A common prayer one hears from evangelical parents, offered on behalf of their children, is that they “come to know the Lord.” I remember hearing this prayer many times, offered by friends of mine when I was an evangelical. Although Catholics should certainly pray that our children come to know God better, we don’t need to pray that they “come to know Him.” They already do, a gift of grace they received at their baptism. Moreover, as I’ve seen in my own children, they oftentimes possess a faith far purer and honest than our own.
I was reminded of that evangelical prayer recently while taking my kids to visit their great-grandparents. Departing the assisted living community, a friendly evangelical woman who led prayer and worship services there greeted us in the elevator and asked to pray for my daughter (age 5) and son (age 2). “Yes, of course,” I said. Sure enough, she prayed that my kids would “come to know the Lord.” The evangelical presumption here is that children need to be old enough to make a personal decision “on their own” to believe in Jesus and welcome Him into their lives. Yet Catholic kids don’t need that kind of prayer.
As the Catechism teaches, baptism “actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one “can enter the kingdom of God” (CCC 1215). Furthermore, “the baptized have ‘put on Christ.’ Through the Holy Spirit, Baptism is a bath that purifies, justifies, and sanctifies” (1227). Through baptism, rightly administered, every Christian is cleansed of his or her sins, and receives the Holy Spirit, a remarkable work of grace in the light of every recipient of this holy sacrament.
This Catholic teaching has significant Scriptural pedigree. The New Testament consistently uses baptismal language to describe the Holy Spirit coming upon Christians. In Acts 10:45, we read “the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” St. Paul writes in Romans 5:5, “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 6:11 he says, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Again in Ephesians 5:26 St. Paul speaks of Christ loving the Church, “that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” A great practical exercise to see this connection is to go through the New Testament and highlight in blue how many times water references of pouring or washing are associated with the giving of the Holy Spirit — you’ll be amazed.
Catholic children’s devotional practices and prayers substantiate the reality that they indeed have “come to know the Lord” through their baptism. Children love to touch and kiss prayer cards, crucifixes, and statues of the saints. They enjoy lighting candles at church and offering a prayer for someone. Parents and family can read and teach Bible stories to them very early, even before two years old.
My five year old daughter knows the Our Father and the Hail Mary. She knows by heart more Bible stories, and probably even more theology, than many adults — she knows, for example, that she received the theological gifts of faith, hope, and love at her baptism. She talks about praying to Jesus, asking for His help, and, sometimes, that she wants to “marry” Him. She asks deep, honest questions about God, and expects good, satisfying answers about Him. Of course her thoughts and ideas about God are nascent, developing, and imperfect. Yet there they are, like a little seed slowly growing into a great tree “planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in season” (Psalm 1:3).
Is this not what our Lord Himself declared? He told his disciples, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Moreover, shortly thereafter, Matthew describes children “crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’” Jesus rebukes the chief priests and scribes who admonish the children, stating, “Have you never read,
‘Out of the mouths of babies and infants
You have brought perfect praise’?”
If children cannot know the Lord, would not Jesus have agreed with the Jewish religious elite that children didn’t understand what they were saying, or couldn’t possibly know God in any meaningful way? Yet Jesus says precisely the opposite, claiming that even babies are capable of offering “perfect praise” to Him. Surely then toddlers and little children can “know the Lord.”
What is sad, and worthy of our prayer, is that many evangelical parents don’t baptize their children at all, believing that their kids must make a mature, public profession of their faith before they can receive the sacrament. Several years ago my wife visited an evangelical church, along with my eldest daughter, where the ushers insisted she spend the entirety of the service in the cry-room. Besides the implicit anti-life message communicated by this gesture, it’s also suggestive that little children can’t worship God like the big adults.
This paradigm greatly hinders the children of many Protestant parents from enjoying and growing in a life of grace through the power of baptism. In truth, it’s we Catholics who need to be praying fervently that the children of our Protestant brothers and sisters “come to know the Lord.” For, as St. Paul exhorts us, “he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).