By Father Roch Kereszty
Special to The Texas Catholic
A number of religious educators succumb to the conventional wisdom that little children cannot have true faith. Children—so this conviction goes—only repeat the words, mimic the gestures and actions of adults with very little understanding of what is meant by all this. So, they conclude, the catechesis of children does not merit much effort, and should be left to the parents. The church ought to concentrate on adolescent and adult catechesis.
While it is true that the first and most foundational catechists for children are their parents, the cliché about the unreality or superficiality of children’s faith is contradicted by both modern psychological studies and by Scripture. In two famous books Professor Robert Coles, a child psychologist at Harvard University, has shown convincingly and concretely that children do, indeed, have profound religious and moral lives.
Remember also how severely Jesus scolds his disciples for not allowing the little children to have free access to him. The children can, in their way, understand who Jesus is and relate to him. How many of the great saints understood this and dedicated a substantial amount of time to their formation?
Babies cannot speak or form concepts and words, but even before they are born, they can feel, and feel deeply. Thus, if a baby is born into a loving family in which husband and wife are united to each other and to the baby by God’s love, this environment will be the most fundamental “catechesis” and will influence the rest of the baby’s life.
The words of the parents about God and Jesus, love, obedience, sacrifice, and forgiveness will mediate a reality to the child, not just a heap of unknown concepts. To put it briefly, if the faith life of the parents is real, so will the children’s be. Of course, children cannot provide rational grounds for why they believe in God, Jesus, and Mary, but they know they are right. If you ask them, “Why do you believe that Jesus loves you?” they will most likely reply, “because our parents said so and our parents do not lie.”
Since children have not sinned gravely as yet, they feel closer to God and heaven than most teenagers and adults. As a result, for children the existence of heaven and enjoying life with God and his angels in heaven are the most natural expectations. They are very eager to learn more about these realities. Parents and catechists should take advantage of this interest and guide their children to a deeper knowledge of heaven.
I found the following mental experiment very useful for children to understand the source of true happiness. “Imagine—I tell them—that you are given a choice between two different Christmas day celebrations. If you choose No. 1, you will receive all the fancy gifts you have ever desired, but it will be a very impersonal Christmas; no parental love will surround you. If you choose No. 2, none of your requests will be fulfilled because your family is poor, but you will enjoy the warm, sincere love of your parents, siblings and friends. Which one would you choose?”
After a few requests to combine the best of both celebrations, all children will obviously prefer the poor but loving Christmas. In this way they become more sensitized to the transcendent power of love in this life and in eternity.
Father Roch Kereszty, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column will appear occasionally in The Texas Catholic.