Column: Aunt and uncle’s ‘domestic church’ both welcomed and challenged

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

Last week, I wrote about my Aunt Dolores, who died earlier this month at the age of 86.

She was the mother of eight sons and grandmother and great-grandmother to a much larger family. thinking about my Aunt Dolores and how she spent her life as a wife and mother has been a helpful meditation for me as the entire church prepares for the upcoming Synod on the Family.

Sadly, the importance of vibrant marriages and healthy families is undervalued in our culture. Many of the societal challenges of our time have their root causes
in the deterioration of family life. Parents, and mothers in particular, do not receive much cultural support if they choose to devote their lives to the care and nurturing of their children. Yet, there is no more important responsibility than the formation of children. Truly, the health and future of civilization depends on the development of healthy and virtuous adults for the future.

When I think of my Aunt Dolores caring and raising eight sons, I cannot imagine a more challenging or important responsibility. In reality, she was the chief operating officer of a complex household. Just the logistics of feeding eight boys and with my brother and me — 10 boys — was no small feat.

She was the chief medical officer for this little community, exercising preventive medicine and germ control by providing each son and nephew with a color-coated metal “glass” that was for our exclusive use. What illnesses she could not prevent, she either cured by dispensing aspirins or Benadryl or nursed us tenderly back to health.

Aunt Dolores was the banker and bookkeeper for the household. She was the tutor for each of her sons, coaching them on how to achieve the maximum according to their unique aptitude and set of talents. She was an incredible recreation director, encouraging her sons and nephews to entertain ourselves with sports and creating our own games, which always had some educational purpose. She took us on annual pilgrimages to visit the Science and Industry Museum or some of the other wonders of Chicago.

Those summers spent in Griffith, Ind., with my cousins are some of the most memorable parts of my childhood. Every day was open house at my aunt and uncle’s. There was always a steady parade of my cousins’ friends adding to the usual mayhem. During the day, we would play baseball and swim. At night, there was usually some family game we played that caused us to laugh so hard our sides ached. There was always plenty of excitement and laughter and fun at my aunt and uncle’s home.

In church lingo, we speak of the Christian family as the domestic church — the house church. The Christian family is the church in miniature. The domestic church that my aunt and uncle presided over was a place where all were welcomed, respected, accepted – and at the same time – challenged to be our best.

My aunt and uncle’s faith was the foundation for their lives and the life of their family. The parish was the center of their lives. It was really through their participation in the parish that they formed incredible friendships that became as important as family to them. What they experienced at St. Mary Parish in Griffith was truly the church at its best.

Many evenings during those formative summers, I remember praying the rosary together. With this gang of boys a lot of times, in reality, it was not the glorious, joyful or sorrowful mysteries that we prayed, but more like
the hilarious mysteries! Still, those times of prayer made a deep impression on all of us. There was never a question about Sunday Mass. It was
a given. It was an anchor to each week. We never missed giving God, who had given us everything, his time.

Through the years, I had many discussions about different aspects of our Catholic faith with Aunt Dolores. Occasionally, she would call with some question about the church or why we believed what we believe as Catholics.

Sometimes, I would receive these calls in those rare instances when Aunt Dolores was skeptical about an answer my mother had given her. She was questioning Mom’s magisterial authority or at least seeking a second opinion. She always had a healthy curiosity about the faith, seeking to understand better the rationale for what we believe.

In later years, Aunt Dolores developed a real love for the Divine Mercy chaplet. She identified with its simple plea for God’s mercy. She never claimed perfection
for herself, and she certainly tolerated a lot imperfection in the rest of us. We all knew her love was not contingent on us always doing the right thing. In part, she loved our Catholic faith because she understood it was not about perfecting ourselves, but about being transformed by mercy and grace.

The rosary remained an important part of her life. It
is beautiful how the rosary — so simple a child can pray it, but so profound that it has nourished the souls of great saints — continued to be important in Aunt Dolores’ life. Near the end, when she could respond to little else, the familiar cadence of the rosary was a great comfort for her.

She prayed faithfully for each member of her family that they would know Jesus also as the way and the truth and the life. She wanted them to discover the abundant life that she had found and that our Lord offers to those who love him and strive to follow him.

I was edified by how my cousins and their families cared for my aunt during the last months and weeks of her life. She was constantly surrounded by family. One of my cousins, in reflecting on this, wrote this observation in a letter enclosed with his Christmas card:

“I like to think she knows how much we’re trying to give back as much as we can in return for the decades of care she gave to us. During visits, my brothers and I read her the many cards she receives from people she touched during her well- lived life. The memories and stories within those cards reveal how tangible a presence my mom has been in this world. I feel small and inconsequential by comparison. She and my dad really knew how to live, to have fun, and to love.”

Aunt Dolores really lived a wonderful life! Much like the theme of that classic Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed movie, how much poorer so many of our lives would have been without her! Well, as a matter of fact, a good portion of the congregation at her funeral Mass would never have even existed were it not for her and my uncle’s love — their generosity and openness to giving life.

Truly, they lost in one sense their own lives but, through it all, they found the abundant life that Jesus promised to those who choose to follow his way.

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