eucharist, signifies that the Church is a nuptial mystery in which men and women are elevated to sharing in the divine life through a relationship with the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

This bridal imagery is taken up by St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. In a passage that has often generated controversy for the modern listener, Paul writes:

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior for the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handled himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. So [also] husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself (Eph. 5:21-28).

Here, the revolutionary nature of the passage is its focus upon the mutual subordination of the couple to Christ. The love of the couple is now taken up into another mystery, the love of Christ directed to the Church. Subordination is not a matter of allowing oneself to become an object of the husband or wife's control. Rather, it is a form of nuptial love taken up into the mystery of Christ's love for the Church. As St. John Chrysostom writes, the love shared between husband and wife must be conformed to Christ's own love: "Though she was [a sinner], Christ accepted her and made her beautiful. He washed her, and did not hesitate even to sacrifice Himself for her."1

The sacrament of marriage builds upon the natural human communion between man and woman so that their marital communion of love is transformed and elevated, becoming "the living and real image of that unique unity which makes of the Church the indivisible Mystical Body of the Lord Jesus" (FC §19). The couple becomes a sign of Christ's love for the Church. In the Rite of Matrimony, the couple exchanges consent (what we might normally refer to as the vows). In the Latin Rite, these vows effect the sacrament of marriage itself. And what is effected? In one of the Eucharistic Prefaces for the sacrament of marriage, we hear:

For in him you have made a new covenant with your people,
so that, as you have redeemed man and woman
by the mystery of Christ's Death and Resurrection,
so in Christ you might make them partakers of divine nature
and joint heirs with him of heavenly glory.
In the union of husband and wife
you give a sign of Christ's loving gift of grace,
so that the Sacrament we celebrate
might draw us back more deeply
into the wondrous design of your love.

The couple is not married in the sacrament as an expression of their own private love. Instead, the sacrament of marriage manifests to the Church and to the world Christ's nuptial love. In every dimension of the couple's life, particularly their life as a family, they serve now as signs of the sacramental life of the Church itself. The family, out of the couple's consent, takes on a charisma of Eucharistic love in the world.

Thus, the family is a domestic Church precisely because it is a living and efficacious sign in the world of Christ's nuptial love for all humanity. The family becomes an image of the Trinity in the world, where divine, loving communion is offered as a real possibility even in the mundaneness of the domestic sphere. John Paul II again notes in Familiaris Consortio:

The Christian family…is called to experience a new and original communion which confirms and perfects natural and human communion…The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason too it can and should be called 'the domestic Church'" (FC §21).

The domestic Church, then, is not a rival ecclesial communion to the parish or the diocese. It is the concrete manifestation of Christ's loving communion given through the Spirit in the domestic sphere itself. The couple's consent, a gift offered to one another, now bears fruit through the gift of children, who also participate in the sacramentality of marriage through their parents.

Implications of the Sacramental Structure of Marriage for Evangelization in the United States

This sacramental structure of marriage is essential if one is to develop an approach to the New Evangelization through the family in the United States. Three aspects of this approach include: forming families in a broader sense of fruitfulness, fostering the Eucharistic vocation of the family through domestic practices of prayer, and developing an approach to marriage formation and family catechesis based on apprenticeship.

1. A Broader Sense of Fruitfulness

In an American context, the Catholic approach to family life (one that involves an openness to human life) is not always respected. The use of contraception among Americans is ubiquitous, and it is often difficult to convince couples of the perils of this contraceptive mentality. In this sense, the Church will need to address issues of procreation out of this sacramental sense of the marriage bond itself. As John Grabowski notes, the danger of contraception is that it forecloses the possibility of even offering our fertility as a gift to God and to one another:

To choose to eliminate or suppress one's fertility negates part of the meaning of the gift...This is because fertility is not merely viewed as a biological aspect of the person that can be altered at his or her discretion, but like sexuality itself it is an existential reality (i.e., rooted in the order of existence) and pertains to the person as a whole.2

Fertility is not a marginal dimension of what it means to be a human being, particularly for women who experience the biological reality of this fertility more directly than men. Formation for Natural Family Planning, in the context of marriage, is not an education into a Catholic form of contraception, as it is frequently presented even by well-intentioned catechists. Natural Family Planning is a way of offering every dimension of our sexuality, including our fertility, to one another in Eucharistic love.

As Pope Francis remarks in Amoris Laetitia, however, fruitfulness is not reducible to the biological level. After remarking upon infertile couples' ability to express marital fruitfulness through adoption and foster care, he writes:

We also do well to remember that procreation and adoption are not the only ways of experiencing the fruitfulness of love. Even large families are called to make their mark on society, finding other expressions of fruitfulness that in some way prolong the love that sustains them. Christian families should never forget that 'faith does not remove us from the world, but draws us more deeply into it…Each of us, in fact, has a special role in preparing for the coming of God's kingdom in the world.'

Catechesis for marriage and family life thus cannot be satisfied with teaching responsible use of human sexuality and communication skills. The telos (aim) of marriage formation and family catechesis is forming families to perceive their missionary vocation to renew society. Family life, just as every dimension of American life, can be treated as a form of individualism in which the family lives alone, cares for its own, and rarely engages with society in any significant way. Families are to bring the nuptial love at the heart of their lives into the world. Missionary discipleship for families is not optional if the Church is to carry out the New Evangelization.

2. The Eucharistic Vocation of the Family and Domestic Prayer

In the family, there are many occasions for both celebration and for tragedy. A child is born, bringing parents, siblings, and grandparents into a deeper sense of the gratitude of life. At the same time, we experience the death of those whom we love the most in the context of the family. Husbands and wives discover the ecstasy, the mundaneness, and sometimes the difficulty of nuptial love. Children grow up in families where they experience poverty, divorce, and all dimensions of brokenness, even in families where a sense of the sacramental life of marriage is front and center. In this way, the family is an extension of the rest of human life, where we encounter both joy and sorrow on a regular basis.

The vocation of the family, however, is to transform every element of their lives together into a Eucharistic offering to God. Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia notes:

The family's communal journey of prayer culminates by sharing together in the Eucharist, especially in the context of the Sunday rest. Jesus knocks on the door of families, to share with them the Eucharistic supper…There, spouses can always seal anew the paschal covenant which united them and which ought to reflect the covenant which God sealed with mankind in the cross. The Eucharist is the sacrament of the new covenant, where Christ's redemptive work is carried out…The close bond between married life and the Eucharist thus becomes all the more clear. For the food of the Eucharist offers the spouses the strength and incentive needed to live the marriage covenant each day as a 'domestic church' (AL §318).

In the couple's vows, they offered their bodies, their very lives to one another. This nuptial charism now infuses the life of the whole family, which seeks to participate in Christ's self-giving love. Yet, no human being can carry out this act of love upon their own. In the Mass, we receive the infinite love of Christ's Paschal Mystery, his passage from death to new life, so that we can become this infinite love for the world. Eucharistic catechesis for families is thus very important, because the entire life of the family, its joys and sorrows, is a participation in this Eucharistic mystery of self-giving love.

At the same time, this Eucharistic love is not reserved to the Mass. The mystery of salvation revealed in Christ is remembered in the family in a particular way through prayer in the domestic Church. This prayer can take a variety of forms: adaptations of night prayer, recitations of the Rosary, examinations of conscience, kissing an icon, fasting together on Fridays, and praying before meals. The essential quality of this prayer, however, is that it immerses the family many times throughout the day, weeks, and year of family life in the Christian kerygma or proclamation. Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, notes that this kerygma:

…has to express God's saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance…All this demands on the part of the evangelizer certain attitudes which foster openness to the message: approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental (EG §164).

Through family prayer, the domestic church keeps alive the memory of Christ's love for the world, serving as an agent against secularization. But, it also implies a new way of understanding the parents' role as the first catechists. The parent's vocation as catechist does not mean the mother and father need to teach religious education to a child through a textbook. The parent is the first catechist because the mystery of salvation echoes in the household through the daily practice of prayer. Like begets like, and love of God is begotten by love of God.

3. Apprenticeship for Marriage and Family Formation

If one of the goals of marriage and family catechesis is to transform the family into both a site and agent of evangelization in the world, then present models of catechesis based in a scholastic setting are inadequate. It is not enough to offer special courses in the parish for families. It is inadequate to rely upon an approach to marriage formation that takes place over a weekend and a single meeting with the priest. Catechesis for marriage and family life requires apprenticeship. Pope Francis describes this apprenticeship as a pastoral strategy of accompaniment:

The Church will have to initiate everyone—priests, religious, and laity—into this 'art of accompaniment' which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex. 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life (EG §169).

If the Church is serious about catechesis for marriage and family life in the present context, catechetical institutes will need to be set up in every diocese where lay families are formed in this art of accompaniment, for example. Marriage formation will need to reform the imagination of the couple about the nature of the sacrament itself. Families will need to be taught to pray. But, this formation needs to take place in the context of spiritual friendship where mentor couples and families make possible the living out the sacramental dimensions of Christ's Eucharistic love in the world.


In conclusion, marriage and family catechesis is integral to the task of the New Evangelization. The sacramental nature of marriage can serve as an antidote in late modern society to the sometimes saccharine understanding of romance that makes marriage, and thus family life, difficult for so many couples. At the same time, approaches to formation that are missionary, Eucharistic, and dealing with accompaniment or apprenticeship will not only educate families in missionary discipleship, but also serve as a renewal of catechesis, and thus the work of evangelization, as a whole. 

1 John Chrysostom, Homily 20 on Ephesians in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catherine P. Roth and David Anderson (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1986), 48.

2 John Grabowski, Sex and Virtue: An Introduction to Sexual Ethics (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 131.

Timothy O'Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy. He is the author of Liturgy and the New Evangelization: Practicing the Art of Self-Giving Love (Liturgical Press, 2014). He is presently working on a monograph entitled On Praise: Worship and the Eschatological Imagination. This book is a work of historical liturgical theology, unfolding the eschatological dimensions of Christian worship in Augustine, John Henry Newman, Joseph Ratzinger, Jean-Yves LaCoste, and others.  

He has been published in America Magazine, Liturgical Ministry, Studia Liturgica, Assembly:  A Journal in Liturgical Theology, and Liguorian Magazine.  He is the founding editor of the McGrath Institute for Church Life's journal: Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization, as well as the NDCL's blog, Oblation. Recently, he wrote and recorded a mystagogical video for high school students on the Eucharist, entitled The Eucharist as Sacrament of Love, a project supported through the Alliance for Catholic Education.     

Dr. O'Malley is a popular speaker both on campus and at a national level on topics ranging from liturgy, culture, vocation, evangelization, and catechetics.  He also serves as an Associate Professional Specialist in the Department of Theology, where he teaches courses on preaching, catechesis, liturgical theology, and the Scriptures.