I’m glad to say that each of my eight children continue to practice their Catholic faith. But I should be quick to add that, at this point, each of them still lives at home and “under my roof,” as the expression goes. When Dominic, our oldest, leaves the house next year after high school, and when Zelie, our youngest, leaves sixteen years from now, will my wife Marguerite and I still experience joy and gladness for their fidelity? Or, like many parents, will I ask myself what I could or should have done to make the faith take root in their hearts? (St. Monica, pray for us!)
Only time will tell whether our domestic devotions, prayers, and liturgies will nurture their faith. And, of course, even if Marguerite and I do our jobs perfectly (a big “if”!), what our kids do with God’s grace is the central issue. Free will can reject any gift.
Self-recriminations notwithstanding, thankfully, the Church offers numerous practices so that hearts can fruitfully receive the good seed of God’s grace. It’s not necessary to engage in all of them or even most of them, but some regular pattern of prayer in the home can—I hope—help my kids take the faith with them when they leave. So allow me to highlight three spiritual practices that have emerged—after 20 years of marriage—as central to prayer life in the Carstens’ household.
Our family’s nighttime ritual runs the gamut of prayerful possibilities. According to the playbook, each member of the family kneels and faces the room’s crucifix. We begin and end with the sign of the cross. In the middle, we say a Hail Mary, Act of Contrition, and Angel of God prayer. Each person also says one thing he or she is sorry for during the day, as well as one thing he or she is grateful for. We include a list of people who need our prayers, and end by invoking the family’s own patron saints: St. Thérèse, St. Juan Diego, St. Andre, Blessed Pierre Giorgio Frassati, and St. Gianna.
Intermingled with this ideal are the usual shouts from parents to “Turn around and face Jesus!” or to “Put that book down and pray!” Once when I told God that I was sorry for being impatient with the children, my son Laurence asked, “Which one?” Stifling a smirk and plowing ahead in our ritual, I realized that family prayer time is rarely placid and orderly. Rather, it is more often disjointed and even chaotic.
But it is also a time for kids to hear their parents (and especially their father) admit sin and guilt and ask for forgiveness. This bedtime ritual instills in each the truth of the Mystical Body: that we have an obligation to pray for those friends or family or even strangers who need our prayers, just as the angels and saints interceded for us.
Sacred Heart of Jesus
Early on in our marriage, my wife and I had an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus “enthroned” in our home. An enthronement is a solemn installation of an image or statue of Christ, along with a prayer of consecration, committing home and family to honor Jesus in his Most Sacred Heart.
We placed our image at the crossroads of the house’s multiple thoroughfares, so there are many occasions each day when family members pass by it. The image is touched and kissed by both kids and parents regularly. In fact (if I can share a homey and earthy anecdote) the image regularly bears the usual marks and smudges of any well-loved and well-used item. It’s my hope, as father of my family, that by the time these eight kids leave the house, the layers of wear and tear may well reflect the ardent nature of our devotion to the Sacred Heart.
Related to the Sacred Heart devotion is the morning offering. One version begins, “O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world….” This short prayer (we even abbreviate it further for the smaller children) is said along with the morning meal prayer at breakfast. The heart of a family, like the heart of the Church, seeks to imitate the Heart of Jesus, and it does so by giving over to him all that is important to each member. Calling to mind these essential elements at the day’s start directs the heart to God.
The Morning Offering also aids in the actual participation in Sunday Mass. When the time for the preparation of the gifts and the altar arrives, each in the assembly gives to the priest his very self—that is, his “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings”—so that through his hands, our sacrifices are united to that of Jesus, given to the Father, and divinized by the Holy Spirit. But this point is essential: the only way that our wills—mind, heart, and soul—can get onto the paten or into the chalice, as it were, is if we ourselves hand them over.
The Carstens family has found that praying the Morning Offering throughout the week (although, truth be told, the Carstens are doing well if we recite it even once a week!) prepares me and my kids for this key moment at Mass. On the way to Mass, we’ll ask the kids what they are going to give to Jesus today, what they are going to put in the chalice, what they are going to lay on the paten. Then, when the offertory arrives, the younger kids (the older ones being too cool for this) “grab” their heart’s offerings and, like a shortstop fielding a grounder, scoop them up and pitch them onto the altar.
At baptism, our kids (and ourselves) are conformed to Jesus, who is prophet, priest, and king. Uniting our hearts with his at Mass is, after martyrdom, the pinnacle of our priestly cooperation with Jesus. Mass may not always appear exciting to a six-year-old, but by the time my sons and daughters are 18-year-olds and ready to head out the door for college, my hope is that they see the Church’s greatest prayer as an essential part of their lives. My children can’t say that nobody ever told them what to do at Mass. In that fact alone, I take great consolation.
There are many ways to pray as a family, but there is no single right way. Or, rather, the right method of family prayer is the one your family needs. The challenge, it seems, is not in discovering what is best (for trial and error are of the essence), but in just doing it.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.