I grew up pretty familiar with faith apologetics. That doesn’t mean I was some wiz at it, able to recite Bible verses and creeds off the cuff or reference philosophical proofs for God on demand. But I understood the mandate to “be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). I participated in my share of debate, mock trial, and worldview camps (yes, I was a cool kid), and I learned some principal ways that Christians can defend their faith and make an argument for its truth to others.
But I have found that arguments for truth don’t ultimately compel people. While it is important to understand truth and be able to articulate it intelligently, this reasoned knowledge is mostly aimed at convincing the mind; when we are seeking the truth we are not satisfied until our hearts buy-in as well. I’ve talked here about James K. A. Smith’s argument that we are first and foremost “desiring beings,” rather than thinking beings.¹ Faith apologetics is important and needed, but what is most compelling is discovering truth through a living apologetic. Truth pierces a person’s soul when it is made real in the life of another. If the target is winning souls for the Church, then intellectual apologetics is the bow, not the arrow. People are the arrows; and the Church needs a quiver full of them. I believe, and have experienced personally, that there is no stronger impetus for personal transformation than witnessing the heart of the Gospel and God’s plan for the Church being lived faithfully by believers. Being touched by the daily faith ritual and narrative of others, getting caught up in their story of truth, is extremely powerful. In our journey to Catholicism we had done plenty of intellectual study, but there were two families that brought the Catholic Church into our hearts.
Summer 2011 was drawing to a close. Our oldest was just three months old. We were adjusting to the joy of becoming parents and experiencing the sense of responsibility to raise our children to be faithful Christians; but we now had more questions than answers regarding what “church” was or should be. My husband had become good friends with a fellow teacher at DeMatha Catholic High School — Matt Fish. Matt had been teaching Theology at the school for a couple of years, but had discerned the call to the priesthood and would be leaving at the end of the summer to enter seminary in Rome for the next 4 years. (Fr. Matt was just ordained a Washington, D.C. Archdiocese priest this summer!)
For a while he had been telling Mike and I about these two families — the Nortons and the Pollocks — who we just had to meet; they were friends of his from college at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and they lived locally. Nate and Candace Pollock were hosting a farewell dinner for Matt at their home, along with Matt and Mary Norton, and they invited us to join them. It was kind of unusual to be invited to dinner by folks you had never met, especially since this was a special dinner for their good friend before he left. The spirit of hospitality was evident from the invitation, and it was an overwhelming presence as soon as we walked through their front door. Sometimes you meet people and just instantly know there is something special about them; you might not know what it is at that moment, but it wraps you up like a warm blanket.
It was a beautiful evening. We gathered around the table with all the kids (they each had four at the time), prayed a collective “Bless us O, Lord…”, and enjoyed a delicious home-cooked southern meal. We got to hear about a lot of their shared college experiences at Steubenville, which seemed like an amazing Catholic atmosphere to experience as a college student. (I came to find out over the next few years the tremendous impact that school was having on the lives of Catholic young adults.) As we talked throughout the evening, particularly as I visited with Mary and Candace, my heart started filling with the feeling of home. It’s that feeling you get when you have been away for a long time and come back, or that sense you get making your return from a long trip and the road signs and landmarks start looking familiar again; you know you are getting close. I had been following Christ my whole life. I had been a Christian as long as I could remember; but in my post-marriage adult years, as we were searching through faith traditions, I felt more like I was a Christian on a journey, a Christian without a home. That night I think I had my first sense of coming home, but to a home I had never known.
There was a rich culture in their home that you couldn’t miss. It was distinctly Catholic — not in an overpowering way — in a way that simply touched every element and person. Their children were delightful; they were filled with joy and welcoming hospitality — even the little ones. Since Christ was present in their home and their lives, there was an instant ecumenical spirit of a common bond that we shared in Christ. It was eye-opening for me. This was really my first exposure to practicing Catholics, at least in a way that was more substantive than a passing conversation. Until that evening, I had no reference point for what a Catholic family looked like; after that evening, I wanted that same spirit and culture in our growing family.
Getting in the car that night to return home, my eyes started to water. I told my husband that it had been a long time since I felt “at home” like that; something was being stirred up inside of me. As a new mom, I had spent a lot of time thinking about what our Christian faith would be like in our home as my children grew up. That night the presence of the Holy Spirit through the rich expression of the Catholic faith in their home inspired me. That’s it, I thought; whatever I just stepped into is something very good, something that I want in the fabric of our family culture.
I didn’t know at the time, because I hadn’t yet been introduced to the concept; but what I was sensing and perceiving–that beautiful presence drawing me in–was the domestic church, the expression of the body of Christ in the family. To me there is not a more powerful living apologetic in our modern world. A vibrant domestic church transforms culture; its goodness is contagious. I love what the Catechism says about the domestic church (the Ecclesia domestica):
“In our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to faith, believing families are of primary importance as centers of living, radiant faith…Thus the home is the first school of Christian life and ‘a school for human enrichment.’ Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous — even repeated — forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life.” (CCC 1656-1657)²
As Mike and I have begun to cultivate our little domestic church–our “center of living and radiant faith” for ourselves and our three young sons–I am so thankful for the gift of faithful Catholic families who have been an inspiration to us. They exude love, joy, forgiveness, devotion to prayer, and self-sacrifice. In a very real sense, we found the universal Catholic Church through the local and personal expression of her truth in the domestic church. My hope and prayer is that my own domestic church, and those of many other Catholic families, continue to compel hearts with their living apologetic — that when people step into the life of my family they would be wrapped in the love of Christ and of His Church.
¹ Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009
² The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition.