Celebrating a Special Day of Prayer for Families
by M. Jean Frisk, STL
You've dreamt of having an ideal family, like St. Thérèse of Lisieux's family, where the children loved to go to church together, prayed peacefully together at home, and from where early on they learned to be charitable toward each other and those in their town. Thérèse wrote in her autobiography that she learned to pray by watching her father.
I could tell you much about our winter evenings at home. After a game of draughts my sisters read aloud Dom Guéranger's Liturgical Year, and then a few pages of some other interesting and instructive book. While this was going on I established myself on Papa's knee, and when the reading was done he used to sing soothing snatches of melody in his beautiful voice, as if to lull me to sleep, and I would lay my head on his breast while he rocked me gently to and fro. Later on we went upstairs for night prayers, and there again my place was beside my beloved Father, and I had only to look at him to know how the Saints pray.(Story of a Soul)
Dream on! Let's be realistic, you say. This will never work in our family. I've tried and failed miserably. Just when I'm finally able to concentrate on the elevation of the Eucharist, my two-year-old trips on the kneeler and lets out a screech. My four-year-old insists she can't hold it together anymore. My teens are slouched and moody. A special day of prayer for my family? We can hardly make it peacefully through one Holy Mass!
Our Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) instructs us in numerous ways, believing indeed, "The Christian family is the first place of education in prayer. Based on the sacrament of marriage, the family is the "domestic church" where God's children learn to pray "as the Church" and to persevere in prayer. For young children in particular, daily family prayer is the first witness of the Church's living memory as awakened patiently by the Holy Spirit. (CCC, no. 2685)
Where to Start? Let's give it a try.
Long-term: Courageously do your best to set the foundation for family prayer prior to marriage. If you are young and engaged (or long to be), start to study what the Church teaches about family, foremost in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. Test your relationship with one another by sharing dreams of how to celebrate Sundays and holidays, worship together, or go on a simple pilgrimage to a local destination. Sharing these hopes and dreams before marriage through honest and open conversation is a good way for family prayer to become a reality afterwards.
If you are married and struggling to put these dreams in place with a spouse who doesn't speak about faith, or you have children who can already think for themselves, go slowly and patiently. Having family prayer experiences that are not otherwise born of tragedy or trouble need to be thoughtfully planned to—hopefully—become unforgettable times of joy. Yes, JOY is the key to successful times of prayer in the ordinary times of life.
In 1946, after having spent three and a half years imprisoned and in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, Fr. Joseph Kentenich, founder of the Schoenstatt Movement, gave various talks on how to master life in community and in family life. To the heads of households, he said, "Our leaders have to see to it that their small realm becomes a realm of joy. Certainly, you may take care time and again for a healthy diet, for the physical needs. This is good and has to be done, but all this does not create refreshing joy as such. Joy will only become refreshing when we try to be interiorly very close to God" (Unpublished manuscript, November 28, 1946). And during a retreat for priests, he urged, "Whenever I have the opportunity to give some joy through my being, to spread a little sunshine through my words, through my life, I should quickly make use of it . . . Joy is the magic key that opens the hearts of people; it is the divining rod that can discover the secret sources of strength in others and bring them to life" (Talk during the retreat, The Priestly Joy of Life, unpublished translation of Vollkommene Lebensfreude, [a retreat course for priests, Oct. 7-13, 1934] Schoenstatt-Vallendar: Patris Verlag, p. 114 & p. 147).
Whether alone, in a family, or in a parish setting, the atmosphere you create, the setting you establish, the beauty that surrounds you, will support prayer. As expressed in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, "The lifelong religious education of Catholics at every level should always include training in how to pray as well as having time set aside for communal prayer. . . . Places for prayer include the parish church, retreat centers, shrines, the home, and any situation in which people can achieve sufficient concentration of mind and heart." (p. 472)
The first catechism published for Americans as such was produced in 1793 by the first United States bishop, John Carroll (1735-1815). Along with the expected teachings on the articles of faith, there are sections that instruct the Catholic in practical ways. Here is an extract of how he teaches about prayer:
A Daily Exercise for Christians (excerpts)
In the Morning
When you are dressed, you must kneel down and say the following prayers. "O my God, I adore and love thee with all my heart . . . O my God, as I aim at nothing but to please, love, and serve thee, grant I beseech thee, that whatever I do this day may be accepted to thee, and vouchsafe to direct all my actions to thy honor and glory. O holy Virgin, I put myself entirely under thy protection. O my good Angel, be thou also my protector, and pray to God, to grant that I may do his holy will in all things." Then you must say the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Apostle's Creed.
You must kneel down and say the following prayer. [A list and suggestions are given.]
As we see from his catechetical instruction above, Carroll tells us that personal prayer depends on personal ritual: get up, get dressed, pray. Prayer ought to be as natural to a person's daily rhythm as brushing teeth both in the morning and at night (and perhaps in-between). Memorized prayers are the simplest and easiest way to get into a rhythm that will not easily be overlooked or forgotten: First things first upon the gift of a new day, and the very last thing of a day surrendered.
Praying as a Family at Home
Being, as we are, dependent on our five senses, prayer in a home can be aided by sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. If our place of rest is where we begin and end with prayer, we should be sure to have an image, a cross, something to see like the gentle glow of an LED vigil light on a sacred object or to touch a rosary to touch, something of the senses to remind us and awaken the human spirit to prayer. [Please do not omit the rosary!]
Let every family home present the Cross and the picture of Mary as a sign of faith, hope, and love.
Create a home shrine in a place other than a bedroom that is set aside, a focal point, where the whole family can gather. What does the family do in a home shrine? Little ones could color a picture of the Holy Family and tack it up there. Your teenage daughter could place her prom corsage in a vase under Mary's picture. Your son could display his trophy on the mantle ledge. Make it lovely and keep it dusted. When the children are little, a good tip is to avoid breakables.
Designate one evening a week as family night. Keep the same schedule, start on time and begin with a surprise; for example, include a treasure hunt with a reward that draws the children around the dinner table. Begin with a blessing prayer and end with a thank you prayer. Leave the table together and gather in the home shrine. The parents can begin by listing intentions for which the family will pray. Children join in with a petition, then a decade of the Rosary, the guardian angel prayer, a prayer of sorrow for mistakes made, a prayer for the next day, etc. Pick a resolution for the next day from a little pack of cards. Do the chores only after this family devotion, with everyone knowing the role they are to play in helping to serve and clean up. Happy is the family that can continue after chores with games, a craft, a story, or a well-selected film that encourages Christian family values.
A whole day? Go on a family outing that includes a visit to a shrine or a special place of prayerful encounter. Be prepared. Know the story and what the place offers (a tour, a bookstore, a café, picnic tables?). Have children (6-11) gather "memories" for a scrapbook. Be sure that the travel time is suited to the endurance of children and occupied with meaningful activity. Make a joyful noise by singing religious songs. When planning a pilgrimage of this type, involve the pre-teens and teens in the planning, be it the music, games for the car, food for a picnic, or Internet research to see what sites are on the way.
Three good resources for families
- David Clayton & Leila Marie Lawler. The Little Oratory: A Beginner's Guide to Praying in the Home. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2014.
- Fr. William Brell, trans The Home Shrine. Waukesha, WI: Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, (with readings from Fr. Joseph Kentenich, founder of the Schoenstatt Movement).
- Fr. Jonathan Niehaus. The Birth of the Home Shrine. Waukesha, WI: Schoenstatt Fathers, 1994.
Praying as an Intergenerational Group at a Parish Site (two suggestions)
- See the webinar on Praying in Communion with Mary (www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/catechesis/leadership-institute/leadership-institute-webinars-spiritual-life.cfm). In the file sharing box, there are two parish programs useful for teaching children (pre-school-junior high) the history and meaning of the Hail Mary. The materials include small PowerPoint presentations on various related topics. The programs are planned for 1½-2 hour time periods.
- Sundays focusing on Parish Diversity: Father Carlos José Rojas, Cultural Marian Celebrations at Saint Joseph Catholic Church, West Tampa, (Dayton, Ohio: An unpublished paper, 2015). Ask for a digital copy: email@example.com.]
There is an old saying: you learn to walk by walking; you learn to love by loving; you learn to pray by praying. To speak about prayer is not the same as actually praying. As noted in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults
, prayer is work.
Prayer requires time, attention, and effort. We need to discipline ourselves for what spiritual writers call "spiritual combat." They cite problems such as acedia (a form of sloth or laziness) that arises from a lax ascetical behavior, a laxity that needs to be corrected. The Tempter will try to pull us away from prayer. Distraction and dryness will discourage us. The remedy is faith, fidelity to times for prayer, constant conversion of heart, and watchfulness (p. 476).
It is vital to continue the combat. If the family outing is a disaster or the parish program flops, find the humor in it, get up, and try again. Remember that the secret key is JOY. Figure out how to do these programs with the help of the Holy Spirit's divine JOY. Will there ever be perfect joy? Will there ever be heaven on earth? With God all things are possible! (See Lk 37)
For a wonderful study about joy and what to do about it, read the Apostolic Exhortation by Pope Paul VI "Gaudete in Domino (On Christian Joy)."
2016, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights
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Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from "The Carroll Catechism" by John Carroll, copyright © 1793, James Doyle, Georgetown. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, copyright © 2006, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.