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Betsy Kneepkens: We planned to build a domestic church — here’s how it’s gone

I dreaded the sign of peace when we brought all our children to Mass. I am not sure what the priest or those around could see, but there was the excessive squeezing of hands and toes that were stepped on, hugs that were attempts to pull the locks of the other, and an occasional jab into their siblings’ ribs. 

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

We knew the most significant offenders, so my husband and I strategically placed ourselves between them. Our rules were no rear ends on the pew, and you may not leave Mass until the last syllable of the last song played. What this looked like was a kid or two slouched over the pew in front of us and a mad dash to the exit after the song’s end — a few times crawling over the pews for an easy exit. 

One time we told the children that if you don’t behave in church, we are going to Mass again. As a parent, that sounded appropriate, except our parish priest, who was in earshot, leaned over to me and asked, “Are you using Mass as a punishment?” I didn’t think so, but it might have sounded like that. 

During our Engaged Weekend, my husband and I discussed our desires for marriage and hopes for raising our children. We knew that we would cooperate with God, willingly and joyfully accepting however many children God would graciously bestow on us. However, at that retreat, we agreed we would be very intentional about raising our children to be faithful Catholics. As we grew in faith, my husband and I realized what we committed to was building a “domestic church,” even if we didn’t know that there was a name for this concept. 

Although the “domestic church” desire was there, we did not know how we would build this “domestic church.” We fumbled through and hopefully got better at it as we became more experienced parents. We knew it would mean putting our faith life central to all we did as individuals and as a family. 

Although both of us were raised in Catholic homes, we felt that our upbringing was about following a bunch of Catholic rules, not understanding the purpose or reason for those rules. Most importantly, we knew it would entail deliberately living contrary to how many in our culture lived, including some friends. We had a steep learning curve, never quite perfected the work, and we don’t feel our job is done even though our children are now young adults. 

We initially acknowledged that our biggest hurdle was that we are severely imperfect as individuals, as a couple and as a family. Our lives were messy and chaotic, and even if we love each other, we didn’t always like each other. The additional massive hurdle was that each of us, parents included, are different individuals that look at the world from different perspectives. The needs and gifts of each family member were distinct, and the work of faithfulness, to a certain extent, needed to be adjusted for each one. Our daily prayers for our children vary widely depending on those individual differences. 

We realized that attending Mass together each Sunday and holy day was the bare minimum. We purchased our first home in a neighborhood with a Catholic school. We were blessed that our employment was near one. Not everyone has that privilege. 

We began saving for our kids’ Catholic education as soon as our first son was born, hoping to get ahead of the eventual investment. We wanted what we were teaching our kids at home to be taught to them while in school. We felt privileged that education was available and were unsure what we would have done otherwise. 

Families that lived as we lived became our closest friends. We joined a couples’ group, which actually was a family group, at our parish when our children were little. We gathered monthly with these other families for fellowship that included potlucks, an activity always moving into a robust conversation about our faith. These families today are our closest friends. 

My husband and I joined a Teams of Our Lady group, a faithful marriage enhancement group. It guaranteed one night a month for us without children and with other married couples that shared our faith and commitment to it. These couples also helped form us and have a special place in our hearts. 

We made our parish life central to our social life. We prayed at meals together, adding individual intentions, which was a great way to keep up with what was going on in each other’s lives. My husband and I share this tradition to this day. 

At bedtime, until the kids started staying up later than us, we usually would say a decade of the rosary together. At times, our children gathered outside the abortion clinic to pray for the lives of babies with no voice. We tried to send our children to diocesan camps and activities, and to this day, some of our children’s good friends are people they met there and have kept in touch with. 

Each Christmas, we discuss faithful charities and send a combined gift as a family. As parents, we attempted to use every angle of life, from what happened in school today to sporting activities to what we watch on television, as an opportunity to grow closer to the Trinity and our Catholic faith. 

From the outside, our domestic church was likely not as obvious. My children fought, my husband and I have had moments of tension, our children wore socks that didn’t match, and my kids often got comments on their report cards that they talked excessively. I thought every teacher wrote that about every child, but I learned that wasn’t the case. 

My children likely made uncharitable comments about others because I heard them say things that were not always kind to each other. They only sometimes cleaned their rooms when asked, and they frequently made not-so-lovely comments about my cooking. They wore their older siblings’ hand-me-downs, even my daughter, who only has older brothers, but they were never very excited about it. They usually cheered each other on when they accomplished things and provided hugs when things were tough, but not always. 

Despite these and many other failings as we attempted to build this domestic church, we observe moments where we can see that the foundation is solid. Sometimes we see it through the lenses of text messaging or in their decisions to live with each other as adults, or their coordination of attending Mass together or cheering each other on when significant life events happen. You know something went right when you see their charitable works and how willing they are to give to others. My children are still wildly imperfect, and so are their parents, but in some ways, for the most part, they are pointed in the right direction. 

We know we could have done better in lots of ways, but we are grateful that during our Engaged Weekend, we were allowed to think about embarking on this journey to build a domestic church. 

On Dec. 30, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. The celebration of Christ’s birth on Dec. 25 is worthy of a tremendous amount of attention and acts of holiness. With the state of fractured and hurting families, I believe that Christ would want our culture to emphasize the Feast of the Holy Family as we do His birth. 

If two young knuckleheads like my husband and me, who got married 36 years ago, could attempt to put Christ at the center of our family life, every one of us in Catholic families can do this. No social science, pill, government regulation, or money will correct the state of hurt and brokenness we are experiencing in families these days. Christ is our healer and putting him in the center of our families helps us ward off the evil that attempts to disunify our families. 

For those Catholics not currently attempting to build a domestic church, this country in crisis needs you to. On this extraordinary Feast of the Holy Family, commit to making a domestic church for your family and honestly for our society. 

Parents can get more information on what this would like in a family by going to Tools for Building a Domestic Church on the USCCB website ( 

Merry Christmas and happy Feast of the Holy Family! 

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.