At Home with the Sacraments
How to make family life a deeply sacramental life
© 2003 by Paul Thigpen
We'd made it halfway down the aisle of the church when Elijah, then four years old, suddenly stopped and whispered, "Oh, no!"
"What's the matter, son?" I asked.
"I forgot to put the water on me! But that's okay," he added innocently, putting his finger in his mouth and then touching his head and chest. "I'll just lick myself!"
I had a good laugh, and after Mass we talked about why he couldn't just "lick" himself. Our family had only recently become Catholic, so I had to do my best to explain the special nature of holy water.
It was the same kind of water, I told Elijah, that the priest had poured over his head when he'd been baptized. The priest had blessed that water, and because of the blessing, it had a special connection to God's loving power. Through it, the Lord had washed his soul in Baptism — making clean that part of him inside he couldn't see, the part that could think and feel and choose right or wrong.
Whenever we come to church, I added, we sprinkle ourselves with that same holy water to help us remember what God did for us when we were baptized. And we also receive another little blessing from Him through the prayers of the Church that have been joined to the water.
"Wow!" Elijah said, excited. "Let's bring some of it home!" And that's exactly what we did.
In a simple way, in that moment my son had figured out an important principle of Catholic family life: Though sacraments such as Baptism are usually celebrated in church, the grace of God we receive through them doesn't stop at the church door. It's meant to ripple out from the church into our homes.
Channeling God's Grace
Seven sacred signs both symbolize God's grace for us and actually give us the grace they symbolize: Baptism, Reconciliation, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick. These signs, or sacraments, have often been described as fountains of God's goodness springing up to help us become holy — to become more and more like Jesus. Since family life is the setting for many of our greatest challenges in spiritual growth, it's important for Catholic parents to find ways to affirm the power of the sacraments at home.
Often the strategy is quite simple. For example, after Elijah made his suggestion, we purchased an inexpensive holy water font at a local Catholic gift shop and attached it to the wall just inside the front door of our home. Then we filled it with holy water we brought home from church in a little bottle. Making sure every family member knew why blessing ourselves with holy water was beneficial, we encouraged each one to make it a habit whenever leaving or coming home.
This small tradition, which Catholic families have practiced for centuries, took little effort to establish. Yet the rewards are great. Each time we touch that blessed water to our head and breast, we remember God's cleansing grace in Baptism, and we grow a little stronger spiritually through the prayers of the Church.
There are countless other ways to "bottle up" and bring home more of the sacramental goodness that springs up in the Church. Consider just a few practical ideas for each of the seven sacraments:
· Baptism. To bring the joy of this sacrament home, Catholic parents have traditionally invited relatives and friends to a reception after a child has been baptized at church. In some homes, as an annual reminder of the grace of Baptism, family members celebrate their baptismal anniversaries as personal feast days, much like "spiritual birthdays." If they received a candle at Baptism, the candle is burned for a few minutes while they pray, thanking God for having cleansed their souls in the baptismal font. The family may also attend Mass and receive Holy Communion together that day, then privately renew their own baptismal vows.
As we've noted, throughout the rest of the year, use of a holy water font at home can point us to the graces received in Baptism.
· Reconciliation. It's an old custom in some Catholic cultures for family members to ask forgiveness of one another for any offenses committed in the family setting before they go together to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation. This simple act gives them a chance to mend broken relationships at home and helps them prepare to mend their relationship with God. After each person has asked forgiveness, the parents make the sign of the cross on that person's forehead, saying, "We forgive one another, and God will forgive us, too. Go and make a good confession!"
Parents can also gather the family to pray together before allowing each child some quiet private time to examine his or her conscience before sacramental Penance. Try a simple prayer such as this: "Lord, you know our hearts, and we have no secrets from you. Give us grace to know our sins, to turn from them, and to love you as we should. Amen."
· The Eucharist. As with Baptism, parents traditionally bring home the joy of a child's First Holy Communion by inviting relatives and friends to a reception after Mass, where the child receives spiritually meaningful gifts such as a Bible, rosary, or crucifix. The child's baptismal candle may also be burned briefly at this time.
Parents can continue to emphasize what a privilege it is to receive the Lord's Body and Blood by having their family remain together in prayer for a few minutes after every Mass to thank God for His great gift. They can also go as a family to visit our Lord in the Tabernacle or during Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament as a way of learning to cherish His Eucharistic presence in their lives.
· Confirmation. This sacrament of spiritual strengthening by the Holy Spirit completes the grace of Baptism by empowering us for a life of holiness. Once again, a family reception allows the happy celebration of this sacrament to spill over into the home. Statues, pictures, and biographies of the saint whose name the young person has taken as a Confirmation name are especially appropriate gifts for this occasion; they encourage him or her to ask the saint's help and imitate the saint's holiness in the days to come.
Some Catholic parents take this opportunity to write a letter to the one being confirmed, congratulating the child on the event, assuring him or her of the parents' continuing prayers, and expressing the hope that God's perfect will may be accomplished in the child's life. The young person can save the letter and read it again each year on the anniversary of the Confirmation.
· Matrimony. The Catholic family actually begins in the sacrament of matrimony. In this gift, God makes available to a husband and wife special graces to build together a life of love that's pleasing to Him and nurturing for children.
Wedding anniversaries are the perfect occasion for recognizing and welcoming once more the power of this sacrament so central to family life. When parents celebrate an anniversary, they can make sure the gifts, cards, flowers, or dinner out are accompanied by words that clearly affirm to each other and to their children their loving, faithful, lifelong commitment to the family. On this day some spouses also like to repeat privately their matrimonial vows.
To help older youth prepare for the possibility of their own wedding days, many Catholic parents pray with them regularly for the grace, if it is God's will, to find the right person for sharing a lifetime of love.
· Holy Orders. Children need the chance to learn about religious vocations in order to consider God's calling for their own lives. To encourage sons to give serious consideration to the possibility of receiving Holy Orders, and to help both sons and daughters get better acquainted with God's gift of the ordained priesthood, parents can invite priests into their homes regularly to share a meal or some other special event. It's an old Catholic custom to conclude any such visit with a request for the priest to bless the family and their home.
In addition, fellowship in a family setting with religious brothers and sisters, even though they haven't received sacramental ordination, can teach children about the joys and challenges of other forms of the religious life and open them to the possibility of God's call. Family devotional times can also include frequent prayers for the clergy and for vocations of every kind.
· Anointing of the Sick. Once known as Extreme Unction or Last Rites, this anointing is given today not only to the dying, but also to those who are seriously ill, in order to strengthen them in their time of trial. It's often accompanied by Reconciliation and Holy Communion. When the sacrament is received, family members can offer invaluable support to the patient by joining in the prayers of the rite at his or her bedside.
Anointing of the Sick is in part a spiritual preparation for the next life; the Communion traditionally offered along with it is known as viaticum, which means literally "provision for the journey" through death into eternal life. Families who suffer bereavement can cultivate the hope of heaven for their deceased loved ones, and help them on their way, by praying daily as a family for their souls. The ancient prayer for this intention is simple: "Eternal rest, grant [the loved one's name], O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him [her]. May his [her] soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen."
In less serious circumstances, parents can encourage their children to appreciate the healing and strengthening power the Sacrament of Anointing represents by teaching their children to turn to God whenever they suffer illness, injury, or disability. If one family member is sick, the others can make it a habit to gather around and pray for God's healing.
The Strength of a Sacramental Life
In all these ways, Catholic parents can strengthen spiritual life in the home by affirming its intimate connection to the sacraments of the Church. Even the smallest of acts — the sprinkling of holy water, the lighting of a candle — will help a family grow in holiness if parents explain its meaning so that children come to recognize the great power and blessing of the sacramental life.
+ + +