For most people, owning a dog is not simply a matter of having a pet, but of opening wide their hearts and homes, and totally embracing a new family member who just happens to be of the canine species. And why not? Dogs are rarely grouchy or too busy to play. Actually, it’s just the opposite. Dogs love and want to play with us, no matter how grouchy or busy we are. A dog’s love is unconditional. The main thing that causes a dog to hang his head and whimper is being penned up or kept apart from his people. Of course some dogs are bred just for show, and some are kept outside due to things like allergies, and so it’s just understood that these dogs won’t ever be a part of the family in the same way as a pooch who curls up on the couch with us, or wakes us up with slobbery kisses.
It might seem an odd parallel, but I’d like to consider for a moment how our relationship with dogs and Jesus might be alike. Understand that I am comparing the experience of loving a family dog with the experience of loving Jesus, not the actual animal with the actual person of Jesus. I am doing this to give parents an image to share with their children in preparing them for the joy of First Communion. I propose that the faith life of our families, and therefore our understanding of Jesus in the Eucharist, might improve dramatically if we were to open wide our hearts and our homes and totally embrace Jesus like a beloved family member, instead of treating Him like a show dog to be brought out only when it’s socially beneficial, or like an outdoor pet to be kept conveniently under our control.
The big story of our Catholic faith is that Jesus came down from heaven to join our human family. Jesus’ love for us is so doggedly unconditional, however, that even after He died for our sins, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, He did not abandon us. Instead, through the institution of the Eucharist, the giving of His Body and Blood for our spiritual food, He found a way to remain intimately present to us. In some ways, understanding this type of love is a deep mystery, and in other ways it’s really as obvious as how we know the unconditional love of a canine family member even though he cannot speak.
In considering how we as parents might best prepare our children to understand both the mystery and the reality of Jesus in the Eucharist, our overarching goal must be to let Jesus wiggle His way into our hearts and into our homes. We must love Jesus, even if imperfectly, and let Him love us, because that love will spread like dog toys to every corner of our home. Specific ways to prepare our children at home to receive the Eucharist are many, and fall into categories according to age.
From newborn to toddler, love your child and love yourself. Practice patience and forgiveness as you learn the ropes of Catholic parenting. Be with your child as much as is possible. Go to Mass together. Light candles, sing songs, read books, and watch media that give glory to God. Say prayers at bedtime.
From toddler to preschooler, teach rote prayers to your child, introduce child-friendly saint and Bible stories, explain the parts of the Mass, and develop solid friendships with other Catholics. Expect your child to be kind in word and deed to his siblings. Let him say grace at meals.
From kindergarten to the age of receiving First Communion, expect your child to pay more and more attention during Mass. Quietly point out when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood. Bring your child to Eucharist Adoration, even if for just 10 minutes. Teach him how to pray from his heart. Explain the great graces that flow from the Sacrament of Reconciliation and avail yourself and your child of these graces frequently.
As with canine family members, I can almost see Jesus hanging His head and weeping when we leave Him out of our lives and treat the church building as if it were his “pen”. The simple fact is that First Communion is not a graduation ceremony, but an initiation ceremony, the first of many occasions to welcome of Jesus into our lives, and so we can wow our children with the miracle that each time they receive Communion, they welcome Jesus into their very bodies, the most intimate and cozy home they have to offer to Him. If we compare the joy of receiving the Eucharist to that of bringing home a new puppy each and every Sunday, I guarantee that our children will understand the type of love Jesus is offering.