As society moves progressively farther from God’s plan for marriage, a Polish-based lay movement is providing married couples with the tools to see what God has in mind for sanctity in their vocation.
The Domestic Church movement blossomed out of a Polish movement for young people, the Light-Life Movement, founded by a friend and contemporary of the future St. John Paul II.
Now Domestic Church is expanding in the United States.
David Dawson, director of Family Life Apostolate for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, has been instrumental in establishing Domestic Church in the United States and in overseeing its growth.
ZENIT asked Dawson to tell us more about the movement.
ZENIT: What is Domestic Church and where did it get started? What was John Paul II’s role in it?
Dawson: Domestic Church is the family branch of the Light-Life movement, which started in Poland with the help and support of then Bishop Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II). It provides formation for Sacramentally married couples who want to grow in what St. John Paul II called “conjugal spirituality,” becoming united in their journey toward sainthood. Sacramentally married couples join circles of 4-7 couples and a priest and meet monthly in their homes to pray together, flesh out the fruits and difficulties of their spiritual journey, and go over new formation materials. These materials are taken from the rich spiritual tradition of the Church and include mostly Church documents and the writings of the Popes. The heart of the movement, however, is what happens at home, in their marriages and families, through basic spiritual practices that most couples are already hoping to improve: personal prayer, couple prayer, basic lectio divina (praying with Scripture), family prayer, couple dialogue and discernment, and a yearly family retreat. Couples are not given specific prayers or Scriptures to use, but are given formation in how to take advantage of each of these specifically in the context of being a spouse and a parent (if they have children).
St. John Paul II had a close relationship with the founder, Servant of God Franciszek Blachnicki, and even when he became pope, he would make visits to their retreats in the mountains and even hosted them in Rome so he could participate. The gatherings of the youth portion of the Light-Life movement are what gave St. John Paul II the inspiration for World Youth Day. The formation materials for Domestic Church are highly influenced by his thought and teaching.
ZENIT: The Holy Spirit is clearly leading the Church to focus on the family, with two synods and the apostolic exhortation bringing family issues to the fore. How do you see Domestic Church in that context?
Dawson: It has become clear that unless holiness and its fruits are truly operative in the home, in the dynamics of real family relationships, we cannot hope to make real progress in the Church, and Domestic Church exists for this very reason. Families are able tap into what the Church has always made available but specifically structured for the vocation of Sacramental marriage. It can be difficult for married couples in modern times to find a clear, detailed vision or model for what holiness looks like or feels like in marriage and in the home. Domestic Church has proven to be fruitful in giving couples just enough structure and just enough formation to get a taste of this and allow them to truly grow in it. Faith quickly moves from the realm of ideas and potentials to incarnate realities within the home and observable maturation in our relationship with God and one another.
Domestic Church formation provides no new information or strategies that have not been available for generations, but it provides the rich spiritual tradition of the Church in a way that is applicable, and the long-term companionship with other families provides a network of accountability and support. Also, since spiritual growth can only really happen in the context of participation in a Church parish, families are driven to both a deeper participation in the Sacramental life of their parish and a fuller participation in service to their parish community.
ZENIT: Can you share your own testimony of how the movement has helped you?
Dawson: When we were first married, I half expected that since we had both studied Theology of the Body and had undergone some great spiritual formation, that we would be experts right away, and the Sacrament would provide us with some sort of spiritual mind-meld. I quickly realized that marriage doesn’t work that way, and despite our efforts to bridge the gap between us, we found we were very much in need of help to achieve the type of connection we both so desperately wanted but were quickly losing hope that we would find.
Domestic Church has given us just enough structure and accountability to fight the good fight to make time for prayer, to overcome obstacles to the vulnerability of couple prayer, to work to make family prayer fruitful, and to intentionally and prayerfully dialogue about the difficult topics that we tend to avoid. We are able to experience the awesome things that God is doing together, and as a result our intimacy is greater than we could have asked or imagine. And, we are able to get deep insight into the journey of other couples, which helps us get our bearings and provides fantastic companionship.
The participation of priests in the circles has not only given them a very real insight into the long-term spiritual journey of married couples, but it has allowed them to be better spiritual fathers to us since they understand the dynamics and unique challenges of married couples stumbling on the road to sanctity in today’s world.
ZENIT: Domestic Church doesn’t ask anything complicated of its members. In fact, the commitments are pretty basic. Why do you think God inspired it that way?
Dawson: I think if we have to come up with new or extraordinary practices in order to experience what God desires for us, we are ultimately without hope. It is amazing how we tend to think that we have already tried the basic spiritual practices asked of us as Catholic lay people, and that we need something else, something more complex. What we discover in the first year or two of Domestic Church is that we have not actually reached the level of expertise in the basics, and we find it very difficult to even give the bare minimum attention to basic personal prayer, couple prayer, or lectio divina. Once we start keeping track of our spiritual practices on a daily basis, not only do we realize how seldom we do them, but how easy it is for us to avoid them. Then, once we are able to fight the difficult battle of giving time to prayer, we are easily distracted or discover that our image of God is way off and we struggle to interact with Him in a fruitful way.
The good news, however, is that once we begin to experience small victories in the daily struggle to grow in the basics, we are always pleasantly surprised by God’s response in prayer and an unexpected depth of intimacy with our spouse and children. Families usually do not have time or energy for complicated approaches to the spiritual life, so we are often deceived into thinking that we will never be able to ascend to the heights of holiness where God is waiting to meet us. However, Domestic Church provides direction and accountability to help us discover, for example, that God is willing and able to meet us in just 15 minutes of time spent focused on His presence if we fight the good fight to make that happen.
ZENIT: How do you see the short- and medium-term future of Domestic Church in the United States?
Dawson: Domestic Church has been available in Polish for 45 years, and there are now about 25,000 couples involved all over the world. Five years ago, the materials began to be translated into English for a group here in the U.S., and there are now about 250 couples taking advantage of it in nine different dioceses. The growth has been steadily increasing, though the goal is not growth in numbers. We are extremely excited and grateful for the growth in our own marriage and the beautiful, sustained growth we have seen in the marriages and families of the others who have also begun the journey together. Growth in numbers will certainly continue, but it is our hope that it will only be because people are enlivened by seeing this real, sustained growth in Domestic Church families and are given hope for what is possible in their own families.
Working in the Family Life Office at the Archdiocese of New Orleans has given me the opportunity to connect with leaders in ministry to families all over the U.S., and when I am able to share what a gift Domestic Church has been, it has not failed to strike a chord. This continues to give me hope that it truly addresses a deep, felt need, and it has been clear that God has provided for its being made available here, so I trust that He will provide for its sustainable growth in His time for many.
For more information: http://www.domesticchurchfamilies.com