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After being baptized, my parents took me to Mass every Sunday for the first three or four years of my life. Then they realized I hated it, and we only went on Easter for the next six or seven. Then we just stopped.
During that time, I remember distinctly being a rambunctious, self-centered child. Homilies were filled with the sound of my matchbox cars racing up and down the hard wooden pews, and often times folks who sat to our left would have to perform a creative dance step to get around my unmoving, uncaring roadblock of a body. Couple these shortcomings with the fact that I often pitched fits at home before Mass, on the car ride to Mass, and outside the church before Mass, and you can see why my parents decided to let things go.
Then I hit 17, and things changed. During a trip to the March for Life, which I originally attended strictly to fulfill service hour obligations for my high school, I was struck by an awesome sense of peace. We prayed the Rosary on the bus ride for about an hour on the way to D.C., and I remember feeling warm and content. Nothing bothered me. For the first time in all my angst-filled years as a teenager, I felt completely together. Whole.
Needless to say, the trip was amazing, and my experiences laid the groundwork for a rich and rewarding faith journey. I was confirmed and brought into full communion with the Catholic Church three-and-a-half months later.
Now seven years later, my faith is what drives me. It’s what brings me closer to friends, family, and everyone I meet. Creating hope in the community and serving those around me in small and great acts is not only building a responsible man out of me, but nourishing my soul. Community is at the forefront of conversations, at the forefront of my heart.
But I often see parents in Mass swatting a child’s hand, or grabbing an arm and pulling them tight, all the while bending down to their level and staring them straight in the eyes with that, “If you make one more sound I’ll send you to meet your Maker” stare.
There’s no place for it. We as a Church are called to be lights, not clamps. We guide, not dictate.
Now what am I saying? Let me explain. Taking a child to Mass on a consistent basis is important. It’s something I plan on doing when I’m married and my wife and I have children of our own. But conditioning them to believe that Mass is an obligation rather than a joy through these little temper tantrums WE throw is completely irresponsible. The child that you’re squeezing loves you, and they love you perfectly. You are the source of their comfort and nourishment.
What would happen to us if God behaved the same way that we do to our children in Mass? I guarantee we would all be struck dead before the priest began the processional.
We must heal our image of God if we’re going to heal the image that we have of paternal and maternal responsibility. Like the child, we are crawling through this world. We grumble when we have to do things we don’t want to do; we get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic; we scream, we curse, we spread negativity and dissent, even to the deepest corners of our loved ones’ hearts.
So how can we be responsible parents? How can we show our child God without scaring them away? Without creating a negative condition that is triggered every time he or she sees a crucifix?
While I’m not an expert on child psychology, and I’m not even close to being a parent, I have a theory. That theory begins with us – those who are on the cusp of having children, or have recently had children who are now a few years old.
We can mold the future generations of our planet simply with prayer and sincerity. We don’t need to rule with an iron fist, but lead with an open hand. If you really want to explain God to your child, then live your faith!! Be an open invitation to the living Word of God.
Whether we like it or not, they see and emulate everything we do. If we wake up every Sunday morning and complain about getting up early for Mass. If we grumble as we get dressed and have a snarky attitude all the way up until we get to our pew, then our children will begin to do the same! If they see that you’re not at all interested in attending a parish picnic and would rather sit around and watch football all afternoon, where do you think that behavior is going to lead?
It’s going to lead to something I saw every single Ash Wednesday, Easter, and Christmas – a congregation twice the size but half as happy.
So do yourself a favor, but more importantly, do your child a favor. Invite them to talk about God. Give them the opportunity to express their faith. Embrace them when they do, and support them when they don’t, but know that whatever you do, joy and love are the keys to opening everyone’s hearts to the Mystery of Christ.
I leave you with a short excerpt from a poem written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:
In the long run all love is paid by love,
Though undervalued by the hosts of earth;
The great eternal Government above
Keeps strict account and will redeem its worth.
Give thy love freely; do not count the cost;
So beautiful a thing was never lost
In the long run.
— Ella Wheeler Wilcox