Monday, July 20, 2009

The Prime Years for Catechesis are in Childhood

"Give me a boy until he is seven and I will show you the man." -- St. Francis Xavier

This profound quote reflects the truth God reveals to us in sacred scripture: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6)

The youngest years of childhood are the most impressionable years of human development, and it is for this reason that it is the most crucial time for laying a solid foundation for their Catholic faith. Before the age of seven, children learn primarily through imitation and many a child can be witnessed imitating the words and actions of those around them. They are like sponges, absorbing everything innocently and uncritically, but it is the actions which tend to speak louder than the words.

It is no accident that in sacred scripture, God calls on adults to become like little children: "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (St. Matthew 18:3) Children are characterized by their ability to readily believe; they trust what they are being taught, and when actions give further witness to that teaching, it penetrates to their very being, becoming a solid foundation for their Faith to be built upon for years to come, including the years of adolescence and adulthood when there is the greater tendency for hearts to become hardened.

Young children are capable of learning and believing in that which may even be considered the most difficult doctrines of the Catholic faith to teach to adults; for example, the doctrines of the Blessed Trinity and the Real Presence (both of which are necessary in liturgical catechetics). The Trinity should be taught to young children by simple explanations, like those in the Balitimore Catechism No. 1, and in teaching them how and when to make the sign of the Cross through imitation and practice. This lays a foundation for this central doctrine of their Faith. Likewise, teaching the doctrine of the Real Presence should be taught through simple explanations, and corresponding postures and gestures which will exemplify the belief.

Let us look specifically at this doctrine, and which actions will deepen the belief.

The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has given witness to the tradition of Holy Communion kneeling and on the tongue at papal liturgies; Monsignor Guido Marini, the master of papal ceremonies, stated that this expresses “the truth of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, helps the devotion of the faithful, and introduces the sense of mystery more easily." In other words, kneeling and receiving Holy Communion on the tongue helps the faithful to believe in the mystery of the Real Presence. This is precisely the reason that these actions help in teaching children about the Holy Eucharist.

What does a child learn from kneeling and receiving on the tongue? Kneeling gives an immediate sense of humility, awe and adoration of Our Lord; that Jesus is really before us and received by us. Receiving on the tongue also gives one a sense of being nurtured, dependent, and trusting. All of these are necessary dispositions for uniting ourselves to Christ in the sacred liturgy and being open to the graces bestowed on us through the Mass and Holy Communion.

On a practical level then, Latin rite Catholic children should be taught how to receive Holy Communion on the tongue. They may be told about receiving Our Eucharistic Lord this way, but they need more than simply being told; they need to actually practice it. After all, whether we are speaking of the usus antiquior or the modern Roman liturgy, this practice is the normative method for Catholics according to liturgical law.

I would propose to parents and catechists, then, that they make an increased effort in teaching and emphasizing the tradition of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue. This said, we must be careful how we approach the matter. Namely, it should be taught with great reverence and dignity and should not be experienced by the child as a silly or awkward matter. Sadly, I have heard a catechist instruct a group to stick their tongue out like a frog; it then became a joke among them. If we expect our children to approach the Holy Eucharist with reverence, then they must be so taught. Indeed, no matter how often a child is told that Our Lord is present in the Holy Eucharist, and no matter how he will repeat those words back to you at your beckoning, if our actions do not reflect this awesome mystery, the actions will speak much louder to them than the words.

Many Catholic parents tend to be of the mistaken thought that young children are not capable of learning the doctrines of the Faith, so they don't bother teaching them to them, and accordingly miss out on these important formative years. Yet, quite ironically, many of these same parents have no hesititation enrolling their children in all sorts of sports and lessons well before the age of seven. The late Father John Hardon, S.J., wrote of a Catholic family he visited, where their 5 year old put on a splendid ballet performance showing him what she had learnt at her lessons. Later that evening, he asked her if she could make the sign of the Cross, at which time her mother quickly interrupted, "Oh, Father, she's too young to know how to do that." Ironic is it not?

If we want to raise future generations who will grow up to be solid and faithful Catholics, we need to lay a solid foundation for the Catholic faith; the best time to begin is in childhood. A child who believes in the doctrines of the Faith before the age of seven, will more than likely be an adult who believes in the doctrines of the Faith. The seeds of Faith that are planted in early childhood will grow and benefit them not only for their entire life, but even better, for all eternity.

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