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Sacramental Family Life

by Dr. Mary Kay Clark
Director, Seton Home Study School

Many Catholic families live their Faith only one hour a week by attending Sunday Mass. The rest of the week, the cares of the world impinge on the family, and the Faith is practically forgotten.

This is not at all the way God has called us to live. We are to live with God as a constant part of our lives, especially by including Him in our family life. Not just Sunday, but every day, should be a day of worship.

To be an authentic Catholic family, we must live the sacramental life. The sacramental life means not only the regular reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist, but also the daily practice of using sacramentals, to help us to live the life of prayer and to celebrate the feasts of the liturgical year. Just as the Church dispenses the sacraments as a direct means of sanctifying grace for its members, so the Church of the Home receives graces indirectly through the use of sacramentals approved by the Church.

Receiving the Sacraments

Next to the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is our biggest help in living the Catholic lifestyle. If we are really aiming to be the best possible Catholic family, it is important that we go to Confession each month. Receiving the Sacrament of Penance frequently will make us concentrate on strengthening our virtues and ultimately improve our Catholic family life.

Daily reception of Jesus in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is very important for the home schooling family. The daily graces help us deal with the aggravations and frustrations of every family. Those fortunate enough to be able to attend Mass every day need to pray for other home schooling families at Mass.

Attending Mass daily, and receiving the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist did not seem absolutely vital in times past. American society was not widely pagan in the forties, fifties, and sixties. In some ways, this seems the worst of times. With a society drowning in its amorality, and our command by Jesus not only to live in the society but even be a light and leaven in the society, we and our children simply cannot survive without the daily help of Jesus Christ Himself present within us.

For us parents, raising our children to love all the sacraments, the sacramental life involves taking the children to observe the reception of the other sacraments, especially Baptism and Confirmation, and explaining them. When possible, we should take the children to see a wedding, teaching them the deeper meanings of the sacrament of Matrimony according to their age level.

Children need to witness the Sacrament of the Sick if we have anyone in the family dying. Attending a funeral helps to emphasize the shortness of this world, and the eternity of the next. Though they may not be able to attend an ordination (the sacrament of Holy Orders), sometimes photographs appear in the local paper or they may be seen on the Catholic television network, EWTN.

Sacramentals

While the Sacramental Life means frequent reception of Penance and Holy Eucharist, it also means the daily use of sacramentals. Sacramentals are a part of our Catholic cultural heritage. They can supplement the daily reception of the Holy Eucharist, and, in some cases, may be the only way to maintain the sacramental life for some families during the week between Sunday Masses.

The Baltimore Catechism concentrates on the doctrines and morals of the Church, but does include a brief chapter on Sacramentals. “Sacramentals are holy things or actions of which the Church makes use to obtain for us from God, through her intercession, spiritual and temporal favors.”

Sacramentals are signs reminding us of God, of the saints, and of Catholic truths. While sacraments were instituted by Jesus Christ as a direct means of obtaining sanctifying and sacramental graces, sacramentals were instituted by the Church to obtain graces for us indirectly. The chief benefits, often forgotten, from the sacramentals are actual graces; the forgiveness of venial sins; the remission of temporal punishment; health of body and material blessings; and protection from evil spirits.

But sacramentals are more than means of grace. They embody and make alive Catholic traditions which have existed for centuries. The rosary, the scapular, the Advent Wreath, Miraculous Medal—these are not merely objects, but truly represent the Catholic way of life.

The catechism explains that the chief sacramentals are blessings by priests and bishops, exorcisms, and blessed objects of devotion. The most popular blessed objects of devotion are holy water, candles, ashes, palms, crucifixes, medals, rosaries, scapulars, images or statues of Our Lord, the Blessed mother, and the saints.

Our homes themselves should reflect our spiritual beliefs. When Moses spoke to the Jewish people about practicing the Ten Commandments, Moses said that God wanted signs of their beliefs on the doorposts, on the doors, on the entrances to the house. They were to wear signs on their foreheads and on their wrists. These physical signs are not only a witness to beliefs in His truths, they also serve as a moment-to-moment reminder of Him and that He belongs in our moment-to-moment activities and thoughts. In church, statues and pictures remind us that we are on holy ground. The Catholic family home, the “domestic church,” is also consecrated ground. Statues, pictures, holy cards, and May altars all remind us of the sanctity of the home.

Living the Faith

The sacramentals with appropriate prayers are best used in conjunction with the liturgical year. The liturgical year, starting with Advent, takes us through the history of mankind awaiting Jesus our Redeemer, and then through the life of Jesus Christ. This is a wonderful way for us to grow spiritually, but best of all, a joyful way to teach our children how to live and practice the authentic Catholic family life.

To be more specific, certain traditional Catholic practices can be started (or maintained) to help us better understand and love our Catholic beliefs. During Advent, the making of the Advent wreath is a very special event. It can be made one year, and simply added to or refreshed in the following years. I have found in my family that making these traditional items as a family, and then bringing them out the following years brings back memories, and seems to be something that is just “ours” for our family.

Celebrating Christmas

You can usually find the directions for making an Advent Wreath at the library, and we have directions in some of our lesson plans in the Art lessons. You can start out with something simple, but, as the years go by, add more purple ribbons, and bunches of wheat and grapes, real or otherwise.

The nightly lighting of the candles and saying the Advent prayers really makes our home seem more like the domestic church. If you miss Mass any of the days, be sure to include the appropriate Mass prayers. In addition, Daughters of St. Paul sells Advent calendars which include daily Bible readings. These little calendars have doors to be opened each day of Advent—especially exciting as little eyes look expectantly for each day’s surprise.

Shortly after Advent starts is the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. In the Byzantine Rite, this feast is celebrated with a party for the children at the parish hall, with St. Nicholas giving out gifts to the children. In our domestic church, it needs to be a special occasion, emphasizing the joy of giving of which St. Nicholas is such a good example. It can be a time for each member of the family to exchange a very small gift with one other member of the family chosen beforehand in a drawing. After the gifts are given, St. Nicholas cookies (of your own or the children’s creative designs) can be eaten for dessert.

Similar creative activities can be done for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. These feasts should be preceded by a novena, as well as by Litanies of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

A novena, which is a set group of prayers said for nine days, often preceding a great feast, should be started on December 16th. At the start of the nine days, you can put up a Jesse Tree, in our secular society often called a Christmas Tree. On this tree, for nine days, the children can make items, out of anything at all, to represent symbolically, the various Old Testament characters or events preceding the birth of Jesus.

Other days which can be celebrated with religious activities are the Twelve Days after Christmas, the feasts of St. Stephen, of the Holy Family, of Good King Wenceslaus, of St. John the Evangelist, of the Holy Innocents, and of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. While there are some specific things which can be done in relation to each event, they all need to be celebrated with the reading of the Biblical event or of the biography of the saint. Scenes can be acted out by the family, or children can write a play, or put on a puppet show. Asking a religious sister over for dinner, or a priest to come for a special blessing adds to the reverence of the celebration. Don’t hesitate to include the rosary and the use of holy water. Singing songs, or watching a video of the saint’s life, can make the occasion special. If you have a local Catholic TV station or EWTN, there is usually something scheduled relevant to the feastday.

Lenten Devotions

Lent in the Liturgical Year is a time when families should look into the Catholic customs of their heritage. The Catholic cultural traditions, especially in the types of Paschal foods, can become a special treat and religious experience for the family, which can be handed down to the next generation, and to the next.

Fasting has become unpopular, but the message needs to be taught to our children. While Mother and Father may restrict their diet considerably, children should be encouraged to “fast” from desserts or sweets. References to the fasts in the Bible could be explained several times at dinner during Lent.

In the past, all the statues in the churches were covered with purple cloths. This was a sign of Penance. It was a time when feasting and enjoying beautiful things were put aside. In some families, this tradition is kept alive, not by totally covering the statues in the domestic church, but by placing purple ribbons at the foot of each statue or holy picture.

Lent is an appropriate time to discuss the Stations, the meaning of each Station, and the making of the Stations. What a pity to see the Stations in churches, but never anyone making the Stations! While Stations can be made all year long, make it a Lenten custom for your family to say the Stations at least every Friday, but even every day if possible. Special Plenary Indulgences are given to anyone saying the Stations the same day on which the Holy Eucharist is received. This is a wonderful way to obtain freedom for the souls in Purgatory. Some Catholic families make it a practice to visit a Marian Shrine on First Fridays, and make the Stations there.

To make the Stations more interesting, you can use several different meditations. If you are in a hurry to get home in the morning for the home schooling, simply walk around to each station and say, “We adore Thee O Christ, and we bless Thee, because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.” The Plenary Indulgence is only granted if actual walking around to each station is involved. However, some priests can give a special papal blessing to a rosary, on which the Stations can be said and the Plenary Indulgence is thus obtained. Teach your children the song to be sung with the Stations: “At the cross her station keeping, stood the mother Mary weeping, close to Jesus to the last.” And all the following verses.

Holy Week

Living Holy Week for a Catholic can and should be a serious, deeply religious experience. The week needs to be filled with prayer—formal prayer and private prayer. Mass should be attended each day, as well as all the church programs for the week. Teach your children the Lenten songs, such as the traditional “O Sacred Head Surrounded.” For older children and parents, a meditation book should be chosen to read and help think about Jesus.

The meaning of palms should be explained and then they should be put around the house on Palm Sunday. Some children like to make crosses out of the palms. On Holy Thursday, parents should explain the meaning of the services before the children attend so they can understand how the services relate to the other Holy Week events.

For Good Friday, try to go to a church which has the service in the afternoon. Children are too tired to appreciate the service late in the evening. Since Jesus hung on the cross in the afternoon, an afternoon service seems more appropriate for the children.

From noon till three on Good Friday, many families keep silence. With young children, this may not be possible, but certainly some attempt is possible. Children should be encouraged to meditate or to say private prayers. Watching a video of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary while saying the rosary, or watching a video of the Stations would be appropriate while saying the Stations.

Church services often start around 3:00. Try to spend some time in church beforehand to go to confession if possible, or go to confession later in the afternoon.

Because these services tend to be long and involved, it is important to have a discussion with the children beforehand to explain what will be happening. Be sure the children have their own prayerbooks to follow along.

If the children decorate Easter Eggs, teach your children various Catholic symbols, such as the Chi-Rho symbol for Christ. These Catholic symbols can be taught to very young children, and give the proper meaning to Easter. In the Byzantine Rite, churches have classes to teach adults and children how to decorate eggs with religious symbols and themes.

Make sure the excitement of the Resurrection is conveyed in your home. You might have a video of the first Easter Sunday. Tell the story of the excitement as Peter and John ran to the Upper Room. The message of the Resurrection is the center of our Faith. As His apostles today, we want to spread the message. Write the message “He is Risen” on different colored sheets of construction paper, and tape them all over the doors of the domestic church. Greet each other with “He is Risen!” Teach your children some of the Resurrection songs, or listen to audio tapes or disks.

In all these ways, make your family life mirror the life of the church. In that way, it will indeed become the domestic church.