Restoring the roots in the domestic church
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” —GK Chesterton
“My favorite saint is St. George,” said 13-year-old Sam Elskamp with a smile. Sam knows both that St. George’s feast day is April 25 and the legend that George fought and killed an evil dragon. On George’s feast day, Sam likes to dress like the saint, and his siblings, armed with “swords,” join him in the timeless battle of triumphing over evil. This homage to St. George is just one example of a family life lived liturgically—a faith practice Sam and his family have exercised throughout his life.
Sam’s parents, Brian and Natalie Elskamp, vowed on their wedding day to lead their family in the teachings of the Church, which they’ve come to realize is more easily done when living in accord with the liturgical year and by creating a domestic church within their home.
What is a Domestic Church?
Since the first century A.D., the term “domestic church” has been used to describe families who are believers in Christ and are the smallest body of the Church.
In his 1994 Gratissimam Sane, Pope St. John Paul II explained, “The Fathers of the Church, in the Christian tradition, have spoken of the family as a ‘domestic church,’ a ‘little church.’” Single persons are not to be excluded. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, “The doors of homes, the ‘domestic churches,’ and of the great family, which is the Church, must be open to all of them. No one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone…” (CCC #1658)
Natalie and her husband’s first steps toward living liturgically within their own domestic church began with a Jesse Tree during the Advent season shortly after they were married 15 years ago. After experiencing the depth of quiet and prayerful living of Advent, which led to a beautiful Christmas, she researched the Catholic calendar’s holy days, feast days and liturgical seasons and found a true richness of traditions, beauty, truth and goodness that was new to them. These first steps began a family journey that many years later inspired a parish-wide program whose roots are spreading.
“We are tactile people,” said Natalie. “We like those different things we can touch and do. Living liturgically, we can connect with the Church, in her feasts and her fasts, which order our days and offer a depth to prayer that one cannot have without it.”
Restore the Roots
Two years ago, Monsignor Richard Gilles, the Elskamp’s pastor at St. Joseph the Workman Cathedral in La Crosse, visited the Elskamp family at their home. While there, he witnessed the family’s love and reverence demonstrated through their weaving the liturgical season into their daily lives. Monsignor Gilles immediately sensed that the Elskamp’s charism could inspire other families in the parish.
Monsignor Gilles formed a group within the parish called “Liturgical Life at Home.” The group began by selling Advent wreaths and candles before Advent. Then, they created “Epiphany house blessing kits” with blessed incense and chalk. The group’s efforts quickly evolved as Natalie had a vision to create a monthly bulletin insert that highlighted upcoming feast days and offered various ways a family could celebrate liturgical season and feast days. The idea was born from her many years of reading articles, blogs and books, both newly published and very old texts, where she had found so much information on the history and traditions of the Church. But she had to look and dig for it. Natalie wanted to provide these things for parishioners directly so that they wouldn’t have to go online or buy any books. “Restore the Roots” was born.
The first issue of “Restore the Roots” was published in May 2023, and parish families welcomed the newsletter wholeheartedly. Natalie and her team highlighted a few of the upcoming feast days and offered ideas on how a family could celebrate each day. Monsignor Gilles recommended adding catechetical information into each “Restore the Roots” issue to teach readers about the Catholic Faith and its rich traditions that span millennia.
The parish quickly embraced the content and asked for more. People in the local area began to stop by the cathedral just to pick up a copy, and other parishes asked to put it in their bulletins as well. It became readily apparent that families and individuals were hungry for a means to live their Faith in their homes, and “Restore the Roots” provided the teaching and tools to do exactly that. The four-page newsletter is thriving, and Natalie makes a point of continuing to tailor the publication to empower families, wherever they are on their faith journey.
Natalie ensures each month’s “Restore the Roots” is pleasing to the eye as it is designed to be printed and hung up for reference throughout the month. She also makes sure it contains something for everyone. The newsletter provides families with a monthly roadmap for the saint days, fun family events, prayers, resources and even recipes that can tie into a saint’s feast day. Every idea helps an individual or family weave liturgical living easily into their home. In one recent example, Pope St. John Paul II’s feast day was on Oct. 22 and that month’s “Restore the Roots” issue included a recipe for his favorite treat—Polish pierogi. Sam smiles, “My favorite thing about ‘Restore the Roots’ is the recipes.” The issue also contains an entire page on the history of the traditional monthly devotion, ways to live it and prayers, hymns or indulgences tied to it. Some months also include blessings of objects, done at Mass, that can be taken home to remind us daily of our Faith or to be used in times of distress.
The newsletter provides families with a monthly roadmap for the saint days, fun family events, prayers, resources and even recipes that can tie into a saint’s feast day. Every idea helps an individual or family weave liturgical living easily into their home.
What is Your Favorite Liturgical Season Throughout the Entire Year?
Sam pondered the question thoughtfully for a moment and replied with conviction, “Advent. Our family does so many things for Advent—the Jesse Tree, an Advent wreath, the St. Andrew Novena and an Advent book we can read daily. We also mark the O Antiphons. Advent is packed with feast days.”
And Sam knows the feast days. Without any prompting, he quickly rattles off, “Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Juan Diego, St. Nicholas,” Sam’s brother Jon jumps in and adds, “St. Lucy!” To help keep Advent as a season of preparation for Christmas, the family may bake cinnamon rolls for St. Lucy and cookies for Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe, but they only eat one to celebrate the feast and freeze the rest to save for Christmas.
Showing remarkable maturity in the face of saving cookies and cinnamon rolls for later, Sam mused, “It’s fun living liturgically.”
Living Liturgically is for Anyone and Everyone
Whether it is a recipe, a costume, a prayer or obtaining indulgences, every family can deepen the roots of their Faith with simple acts. Natalie said, “Whether a family has small kids at home or if they are grown and out of the house, whether you are a grandparent, have never had kids or are not married. You can do something.” Natalie advises, “If you have never done anything liturgically, start small. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Most importantly, open your heart to the Holy Spirit.” These simple acts not only deepen faith but, for kids, create a lasting impression. And for everyone, it provides a means to evangelize others. “A faithful and joyful person is the best means to evangelize, especially doing things others have never heard of!” Natalie adds.
She challenges parishioners to start this Lenten season with one simple action and to do it with intention. A very attainable first step to living liturgically during Lent is to remove, or “give up,” something one enjoys, offering a tangible and daily reminder of Christ’s suffering and death. Living liturgically isn’t all about celebrating feasts; it also marks the fasting days and seasons. “You cannot have one without the other,” Natalie adds. “The fasting days are easier when you have feasting days, and the feasting seasons have an unsurpassed joy when one fully embraces the fasting season before it. We are in a day and age where we have everything in abundance. It is spiritually good for us to go without.”
Reflecting, Natalie shared, “A strong faith has deep roots. We have so many beautiful traditions, customs and prayers in the history of our Church that provide deep roots for us if we only avail ourselves of them. While these might be unknown to many right now, “Restore the Roots” seeks to provide that structure and depth for the faithful. My hope is that our parish comes alive with these traditions that are lived and loved at home and spreads the Faith with zeal, far and wide.”
Story by Cathy Greenseth
Published in the January/February 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine