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This article was published in the January 1998 issue of The Journal.

Growing as Domestic Church Through the Eucharist

An address given by Fr Ernest Falardeau, SSS, to the Association of Interchurch Families at its Annual Conference at Swanwick, August 1997, printed here in slightly abridged form, The full annotated text will appear in One in Christ.


In our consumer society we are taught to think that "bigger is better", so we translate growth in terms of increase in size, number, amount. But in the realm of the spirit growth is much more a matter of depth and intensity. The kingdom parables of Jesus recall metaphors of the yeast that leavens the mass of dough, the smallest seed that grows into a large tree where birds nestle in its branches.

The kingdom is a banquet to which many are invited, but few accept, so the highways and by-ways are combed to find guests, however motley... as long as they are willing to put on the wedding garment (Mt 13:1-53). Growth in the kingdom is measured in terms of depth and vitality, in terms of faith, hope and love, by faith working through love (Gal 5:6). Another word for the kingdom is holiness. The Sermon on the Mount tells us how children of the kingdom can grow: by poverty of spirit, single-minded pursuit of the pearl of great price, making peace, humility of heart, suffering persecution for justice's sake (Mt 5-7).

1 To Grow As Communion 

To grow as church is to grow in communion (koinonia), for the church is a communion. It is a sharing in the life of Father, Son and Spirit, the fellowship of all who are united in the three person'd God and join in their dance. Koinonia describes the church in its very essence. The institutional incarnation of this koinonia is achieved with great difficulty.

Communion has become the theological matrix in ecclesiology. In simpler terms: to understand church today one must think in terms of communion; the church is a communion. This is not only a central insight of Vatican 11, but a central imperative of the Gospel. In John's Gospel, chapter 6, we are told that Jesus is the Bread of Life who gives eternal life to all who receive him. This life comes from the Father (and the Spirit). The first Letter of John also points out that communion shared with the Trinity is shared by all who believe in Jesus (I Jn 1:3). Paul's metaphor of the Body of Christ explains the same reality (I Cor 12:12-3 1). As members of one another we are in communion in Christ and his Spirit. Ephesians and Romans develop the metaphor and consolidate the theology of communion.

The Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission makes communion theology the pivotal point of its theology. The agreed statement on Eucharist and Ordination, and even the main points of agreement on Authority focus on an understanding of the church as communion. The Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order at Santiago in 1993 outlined the work of theology for the coming decades as rooted in the theology of the church as communion. This focus now turns to what follows upon an acknowledgement that all Christians are in real communion with each other, whatever the degrees or differences that various Christian communities want to make in that communion.

Communion is love; it is life in the Spirit; it is a relationship to Father, Son and Spirit. Each of our relationships to the Father, Son and Spirit is special and coloured by the role which Scripture assigns to each of the persons of the Trinity in creation, redemption and sanctification.

If the church is a communion and the family is a domestic church, then what we say of the church applies to the family. The family must be a communion, an intimate and personal relationship between husband and wife, parents and children.

2 The Mystery of God

If we are to grow as church, we must grow in our likeness to God, grow in holiness. The holiness of God must characterise the church, which is holy because it is the Body of Christ, who is holy because he is God. Jesus taught us the way to holiness, and he is the way, the way to eternal life with God.

Growth in the church must always be considered in these dimensions. The mystery of God is unknown to us, but it has been revealed in Jesus Christ. Our task as Christians is to touch the divine and be touched by divine grace, to be open to God so that he may transform our lives. The transfiguration of Jesus is the model for our transformation. The glory of the Son of God and of the Risen Lord must permeate our lives. Day by day, step by step, we are called to be transformed by the grace of God, through conversion and inner growth. If we are to speak of the growth of the church it must be in these terms; we must be open to God, to his transforming grace, to his creative Spirit. The grace of marriage is the grace of the Risen Lord who gives us his Spirit so that we may grow in his likeness, living our lives in God and for God.

A mystery is not a riddle, but something beyond the horizon of the senses, which we know with our mind, but more importantly which we experience in our souls. The mystery of God is what we find revealed in the Scriptures, in the history of humankind, in the high moments of our daily living. In birth death, illness and wellness we experience God. God touches our lives when we are happy and when we are sad. God shares his love with us when we share his love with others.

The mystery of God is especially revealed and present in the mystery of the eucharist; beneath the appearances of bread and wine, Christ calls us into communion with himself, to share in the life of the Father. The Risen Lord gives us his Spirit so that we might learn to pray, so that we might know the love of the Father. The mystery of God is revealed in the mystery of marriage (Eph 5:32). Though much has been written about the sacrament of marriage, there is yet much to be said, especially about Paul's metaphor of the love of husband and wife as the icon/sacrament/mystery of the love of Christ for his church. Paul says: "this is a great mystery". It is undoubtedly a special revelation of the mystery of God; Pope John Paul 11 says as much in his encyclical Familiaris Consortio. Vatican 11 put Christian marriage in proper perspective: the holiness of marriage is a revelation of the holiness of God and of the relationship of Christ to the church. Gaudium et Spes began the process of spelling out holiness in married life.

3 Holiness of Life

The purpose of the church is the salvation and sanctification of humankind. Holiness (sanctification) comes in the church and through the church because Christ is Son of God and Son of Man. In him we are made holy; we share in the divine life. Holiness is Christ-likeness. Holiness has to do with who we are before it has to do with what we do. Justification comes by grace in faith, which then becomes faith working in love. We are justified for good works (see ARCIC 11 Salvation and the Church). We are made holy for the glory of God and the wellness of the Body of Christ; transformed into Christ so that God's kingdom may come in us and through us.

4 The Domestic Church

Marriage was declared a sacrament, one of the great seven, by Peter Lombard in the twelfth century. Paul declares marriage the icon (mystery) of the church, of its love for Christ and Christ's love for his people (Eph 5:32). The ideal of the family as domestic church is lived out in daily life. Vatican 11 recovered the theology of the family. Twice in the conciliar documents the family was referred to as the "domestic church". Post conciliar theology, especially the encyclical of John Paul 11 Familiaris Consortio picked up the theme and developed it. The family is the incarnation of the church; it is where the church happens.

The family is the church of the home. Just as the family is the smallest cell of society, so it is the smallest cell of the church. There can be no church without the family, and the family has virtually all it needs to be the church. Or to put it another way, the church needs to nourish families if it is to build itself up. Modem medicine tells us that DNA contains the pattern for the whole body: each cell is a microcosm of the whole body. So it is with the family, the domestic church.

The health of the church, as of society as a whole, depends upon the health - or holiness - of the family. The concept of domestic church is important to the church as well as to the family. If we look at the paradigm for the church in Acts 2, we see that it was a communion of love among all its members. Everything was shared in common. There was a fellowship in the teaching of the Apostles (didaskalia), in the breaking of bread (eucharistia), in the fellowship (koinonia), and in the prayers (eulogia). These ingredients are the foundation of the Christian family. The characteristics of the church should help the family to be fully Christian, an icon and model of the church at large.

The whole pattern of the church as didaskalia, eucharistia, koinonia and eulogia as a model for the domestic church would make a wonderful theological reflection for us. The family as the first religious school, as communion, as eucharistic fellowship and as house of prayer could provide us with much food for thought. My purpose here is to draw attention to two of the four characteristics of the early church: communion and eucharist.

Is there a problem of the family imitating the church? Yes, if the church is only the institution; no, if the church is a full sharing in the trinitarian communion. For it is in sharing the life of God that the family reaches its highest achievement. This is not angelism, it is incarnationalism, i.e. the incorporation of the life of God into human nature. And the model for such incorporation is the domestic church.

5 The Domestic Church as Communion

At the very heart of the theology of communion is its trinitarian dimension. To be in communion is to share the inner life of the Trinity. The love, knowledge and life-giving interaction of the Trinity is the paradigm for the inner energy of the church. This applies to the church universal and equally well to the domestic church which is the family.

At the heart of the family must be love, communication and sharing of life. This is true of married partners, and of their relationship to their children. As human beings we grow and live our lives fully in the measure that we share our love with others, receive their love, communicate our thoughts and are energised by a sense of sharing and belonging. The domestic church is not hampered by its size. Sharing in life, love and decision-making is part of being family. Perhaps the emphasis on the domestic church will help the churches to "downsize" and begin to think small rather than large.

Our world says bigger is better, but our experience is just the contrary. In the measure that human and personal reaction is possible, the quality of life is greater. We are social animals and need society for the full development of our human life, yet we remain essentially linked to the context of the extended family. Living in New Mexico, I have come to appreciate the particular gift that Hispanics bring to the American scene and its culture. They naturally live and think in terms of the extended family: parientes, abuelas, tias, tios, padrinos, madrinas, etc. Even godparents and their children have special relations to the godchild and its family. Decisions affect the entire extended family. Joys and sorrows are shared with both the nuclear family and with this wide interconnected whole. When thinking of the domestic church, it might be helpful to think in terms of extended family rather than nuclear family.

In this context the church is the place where we are at home. In the church we should be able to express our thoughts, worship our God, receive affirmation and love. In the domestic church we live and are given life.

6 Interchurch Families

The interchurch family presents special value. Like the extended family, it goes beyond what we normally think of as family. It extends not only the lines of blood and marriage, but also of faith and church community. Just as the extended family causes the family to broaden the reach of its love, tolerance and acceptance, so the domestic church as interchurch family is the testing ground for ecumenical spirituality and comprehensiveness.

The interchurch family, I believe, represents the reality of the church, It also represents its promise. The church is one but divided. But the promise of unity can be developed only if the church is willing to accept diversity and difference. Otherwise it can only remain a "closed shop". As the Roman Catholic Church recognises other Christians as brothers and sisters in the Lord, it becomes more truly ecumenical and Christlike.

The domestic church teaches the church to be family. The interchurch family teaches the church to be ecumenical - the Body of Christ. "If there were only eyes, where would be hearing?" (I Cor 12:17) If there were no feet or hands, where would be walking or touching? All the members of the Body are needed; they contribute to the good of the whole. The interchurch family helps the church to go beyond itself and thus be itself more truly. In the measure that the church reaches out to embrace everyone it is truly the Body of Christ, for Jesus came to save everyone.

7 The Eucharist and Domestic Church 

Holiness is essentially our communion with God in Christ. This communion is not a static thing in God or in us. It is activity. Action flows from contemplation. What we do flows from who we are. That is the way it is with God and with us. Our communion with God is deepened by the eucharist. The eucharist makes the church. It makes us Christians. "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have life in you" (Jn 6:53). We share the eucharist not because we are holy, but to become holy. Food is no luxury, it is a necessity; we cannot live without it. We cannot live the spiritual life without the eucharist. We pray daily: "Father, give us our daily bread." We know that the original Greek of that prayer is clearly for the eucharist, our supersubstantial bread (huperousion arton).

Christian families need the eucharist to bind the members in love, just as the church needs the eucharist to bind its members in love. The family is the domestic church. What is true of the family, is true of the church. At the heart of the spirituality of the family is the eucharist. At the heart of the spirituality of the interchurch family is the eucharist. Even if at the moment some of the members receive at different altars, they are drawn inevitably toward unity in the Body of Christ. "Because the bread is one, we though many become one body, because we eat the one bread" (I Cor 10: 17).

The eucharist is at the heart of the family. It is at the heart of the church. Pope John Paul 11 indicates that the eucharist is both the icon of what the family should be, and the sacrament by which the life of the Christian family becomes possible. He emphasises the need for the eucharist in the family (see Familiaris Consortio 57). It is more than just the symbol of what the family must become: the Body of Christ. It is the very incarnation of the Body of Christ in the world. The family makes the church visible and real. The eucharist celebrates the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrificial love of the spouses; it feeds the members of Christ and gives life to Christian families.

I emphasise that interchurch families do not need the eucharist less than other families, but more. Families of the same church have much to nourish their spirituality. Interchurch families need to struggle more. And so they need all the help they can get. It is precisely because of this struggle and effort, because you are the icon of the Body of Christ that you need the eucharist. Sacramenta propter homines: the sacraments are for human beings, "for us and our salvation". The task of the church is not to protect the sacraments; it is to use them. And the use of the eucharist could not be more important or necessary than for interchurch families. They need the special help of Jesus Christ to continue the work of making their marriage a sacrament: a sign of God's love, grace and salvation. Unlike the other sacraments, marriage is ongoing. The wedding takes a few hours; the marriage takes a lifetime. And it is this life-long effort of interchurch families that requires them to share the eucharist.

8 Interchurch Families Challenging the Church

Interchurch families challenge the church to be a communion. In their love for each other interchurch families transcend the historic divisions of the church and find a communion that is rooted in Christ and in their love for one another. The unity of the churches is a high priority because it is only in that unity that the pain they suffer can be healed. While the pain of division is felt more or less by individuals, it is a wound to the Body of Christ that must be healed by God's saving grace.

The eucharist is the source of strength for interchurch families. It is also a sign of their ultimate unity in Christ. Just as the eucharist is the sign of the Body of Christ that we become, so it is the sign of the unity which we become. And the one body, fractured yet united in the interchurch family, is the sign that must be seen in the eucharist and be celebrated.

The eucharist is the sign of unity; it is also the means to unity. I would like to draw attention to the need of the interchurch family to receive the eucharist together so that they can become what they are, the Body of Christ. Paul tells us that the union of husband and wife is the icon, the sacrament of the communion between Christ and his church (Eph 5:32). For the interchurch couple (and their family) the communion is real but imperfect. In other words, there is something lacking. But that is not on the part of the couple but on the part of the church. The full ecclesial communion which should exist in the church is not present in their sign. The fault is that of the churches, not of the couple. And in God's plan this lack of full communion must be healed.

Interchurch couples may and should receive the eucharist together and as a family because they are the domestic church, the church of the home. Without the eucharist they cannot become what they are meant to be. The churches must find a way to permit them to receive together and thus show to the world (and to the church) the way to communion through love. At the heart of the spirituality of the interchurch family is the eucharist. The eucharist is the source and summit of the spirituality of the church. And it must become more and more the centre and source of Christian unity.

9 Spirituality

Interchurch families are called to holiness, because every Christian is called to holiness. The division of the churches does not absolve interchurch couples from striving for holiness. That holiness comes not from imitating monks or religious or the ordained, but from living family life to the full, from the love of spouses for each other, parents for children and children for parents. It comes from the family's involvement in creating a better world, the kingdom of God on earth.

Interchurch families are at the heart of the ecumenical movement. You experience the agony and the ecstasy of working out your relationship to Christ in each other in a unique way. It might be very helpful to develop a spirituality for interchurch families. It may not be very different from that of other Christian families. However I think that at this time in the history of the ecumenical movement and because of the special difficulties faced by interchurch families because of the divisions of the church, it might be useful to outline such a spirituality.

Interchurch families are called to holiness, and holiness is measured by love. There is a special love required by interchurch families, and it is a love for the church, the church one but divided. It is this love for the church that helps interchurch families to be true to themselves and to their tradition while seeking Christian unity. This love for the church presses you to be courageous in your efforts to prod the churches toward ever growing unity. Your impatience with the status quo and your prayer and longing for continuing progress toward the unity of all Christians should characterise your spirituality.

You should long for the eucharist, not only in your own tradition, but in the tradition of your spouse. You should long for the day of "full communion" when authorities will allow you to receive in either tradition at will. In the meantime you should press for "interim eucharistic sharing" in those circumstances when not to receive would deprive you of precious and important spiritual moments in the life of your families.

Your spirituality should be characterised by forgiveness and reconciliation. In any family there is a constant need to say "I am sorry" and "I forgive you". Without this spirit of reconciliation human weakness and failures can only fragment the fabric of family life. This spirit of reconciliation is much needed in our churches as they move toward full communion and unity.

10 Thy Kingdom Come

Interchurch families seek the kingdom of God realised in the domestic church. In the measure that the church becomes the kingdom, in that measure is 'salvation come to this house' (Lk 19:9). Salvation is the grace of God penetrating the human situation, the human condition. Holiness is the result of salvation taking ever deeper root in the Christian.

What does it mean to grow as church? It means to deepen our communion in Christ and our love for one another. It means to penetrate the mystery of God by faith, hope and love. It means to move steadily toward that full communion in Christ which is the goal of the church, the full maturity of Christ in all his members (Phil 3:12).

We pray for the coming of God's kingdom when we receive the eucharist because it is at that moment that we are in deepest communion with Christ and with the Trinity. We pray that "our daily bread" may nurture communion in Christ and full sharing of divine life, until he comes again in glory. We share the resurrection of Christ and the life of the Father. Thus we are enabled to fulfil our mission as Christians. God living in us, and we in God: this is the height and depth of what it means to be Christians, united in love.


Interchurch families are called to this spirituality, to this sharing in the mystery of God and the mystery of Christ. The eucharist enables us to "taste and see" the goodness of the Lord. We share God's presence now in shadow, but soon we will share his life in face-to-face vision of his glory.

Ernest Falardeau, SSS