It was the end of a beautiful but long ordination weekend. One of our dear friends was now a priest, and we were ready to begin our trip back home. As we were leaving the reception after his first Mass, we passed by the church. The doors to the church were open, and our toddler wandered in.
If you have ever had an almost two-year-old, you know that they are the busiest people in the world. There isn’t a CEO or world leader with their levels of activity. Taking a toddler to multiple long Masses and receptions in a weekend is especially tiring. We’ve never had a “runner,” and this toddler is our first experience with a child that never stops moving away from us (even in a public place).
So, when the toddler wandered into the darkened church and started walking up the aisle, I was bracing myself for having to (once again) chase her down. Just as my husband and I were about to dash after her, she stopped. She got down on her chubby little knees, faced the tabernacle, and blew Jesus a big kiss. Then she got up and toddled back to us.
I would like to pat myself on the back and say that I’m an awesome parent and my child is unique, but I’ve heard similar stories from many other Catholic parents. Toddlers need to be with Jesus in the Eucharist.
The Mass Debate
Every few months, another round of the Mass debate ensues. Do toddlers and babies belong at Mass? What should we do when our babies and toddlers babble, fuss, move around constantly, etc.? What if they’re distracting to other members of the assembly?
Spoiler alert: I think babies and toddlers belong at Mass, and the Church agrees with me. A lot of the arguments against having the littlest congregants at Mass misunderstand the point of the Mass. “Don’t I have a right to hear what’s happening at Mass?” It’s great if you can hear what’s happening at Mass, but it’s not essential to the validity of the Mass. If you can offer up the sacrifice of not being able to hear perfectly (because of the noises of children), that is pleasing to God. “But what’s the point of bringing babies and little kids? They don’t understand what’s happening!” Even the littlest children understand more than we give them credit for.
The same toddler who spontaneously genuflected and blew Jesus a kiss on Sunday, spent that morning’s Mass running around the vestibule noisily, racing back and forth from the pew to the back of the church, and finally needing to be walked around in her dad’s arms. She had to have snacks and a sippy cup to make it any length of time in the pew, and when her exhaustion peaked, she even needed to breastfeed at Mass. She is sometimes very good at Mass, but that day certainly wasn’t one of those days.
I could easily have felt like there was no point in bringing her to Mass. I could have felt discouraged by her behavior. But then, God allowed me to have a tiny glimpse into her toddler interior life. That same toddler saw Jesus, and she went to him.
Modeling Love of God
Now this toddler of mine has two big sisters, an older sibling in heaven, and two parents – all who love God very much. She’s seen her parents and sisters genuflect and blow Jesus a kiss. She’s seen her mom and sisters make a quick stop in church to offer Jesus their love.
When it comes to babies and toddlers (and really, all children) what we say matters less than what we do. My husband and I both studied theology, and that does make it easier to field the myriad of questions that our children throw our way. But no amount of theological discussion would make our daughters fall in love with Jesus. Our modeling of our love for him is what speaks volumes. When we nurture our own relationships with Jesus, then theological discussion and catechesis are no longer just an academic pursuit – they are talking about the person of Christ, who we are deeply in love with.
Toddlers imitate everything. (Which is something that I constantly must remind my two older daughters.) They are constantly trying to figure out what matters to their family, and how to navigate the world. They instinctively figure out what their family loves, and it makes them love it. We’ve seen this with our older children, too. (One of the best times for me to squeeze in my daily rosary is when I’m driving in the car. My strong-willed five-year-old used to protest this mightily, but not she is the one who reminds me to pray it and tells me what intention she wants to offer it for.)
If we model how to love, our toddlers will imitate our love. And in that imitation, genuine love will begin to grow.
The Power of the Eucharist
Whenever someone asks me for advice in catechizing their children, my favorite thing to tell them is, “Just take them to spend time with Jesus in the Eucharist. He will do more than you can.” (Of course, you need to catechize your children, but if they don’t have time with Jesus then nothing you do will bear fruit.)
It’s true. No amount of words about God can replace being in his presence. Mass and adoration don’t have to be done perfectly to “count.” A one-minute stop in adoration or an unlocked church (with a tabernacle) is more than enough, especially if done regularly. An imperfect Mass with fussy kids counts, too.
Jesus is really, truly present in the Eucharist. I have seen it happen, over and over again, both with my own children and with students of mine, that they are changed by time with Jesus in the Eucharist. You can’t fall in love with someone that you never spend time with.
Why do toddlers (and babies and children) especially need time with Jesus in the Eucharist? Not only is their reason not yet fully formed (so they don’t always understand our attempts at catechesis), but their hearts are also primed and ready for love. What we fall in love with as a child will sustain us into adulthood. Once Christ has captured our hearts, we can never fully fall away. He will keep drawing us back to himself. Christ is attractive, and by bringing our children to adoration and Mass, we allow them the opportunity to work on their little hearts.