My preschool aged daughter has a beloved stuffed tiger, named “Tiger.” Tiger goes with her to all sorts of places – the library, our homeschool co-op, the seminary where her dad teaches, and any Mass he can sneak into. Tiger has a lot of attitude. I insist that he be put in her backpack sometimes, but Tiger doesn’t like that. At one point I had him zippered into a backpack beside me in the front seat of the car, and I could hear him saying as I drove (in a voice that sounded very similar to the voice of his little four-year-old mama’s), “What?? I can’t breathe! What??”
Recently, Tiger accompanied us on a trip to Mass at the seminary. His little mama was struggling to pay attention at Mass, so I decided to enlist the help of Tiger in helping her focus. During the Eucharistic Prayer, Tiger was watching closely for the consecration. When the bells were rung at the moment of elevation, he began bouncing slightly with excitement. His mama loved it. It momentarily made her pay attention to what was happening. I told her, “Tiger is so excited to see Jesus!” In true middle child fashion, she mischievously began covering his eyes and ears and saying, “Now he can’t see or hear!” Not deterred, I told her, “Oh, that’s ok. Tiger will just ‘offer it up’ that he can’t see or hear.” Always one step ahead of me, the stubborn little Tiger made it clear that he was not as holy as I thought, and told me, “What?? I just love the seminarians! What???”
Maybe Tiger wasn’t there to see Jesus after all. But his antics, nonetheless, helped a four-year-old girl pay attention during the consecration.
Catechizing with Love
My master’s degree was focused on catechesis, the teaching of the faith. While I don’t fashion myself an expert, rest assured when I tell you that catechesis for children does not have to be a formal, serious thing. It is alright to use the Tigers in the world to teach our children about Jesus.
Parents worry a lot about how to teach their children about the faith, and how to keep them engaged (and behaving!) at Mass. I’ve weighed in with my tips, but truly the most important thing is to catechize with love. When my children are very small (and even when they’re bigger!) I try to shower them with tenderness at Mass. I look forward to teaching them about the theology of the Mass, but before they’re ready for that, they need to know that Mass is a place where they are loved. I do need to pull misbehaving children out of Mass. I do need to discipline mischievous toddlers. But when they are just being wiggly, what do I do? I smother them with hugs and cuddles.
For the Gospel to be believable, it needs to be preached from a place of love.
Paragraph 131 of the General Directory for Catechesis offers this succinct description of what “divine pedagogy” means, “…the Church actualizes the “divine pedagogy” used by God himself in Revelation, adapting his language to our nature with thoughtful concern.” How did God “adapt his language”? Through the Incarnation of his Son. In the Incarnation, God took on human nature. There are not words adequate to describe the disparity because human and divine nature. I’ve heard people make the comparison that the Incarnation would be like if a human being became an ant and died a horrific ant death so that all ants could partake in human nature. That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But the difference between God’s divine nature and our human nature is even greater than that. The Incarnation is, in fact, even more ridiculous than that. By all human estimation, the love of God is foolish in an almost embarrassing way.
Many of us have experienced falling in love. We may have also witnessed someone being head over heels in love with someone, and the recipient of that love being ambivalent. God’s love for his people is ridiculously excessive, because that is how much he loves us. He won’t stop, even if we crucify him. He will keep right on loving us.
Through the Incarnation, God speaks to us in a language we can understand – the language of our human nature, and human love. He speaks to us using the actions of human nature, which he has united to his own divine nature. He walks among us in a real and truly human body. He weeps. He laughs. He even tells us stories.
This divine pedagogy is the model for our own catechesis.
With our children, we can and should feel free to get creative with our catechesis. If I wanted to, I could give you a list of books that would help you teach your children about the faith. (I’m going to shamelessly plug this little picture book to use to teach your children about the Scriptural events and liturgies of Holy Week.) But any books and resources that you can use to teach your children are ultimately just tools. The real treasure that God has given you to help your children become saints is…well…you.
God has given you the specific children he has given you for a reason. He didn’t give me your children. He thought you could do a better job with them than anyone else. He gave you your specific children, knowing your strengths and weakness. He knew that no one could love them in quite the same way that you could.
Because you love your children in the way that you do, you know them better than anyone else does. You know their interests. You know their fears. You know what they are passionate about. You know how to use the stuffed tigers in their lives to engage them.
God Has Chosen You
God has chosen you, specifically, to parent the children in your care. He knows you. He knows what you can offer your children. He knows what graces you need to do the job (and will gladly give them to you!). It can be discouraging to scroll the internet and to see what some other parents are doing. You worry that you aren’t celebrating enough feast days, doing enough liturgical crafts, or making it to enough daily Masses. Those things can all be wonderful to do, but that isn’t what makes saints. Do you know how saints are made? They are made by the grace of God and by love.
You may be in a season of life where all you are able to manage is the bare minimum. You say a quick night prayer with your little ones, blessing them before bed. You pray before meals. You go to Mass on Sunday. And swimming in dirty diapers and baths and endless meal and snack preparation you worry…is it enough?
It is enough. It is more than enough, if it is done in love. Love is the most compelling catechesis there is. Love prepares little hearts to hear the Gospel. Love makes the Gospel believable. Love makes your children open to the idea of being a saint. Love is following the model of divine pedagogy.