Symposium calls for renewal of Catholic family life

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Family praying

This past July, more than 40 internationally recognized social scientists, theologians and pastoral ministry professionals gathered at the University of Notre Dame to explore four critical questions about the renewal of Catholic family life:

  • Are Catholic families called to relate differently to each other than their non-Catholic counterparts?
  • What does an authentic, family-based spirituality look like?
  • How can Catholic parents more effectively practice intentional discipleship at home and raise the next generation of intentional disciples?
  • How can we equip Catholic families to be the primary outposts of evangelization and positive social change that Church teaching says they are meant to be?

Curiously, these questions have never been systematically explored in the history of the Church. In fact, it’s only because of the “universal call to holiness,” articulated by the Second Vatican Council and the writings of St. John Paul, which laid the foundation for living out this call, that it is even possible to ask these questions.

For three days, experts shared research and insights, resulting in some important takeaways for both Catholic families and people engaged in family ministry. Here are some highlights.

1. Family life is liturgical

Several presenters pointed out that family life itself is liturgical, not just when the family is at prayer or serving others, but every time family members work to love each other with Christ’s love. The more families are intentional about this effort, the more relationships within the family become a path to holiness and sanctity.

2. There are three ‘rites’ in the liturgy of family life

In our own presentation, my wife and I suggested that the liturgy of domestic Church life is made up of three “rites” drawn from the available research on the behaviors of healthy families. We found that each of these rites allows families to offer ongoing formation in the threefold mission of prophet, priest and king that every Christian receives in baptism.

The Rite of Relationship offers formation in the common priesthood. Generally speaking, a priest offers sacrifices that unite heaven and earth, makes the common holy and facilitates graceful transformation in God’s people. When husbands and wives, parents and children strive to attend to each other with the sacrificial love that flows from God’s own heart, we create strong, grace-filled family bonds that allow us to encounter God’s love in the home, transforming mundane acts of family life into a “little way of holiness” (like St. Thérèse of Lisieux), and facilitate the formation of healthy, whole and holy people.

The Rite of Rituals of Connection offers formation in the prophetic mission of baptism. A prophet calls people to live and act in godly ways. When Christian families create strong rituals that allow them to faithfully and consistently pray, work, talk and play together, they proclaim — through word and action — how Christians are meant to relate to virtually every activity a human person could engage in.

The Rite of Reaching Out offers formation in the royal mission of baptism. The royal mission is about using the gifts we’ve been given to bless others. When families serve their parish and community — especially when they serve together — they bring Christ’s love to the world in powerful ways that can melt hearts, foster change and lead others to God.

The liturgy of domestic Church life is the liturgy over which the common priesthood of the laity presides. It represents the primary way laypeople, through our common priesthood, consecrate the world to Christ.

3. Parents matter more than they think

Catholic parents often despair of their ability to raise faithful kids in a faithless world, but the studies presented at the symposium show that there are strong reasons for hope. Sociologist Vern Bengtson presented the results of his 50-year-long study on faith transmission involving 3,500 people in over 350 families. What’s the single most important factor leading to children owning their faith as adults? The degree of warmth exhibited by their religious parents. When children experience faith as the source of warmth in their homes, they are more willing to interpret the stricter rules and higher expectations their parents have as the necessary components of a peaceful, loving home and a healthy, happy life. In the absence of this warmth, children learn to see faith as an obstacle to abundant living.

Bengtson’s findings on parental warmth and faith transmission were backed up by two other presentations at the event, one by Justin Bartkus, who was the lead researcher on the Notre Dame Report on American Catholic Religious Parenting, and another by developmental psychologist Darcia Narvaez, who specializes in understanding the role parenting plays in childrens’ moral development.

4. Fathers matter even more

Bengtson’s study also found that children were most likely to own their faith as adults when religious fathers took point in fostering the warmth in the home and leading both spiritual exercises and faith-based conversations at home. This finding was backed up in a presentation by Pat Fagan of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute at The Catholic University of America.

The presentations did not explain why this dynamic was important, but other researchers have suggested that, metaphorically speaking, when it comes to faith development, mom packs her child’s spiritual lunchbox, but dad makes sure his kid remembers to take it to school.

For the first several months of life, a baby continues to believe that mom is part of his or her body. After all, he or she grew inside mom. Why wouldn’t they be one person? Dad, on the other hand, is “the first other.” A faithful mom shows a child how to have a personal, internal faith. A faithful dad models how to live that faith out loud and in the world. Together, faithful moms and dads help kids develop both a deep and a lived faith.

5. Your story is important

Another finding presented by Bartkus was that parents needed to be able to articulate to their children a personal narrative about how their faith has made and continues to make a meaningful difference in their lives. These stories don’t have to be theologically sophisticated, but they do need to be real and compelling. Parents who could say, “Here is how I rely on my faith to make sense of the world and overcome the trials of life” were much more likely to raise children who would become faithful adults.

The conversation continues

There is much more work to do to continue the conversation. First, an upcoming book, as well as a website featuring videos of all the presentations, will make the symposium available to everyone.

Second, the symposium served as a springboard for launching the Peyton Institute for Domestic Church Life. Named for Venerable Father Patrick Peyton — who coined the phrase “The family that prays together stays together” — the institute is a collaborative partnership between The Pastoral Solutions Institute  and Holy Cross Family Ministries. The Peyton Institute will be headquartered at the newly opened Peyton Museum of Family Prayer in North Easton, Massachusetts, and will sponsor original research, conduct trainings for family ministry professionals, host family events nationwide, and produce resources supporting family spirituality and family well-being.

Family life offers many spiritual opportunities that are unique to it and presents a valid and distinct path to holiness. It is long past time to have the conversation of how Catholic family can be viewed as a ministry and not just one more group to minister to.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the director of the Peyton Institute for Domestic Church Life and the author of many books, including “Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids” (Sophia, $18.95).

A Look at Catholic Families
76% of married Catholic parents have a Catholic spouse.
22% of Catholic parents attend Mass weekly.
53% of Catholic parents attend Mass at least once a month.
66% of Catholic parents with three or more children attend Mass at least once a month.
68% of Catholic parents do not have any of their children enrolled in formal Catholic religious education.
71% of parents agree “somewhat” or “strongly” that prayer is essential to their faith.
36% of parents pray at least once a day.

Dr. Greg Popcak

Dr. Greg Popcak is an author and the director of