Concept of domestic church is ancient, yet very modern

For Catholics, the suspension of public Mass in the Diocese of Little Rock was arguably the most jarring effect yet of COVID-19. Families across the state awoke March 21 weekend to the odd reality of spending the Sabbath without the centerpiece of Catholic life. 

“When I first read (about Mass suspensions), I thought, ‘Oh man. Not in 51 years has that ever happened in my lifetime,’” said Sherri Faver, a parishioner of Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock. “I was devastated. I mean, church and adoration are two of the highlights of my week.”

“The thing we thought primarily about was how we would continue to shepherd our kids, especially with them being younger,” said Maria Copas, a member of Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock. “We’re already a fairly structured family but that was one of the things that we wanted to make sure of, that Sundays didn’t turn into a second Saturday where you just sleep in and have a lazy day.”

Faver and Copas both knew of the various televised Masses that have long been available as well as the livestreamed services many parishes in Arkansas had set up. But like many other Catholics, they longed for the participatory aspect of worship. That led them to devise a domestic church routine to help emulate a live Mass. 

“The Mass, we’re supposed to be active in the participation,” Faver said. “If I wanted us to get anything out of it, we needed to not just sit and watch or just sit and listen or listen and do other things. We needed to be active in that.”

Domestic (or house) church is not an idea hatched during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it’s one of the oldest forms of worship in the history of Christianity. 

“In the Church, we have long talked about the idea of a domestic church,” said Father Erik Pohlmeier, diocesan faith formation director and pastor of Christ the King Church in Little Rock. “It goes all the way back to the earliest days of Christianity when there were no churches. The whole Christian faith was built in people’s homes. That’s our roots. This is a chance for that to really be captured in that the family can be a domestic church.”

Both Faver and Copas constructed their domestic church as a mirror of regular Sunday routine. They set up a room to include a makeshift altar with candles, a crucifix and other items to set the right environment. They scheduled viewing of Mass at the same time they would have attended church under normal circumstances. A dress code was enforced as was an attentive posture while seated and reverence while following along. 

“We don’t really kneel (but) we do make sure that we stand up and sit down and respond, you know, when it would be appropriate,” Faver said. “Nobody’s in their PJs and we try not to lay all over the furniture. We try to make it an environment like we are actually sitting and paying attention and we’re not just there.”

Copas, who’s the mother of three ages 2 to 6, was delighted to discover how involved the children wanted to be in the process.

“The kids love to reenact the Mass and so they do this, like, procession down the hallway,” she said. “They take turns carrying a book, a candle and a crucifix and we all go down the hallway.”

Copas said they’ve also gone beyond merely watching Mass to allowing family members to read the week’s Scripture passages. 

“My husband said some of the prayers out loud that are part of the missal that the priest would normally say,” she said. “For some parts, of course, like the consecration, we just spend that time quietly thinking about and inviting Jesus to be present with us in our hearts and in our home.”

The process of implementing domestic church services connected family generations in other ways.

“We have a home Mass kit that was my grandparents’; it’s in a beautiful little box and my kids played with it when they were little because we never thought we would use it,” Faver said. “It’s got a candelabra with a little shell on the front for holy water and then the crucifix goes in the middle and has two candles on the sides. Never in my life did I think that I would get to celebrate Mass with something my grandparents used. So, it was really neat.”

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor said such efforts are an important leavening agent for one’s faith, particularly in times of upheaval.

“It is always important for us to make an effort to stay connected to the Lord because relationships take effort, whether with friends and family or with the Lord himself,” he said. “Just as with other relationships, if we seek the other only in times of crisis, we might find some temporary comfort, but then the benefits of the relationship recede once the crisis has passed.”

“Those who have long had a living relationship with the Lord will have far more spiritual resources to deal with the stress of this time of crisis than those who don’t. Those who use this time to develop a living relationship with the Lord now will end up with the spiritual resources they need for the future, when life returns to normal.”

The domestic church provides families the opportunity to continue to build and lean on the faith traditions that have survived so many other crises throughout history.

“In a lot of ways, we’re still figuring this out because we’re just on the front end of this journey,” Copas said. “Although, of course, we’re sad at temporarily not being able to receive the Eucharist, we’re just looking for the moments of grace in it because God is always at work. I would remind others that it’s not a time to despair; there’s always beauty to be found.”

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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