Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matt. 28:19-20
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of all nations,
baptizing and teaching them – and to do this in confidence that Christ is with us always. What an amazing image of growth, of life, and of power at work in us, greater than we can ask or imagine! Have we got the faith, the courage, the audacity to do that work, to live in that confidence? What help can we find?
There is a group of people in the Church whose capacity for faith, whose ability to enter with joy into the limitless power of God’s kingdom, has the potential to infuse all of us with a deeper, richer, and more empowering faith. Yet we often fail to give these people a place in the Church at all, let alone listen to their voice. But Jesus told us we need to learn from them: the children.
Children have a spirituality which is not a smaller version of an adult spirituality, but something unique. Young children have a capacity to be wholly present in their religious experience, while for adults, many aspects of life are always jostling for attention, and it is an effort to clear the way to rest fully in God. Young children enter fully into the present moment, and if that is an experience of God, then joy and love suffuse their entire beings. In the words of Sofia Cavalletti, “For the adult the immediate reality at times acts as a screen to the transcendent reality that seems to be so apparent to the child. And above all, the adult has lost in his [or her] relationship with God the essentiality that is one of the most characteristic aspects of the religious personality of the child. The younger the child, the more capable he [or she] is of receiving great things, and the child is satisfied only with the great and essential things (Religious Potential of the Child, p. 47).
Additionally, children who learn with their bodies are naturally attuned to language of sign and parable, which is the language of the Church. What adults may find difficult to express or explain is often received with simple acceptance and understanding by young children when approached through sign and parable. The mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure… children easily see the kingdom of heaven in these parables, and learn through them to recognize the kingdom of heaven hidden in many more ordinary events of life. They learn to read God’s signs all around them. Similarly, they can see in the gestures of the Eucharist the heart of the covenant relationship they live with God.
“Children will help the adult to recover certain aspects of the message and to keep awakened certain vital wellsprings within him [or her]self. Thanks to the children, the sense that the relationship with God is first of all one of joy will stay especially alive in the adult, and the adult will be enabled to free him [or her]self from some somber aspects characteristic of a particular formation, which is not yet completely overcome in our time” (Cavalletti, p. 49)
It is unsurprising, then, that Jesus told us we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven, which they inhabit so easily. How can we strengthen the Church with the witness of the children? The first step is to give children the dignity of truly believing we are in this discovery of faith together and that they have something unique to offer.
Next, we need to learn to speak the language of symbol with children, working through sign and parable to delve deeper into mystery, and thus into the presence of God. Let the parables open us into wonder instead of closing them up in definition. Let children see and wonder about the signs and gestures of the sacraments we celebrate: they provide for us the essence of the faith (and children can only see them if they are present, participating, and close to the front during the liturgy!)
Most of all, we need the humility to recognize that we are as much the recipients in this shared faith journey as they are… maybe even more so. Our Father… your kingdom come!