First Communions are on May 6 and 13 this year. Whenever I celebrate a First Communion Mass, I survey the rows of rising third graders, decked out in their photographic best, who will receive Christ’s Body and Blood for the first time. What do I see? God’s garden. I call it my cantaloupe patch. Isaiah calls it a vineyard.
“Let me sing now for my Beloved
A song of my Beloved concerning His vineyard.
My Beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.” (Isaiah 5:1)
Giving First Communion to children lays upon this pastor a sense of duty and fatherhood. I pray that all parents and parishioners feel the same way. We’re all, in one way or another, guardians and caretakers of this garden. It’s a great joy to be in a parish with families and children. In one sense, it makes me feel old. In another sense, it keeps me young. A parish with children has life. As Pope Francis said, “Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished.” I think the closest image we can get of Heaven, in this life, is a parish full of families with children at a First Holy Communion Mass. Like a child who yells, “Do it again!” when you do something that brings him joy, we should “Do it again!” every Sunday. We should all receive every Communion as if it were our First (and Last) Communion. At every Mass, earth and heaven – the natural and supernatural – come together in a happy experience of innocence and joy.
The end of second grade is a good time for First Communion. It’s a time when most kids are crossing a threshold known as the “Age of Reason.” They are beginning to know and understand the difference between right and wrong, and they are beginning to make some moral choices for which they may be praised or blamed. At that age, they embark on an adventure of discovery, but without too much seriousness. Play and learning go hand-in-hand.
The Age of Reason is a passageway into what I poetically call the “golden years,” which run roughly through ages eight and nine. In my March 12 (Second Sunday of Lent) bulletin article entitled “Dog Food,” I shared this observation about the golden years: “Kids in their golden age must get dirty and stinky. They have a primeval rationality and an instinct for adventure and discovery. Of course, this presumes that we preserve their innocence. Moreover, golden age kids should not be hampered by adults who demand too much sophistication and sanitation. It’s an age when kids have a right to enjoy unscientific experiments, and parents have a right and duty to enjoy and laugh at them. Unseriousness is the essence of the golden age. It’s about humor. The world is a playground. Life is a frontier. It’s an age of wonder, which is the beginning of wisdom. Too much seriousness is a sin against the golden age. At that time, everything should seem romantic, enchanted and free. If it were up to me, I’d lower the Confirmation age to eight, or to whenever a child first decides to try dog food.” I might add, the golden years are ideal for forming that habit of attending Sunday Mass. At that age, hearts and minds are fertile to receive the seeds of God’s love and truth.
“Nascantur in admiratione.” “Let them be born in wonder.” A sense of wonder, which comes naturally to golden age kids, if we don’t hinder it, is an invitation from God to be his friend. Children of that age are becoming capable of loyal friendship, and they are also becoming capable of friendship with Jesus. Stories about Jesus will provoke their imaginations and their desires to learn more about God and Creation. They naturally inquire into supernatural things as well as natural things, and they often take delight in learning about them. Miracles, angels, saints, bible stories, religious art, sacred music, poems and prayers feed the maturing souls of children and form their moral imagination. Once children encounter the intimate presence of Christ in Holy Communion, we must feed their blooming hearts and minds with God’s poetry – that is, his rites, rituals, stories and teachings – lest they grow up with starved imaginations and in want of meaning and purpose. Grace is not magic. It needs cultivation. Neglecting the Christian formation of a child who has received the sacraments would be like a farmer neglecting his most fertile field.
Nine years of working with youth as a high school and college chaplain have taught me this lesson: learning begins with delight and wonder, and it ends in wisdom — which is knowledge formed by love. Children must not just learn how to “do things” or “think critically.” If so, they might become “capable,” but they would lack empathy and purpose. Education ought not make kids disputatious and critical, but rather perceptive yet empathetic, principled yet gentle. Christian formation cultivates the arts of living and loving as a preparation for Eternity. Boys and girls must be formed to love the things they discover, to love the people they share them with and to love the God who made everything.
Love and knowledge must mature, organically, like an oak tree, so that a little person grows capable of serious thought, serious study and facing serious questions. But growth does not start with seriousness. If a child is too serious too soon, he or she runs the risk of growing cold. Too much pressure to “achieve” or “accomplish” is not good for kids. Golden age playfulness is an important preparation for an adulthood that is wise, prudent and gentle of heart. Childhood play and wonder pave the way for a mature personality that is generous, capable of sacrifice and willing to perform unpleasant duties with love and good cheer. It will later help an adult to face life’s difficulties without becoming cynical or dour. A human being must know the rhymes before the reasons.
My great-grandmother, whose name was Ida (pronounced E-da) and whom we called “Momee” (pronounced Muh-mee), recalled a story from her early 20th century childhood in New Orleans. One day she was playing outside with a friend who did something that offended her. Ida ran into the house and cried to her mother, “She hurt my feelings!” Mother replied, “You’re too young to have feelings. Go outside and play!” Momee told this story with laughter. Her tale is rich with insight and wisdom. It shows that golden age kids should not introspect too much. Nor should they be preoccupied with serious matters outside their little physical world (e.g. they shouldn’t watch too much news or be worried about current events). Rather, they should be enchanted with the wonders of their little real world: namely, the great outdoors, fish and friends, siblings, relatives, grandparents, living rooms and pantries, candy jars, dog food, closets and basements, play rooms, watercolors and crayons, parks, museums and zoos, worms and bugs, daffodils and dogs, mischief and mud, sports and stunts, stars and shooting stars, popsicles, flowers and frost and all things weird and wonderful. On rainy days and evenings, they should be enchanted by card games and board games, art, poems and rhymes, fairy tales and stories; and they should be permitted some experiments with “make believe” that express and even sanctify their imaginations.
Too much electronic/wireless media are not good for kids. They disengage the five senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing) from tangible reality and relationships. In the long run, wireless devices can hamper love and charity. Learning to love begins with physical reality, not with “wires and lights in a box.” A person cannot grasp “spiritual things” unless he or she first grasps “physical things.” But God’s grace brings them both together. That’s what the Incarnation is about. That’s what the Pascal Mystery is about. That’s what Mass and Holy Communion are about.
For the most part, grace works within the natural stages of growth. This is not say that a person must have had an ideal childhood in order to become holy or healthy. Humans are amazingly resilient. Moreover, grace often picks up where nature falls short. But not always. It’s not our prerogative to presume on God’s grace. All adults must face this fact: God has charged us with nurturing and forming young souls. It’s a duty for which we will have to render an account. God is merciful, and He may well forgive many offenses with surprising leniency. Except one: "If anyone causes one of these little ones, those who believe in me, to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
Christian parents, call to mind this fact: you have brought your children joyfully to the Altar to receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Therefore, you have committed yourselves to taking your children to Mass every Sunday, to taking them to confession regularly, to teaching them their catechism, bible stories and prayers, to instructing them to follow the Ten Commandments and the teachings of the Church. “Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be” (1 Peter 5:2).