As a father of three little girls (ages 5.5, basically 4, and 2.5), it’s not terribly often that I go to Mass on Sunday and am able to sit there, really concentrating, absorbing the liturgy, and just resting in the silence. Much more common, for me, are trips to the back of the church so someone who swore they didn’t have to go to the bathroom can avoid an emergency just about 3 minutes after having said “No, I don’t need to go.” Alternatively, I often wind up having to take someone outside for a few minutes to calm down because they just inexplicably started screaming, usually during the middle of a homily. Or, let’s be honest, the beginning of the homily. Maybe even as early as the Psalm. You get the picture.
Well, last Sunday, Gaudete Sunday, I had one of those super sweet moments. Not that the whole Mass was a breeze. I think we probably had our normal struggles. But my middle child, Chiara, decided that even though her two sissies were going to go wait at the back of the church after Communion with mommy, since they were having a bit of a rough time, she was going to stay with me for the rest of Mass. That was pretty awesome in and of itself, but it soon got even better.
After Communion, having prayed a little bit and actually appreciated some silence, I noticed Chiara just staring into space a bit. She was looking around at the stained glass windows, just observing the church’s features. Then she suddenly sees something. She is looking above the altar at the crucifix and says (somewhat loudly) “Daddy, how did he die?”
Me: Jesus? How did Jesus die?
Chiara: Yeah, how did he die?
Me: The soldiers, the bad soldiers, they put pokey nails in his hands.
Chiara: How did they get in there?
Me: It hurt, sweetheart. It was real bad.
She then just continued staring at the crucifix for a few seconds, obviously somewhat confused, a little sad perhaps. Then, back to playing with her toys or flipping through the hymnal, probably while holding it upside down.
But wow. What a moment. She’s only four years old (practically), and it’s not as though we spend lots of time talking about Jesus’ suffering. Even though I’m working on my second graduate degree doing research on Catholicism and I love the Catholic faith, I’d have to say we spend more time, percentage-wise, talking about farts than about the Passion of Christ. But our children are small. We do talk about it during Lent, and I suppose at other random moments.
Yet, my wife and I take the kids to Church every week, we pray (nearly) every day with our girls, we try to celebrate the liturgical seasons at home in special ways, etc. We make the faith a really big part of our life on purpose, because we want it to just naturally soak in for them. Chiara likely won’t have a religion textbook. She’s learning as a part of just being in our family and doing the things we do. And even though she’s not quite four years old, she realized on her own that Jesus died on the Cross. And she knows that it hurt.
Sure, she can’t answer a lot of questions about it. For instance she wouldn’t know who sentenced Jesus to death, what day it was, etc. She certainly isn’t ready to learn, like the Catechism teaches, that it’s all sinners who are responsible for the Passion (see paragraph 598), and not just Pilate or the soldiers, or even the anonymous crowds. But I like to think that she’s taking more of a Marian approach. She looks, sees, listens, and then just ponders things in her heart (Lk. 2:19).
This sort of life-long, organic approach to the faith is, I think, the secret weapon that the Church needs. Which is not to say that I’m some master catechist or the perfect model to follow. But try to imagine getting your children fired up and excited about anything else, such as a particular sports team, some type of hobby, and so forth. You can’t really help them get it with any of those things by getting them a cutesy workbook, and sending them to class once a week for a few months out of the year. More to the point, you wouldn’t want to do it that way. I didn’t learn to play catch because I joined a little league team. I joined a little league team because playing wiffle ball with my dad was fun, and so was playing catch, so why not join the team? Right?
What’s also really beautiful about these scattered moments I have with my children, and this may be the best part of it all, is that they’re forming me. They teach me something about my faith, something about the majesty of the liturgy, and the common humanity we share. Because when I see a crucifix, I’ll admit, I don’t always start to think deeply about Jesus’ death. But my daughter did, all on her own, and it challenged me to, I don’t know, have faith like a child. Haven’t I heard that one before?
God Love You!