Islands of Christian Life


 “Are our homes places where children learn how to live the Christian life?”


In the religious education world these days, we are hearing a lot about the “domestic church” and parents as primary catechists of their children. Perhaps that might scare parents a bit. What if I’m not a teacher? Does it mean I have to have all the answers? Do I need to know everything there is to know about the Catholic faith? Should our home look like a perfect Catholic homeschool Instagram, with crafts for each feast day and liturgical season?

Let’s go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to see what we are talking about here. The Catechism says that the home is “the first school of Christian life.” Before we get nervous about that word “school” and conjure up pictures of desks and lesson plans, I want to focus on the what. Christian life.

Are our homes places where children learn how to live the Christian life? Are we living the Faith?

How is our family a domestic church? By living the Faith.

This isn’t some kind of cop-out. “Oh, you don’t need to know the answers! Just live the Faith!” (I’ve written before about my dislike of the misquoting of St. Francis: Preach the Gospel always; when necessary, use words. We too often use that as an excuse to not actually preach the Gospel with words, which is our baptismal obligation.)

You will need to know the answers- or know where to find the answers when asked. St. Peter reminds us, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Pt 3:15). We need to be ready to speak about the Faith, to have answers to the questions our children are asking. And they should be asking! They should see “your hope,” and wonder why their family is living differently. We should live differently than other families. We should act differently than our neighbors.

Your children should see you praying. They should see you struggling to make decisions and discern God’s will. They should see you performing works of charity for neighbors.

So this “first school of Christian life” does not necessarily look like the perfect Instagram Catholic family with crafts for the liturgical year. If that’s your forte and you’re able to do that, great. But if not, what matters is that you are witnessing to a Christian life well lived. We must be living examples of faith, hope, and charity.

The Catechism says, “Education in the faith by the parents should begin in the child’s earliest years. This already happens when family members help one another to grow in faith by the witness of a Christian life in keeping with the Gospel” (CCC 2226).

This is done in practical ways. The Catechism outlines some of these, and I highly recommend reading paragraphs 2221-2231 about the duties of parents.

 (1) Provide your children with a loving home. I love how the Catechism begins its discussion about the education of children by reminding parents to respect their children as human persons (CCC 2222) and calls parents to create a home of “tenderness.” The Catechism says that parents “bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule” (CCC 2223). Children will learn how to treat themselves and others by how they are treated in the home. This is perhaps an even more important responsibility in an age where human respect, tenderness, and forgiveness are not the norm in the public square.

(2) Educate them in the virtues. Again, before we conjure up images of textbooks and desks, remember that the first way children learn things like the virtues is by emulating what they witness and experience. The Catechism says, “The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery” (CCC 2223). How do apprentices learn? By observing the master. That means as parents, you need to practice things like self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery. Let your children see you fast. Model for them prayerful discernment. Pray in front of them. Educating children in the virtues first and foremost means allowing them to see these human virtues lived in a natural way in the home.

(3) Let them learn from the failings, too. The Catechism acknowledges that we won’t always live the virtues perfectly. Giving a good example to our children extends to what happens when we fail to live the Christian life, too: “Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them” (CCC 2223). What happens when we don’t treat our children with tenderness or respect? What if our children see us fall into sin? Even those things can work together for good. We ask our children for forgiveness when we hurt them. Our children should see us going to the sacrament of confession. Again, they will learn how to live the Christian life – and how to deal with the sins in human life – by observing us.

(4) Teach them how to pray. The Catechism reminds parents that they “have the mission of teaching their children to pray and to discover their vocation as children of God” (CCC 2226). When was the last time your child saw you praying outside of Sunday Mass? When was the last time you prayed with your child? It does not have to be complicated. The daily family Rosary is a beautiful practice, but don’t let the high bar keep you from praying as a family.

I come from a beautiful Catholic family. One of my sisters is a consecrated religious sister, and all of us still practice the Catholic Faith. That’s not normal these days, sadly, so people will often ask my parents how they did it. I think people expect to hear stories of the daily family Rosary or some dramatic curriculum. But I think the answer is more simple: We lived the Christian life in our home. My parents witnessed to us what an authentic, integrated Catholic life looked like. We went to Mass as a family every single Sunday. We prayed every day as a family, but it wasn’t even the rosary – it was a series of prayers that lasted about five minutes each night. But by doing these things, my parents showed us that it was important – more important than anything that was on television, any school activity, or even homework.

My dad had a early morning holy hour once a week and was faithful to it. It was not as if he announced to us, “Tomorrow I’m going to wake up early to go spend an hour with Jesus before I go to the office because that’s important in my vocation…” He didn’t sit us down to educate us about prayer; he just did it, and we saw it.

We incorporated family prayers and traditions around Advent and Christmas, and small things during the month of May for Our Lady, like May Crowning at church. Again, it wasn’t anything dramatic. It was simply small ways we lived the liturgical calendar. My siblings and I felt loved and respected. We witnessed how my parents treated each other. We saw my mom volunteering in the parish and serving the Church. She didn’t beat us over the head with a Catechism. She just showed us her love for Christ and his Church by living it.

Again, the call to teach our children by simply living the Christian life is not a cop-out. In this day and age, living the Christian life is extremely difficult and often isolating. The Catechism reminds parents of their responsibility to “teach children to avoid the compromising and degrading influences which threaten human societies” (CCC 2224). If your home is truly striving to live the Christian life, you may be making very different choices from your neighbors. You will likely find yourself having discussions with your children about why you won’t let them do something other kids do – even kids in their own schools or your parish.

But be of good cheer. God has promised you, as a parent, special graces for this vital responsibility you have. Do not be discouraged by the pull of the world. Concentrate on your own little domestic church. The Catechism speaks of those early days of the Church, spreading and growing in a pagan world – a world which, in many respects, is not that different from our own. It says that the families of the early Christians “were islands of Christian life in an unbelieving world” (CCC 1655).

That is your mission. Perhaps you feel like the island is a remote lonely island more days than a relaxing resort island. But God has given you the grace to be the primary catechist of your children. Be an authentic witness of a Christian life. Lead your family to be an island of Christian life in an unbelieving world.  


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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