Recently, I came across an online discussion of the value of a family altar in a Catholic home. I was immediately drawn to it as I have long strived to integrate the idea of the family as the domestic church into our home life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1666) states:
The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith. For this reason the family home is rightly called "the domestic church," a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity.
When my children were little, we tried to live the domestic church through simple daily family prayers. On Sunday nights, we had special family devotions that Daddy was to home to join and lead. Usually it was a bible reading with questions and answers, or similar activity. As the children matured, our teaching and our prayer time took on different forms (the rosary, the divine mercy chaplet, topical conversation, reading spiritual books, making retreats, etc.)
For me, over the years, the idea of the domestic church idea has grown beyond being about the family prayer circle, the house and its furnishing began reflecting it too. We've strived to make the house homier by adding décor that reflects our faith.
After 27 years of marriage and family life.... religious objects have blossomed to occupy more than one space or one room.
It began one day many years ago when I was praying, and I felt the Lord was nudging me to be a little bolder in my faith…. I was new in town and was a bit shy about meeting new people, or being "overtly" Catholic in front of my neighbors. Many of them were not Catholic, so I was respectful of these differences and started by just letting actions speak louder than words.
The change really came when I dared to put a statue of the Blessed Mother in our living room… right where our guests could see it upon entering the room. It was a beautiful sculpture of the Madonna caressing the Infant Jesus. I was amazed at what a simple conversation-starter it became.
After we moved into our current home, we asked the local parish priest if he would come and bless it. He was happy to meet new parishioners and made an appointment to come one evening after dinner. He went about blessing each room (even bedrooms!) with prayer and holy water. Then he stayed and joined the family around our table for coffee and dessert. (Not only was it a great way to begin assimilating into the parish, after the house was blessed, I felt that every room of our home could be a sanctuary, and a place of blessing, not just one place or space.)
Next, in light of devotion to the rosary, my husband and children gave me an outdoor statue of Our Lady of Grace as a Christmas present. Later that spring, we put in the center of our backyard flower garden. We made a small slate footpath that led to Mary, and planted appropriate flowers there. Mary’s presence graced years of playtimes, barbeques, and backyard celebrations.
Every morning I spy Mary as I look out my bathroom window while I prepare for the day. And on moonlit nights, her white paint seems to "glow" and I can see her image reflected in the yard as I prepare for bed.
In 1998 I made a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal. Being a very Catholic country, I found it was not unusual to see not only to find a family altar, but a "chapel" in a Portuguese home. These chapels often had a family altar, adorned with appropriate candles, statues, and maybe a kneeler and a few chairs. In small towns in Portugal, there are undertakers but not many funeral homes, so, besides prayer, this room was used for family wakes too.
I came home from Fatima with a 30-inch statue of Our Lady of Fatima (also known as Our Lady of the Rosary.) Since then, she stands tall on a 4-foot speaker that serves as a podium for her in the corner of the living room (and the Madonna has since moved to my bureau). The living room is where we have prayed the family rosary over the years, often lighting a votive candle there for special intentions. Often, as I pass Mary during my daily duties, her presence catches my eye to kneel or stand before "her" momentarily asking for help and intercession.
On the opposite wall in the same room, there is our family crucifix – a replica of the cross of San Damiano, from which St Francis received the commission to rebuild the Church.
So, these days, if you sit on the living room sofas, you are seated "with" Jesus and Mary looking toward you. They are part of the conversation!
I grew up with a crucifix in each bedroom, so that is something I always did. In our master bedroom, there is a prayer chair in my room next to that crucifix and I’ve spent many hours there talking to the Lord or reading the Word, often while nursing a baby or comforting an child who was ill at night. Over the years, it has been my little retreat space, to do as Jesus recommended: "when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret." A while back, I placed a small table altar under the crucifix, adding a ceramic jar that holds written prayer intentions placed in it.
The mantle piece over the fireplace in the family room changes with the liturgical seasons... and is a great spotlight space to redecorate in different ways.
There is also our "hall of fame" -- the hall leading out to the front foyer contains icons of Jesus, and my children's patron saints, plus a few more. After collecting these treasures over the years, it occurred to me to group them together – as I do with family photos – since the saints are part of our family of faith! (Not to mention they remind us of what we aspire to as we head out the front door!)
At dinner times, we light a candle to remind us of Christ, our Light, who joins us at our table. Since we live a great distance from our extended family, the candle also brings to mind all our loved ones who are bound to us in Christ. We remember them by name in our mealtime prayers. (In recent years, I have found this little prayer especially helpful when I am missing my "big kids" who are away at college most of the year.)
Finally, we are birdwatchers and have multiple feeders outdoors in our front yard. And, so, the trend continues. One of our favorite patrons now sits in the front perennial garden.
So, the next time you come up the path to visit the Gohn’s you’ll first be greeted by St. Francis, in statue form, as you make your way to our front door.
Welcome, dear guest, we greet you in the name of Christ!
©2009 Patricia W. Gohn
About the Author
Pat Gohn is a married "empty-nester" with three adult children and one grandchild. By day she is the editor of Catechist magazine. And by night the host of the Among Women Podcast. Her books include the award-winning Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood, and All In: Why Belonging to the Catholic Church Matters. Visit PatGohn.net