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Children can teach adults how to pray

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Archbishop Fisher with students at the St Mary’s College Bicentenary Mass.   Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Archbishop Fisher with students at the St Mary’s College Bicentenary Mass. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

During the first few weeks of the school year, I have had the great joy of meeting a great number of young children who have started school for the very first time. Without exception, they have been energetic and enthusiastic new learners.

In particular, I have been struck by their enthusiasm for religious education, which is modelled on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Godly Play. Both approaches recognise the innate spirituality of young children and their capacity for stillness and reflection.

These catechetical approaches engage children’s natural curiosity, imagination and wonder as they hand on the greatest story of all, in ways that meet the children’s deepest needs. They draw on the richness of our Catholic tradition: the Bible, the liturgy and the wisdom of the church’s teaching.

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The children love listening to the stories and having the opportunity to reflect upon them. The stories stimulate their imagination, and even at a very young age, young learners can relate them to their own lives and experiences.

When visiting the classrooms, I have watched on silently as the children have asked questions and shared insights. It is clear that they have internalised what they have heard.
Most of the children will have had common learning experiences such as learning to read, or will recognise the “times table” from home or from early learning centres.

But many will never have prayed before. They would be unfamiliar with the prayers of the Catholic tradition, and opportunities for spontaneous prayer.

Despite this, you would never know it. The children love to pray.

Many find inspiration in the stories of Sacred Scripture, possibly because they provide a very clear example of God’s love for us. Others are drawn to the symbols, rituals and words of the liturgy.

What is apparent, is that young children have the capacity for prayer and they see it as meaningful. While they enjoy ritual and repetition and learn with ease the prayers of our tradition, they place particular value and importance on their own spontaneous prayers.

For five-year olds, these intentions typically include the happiness of their parents and siblings, the making of friends and the welfare of pets. Like adults, their prayers reflect both their hopes and their concerns.

Unique to their time of life however, their prayers often exhibit unfiltered wonder, awe and delight in the gifts of God’s creation. For me, their sense of joy, was a joy to listen to.

They also often use few words and are very comfortable with silence.

Children learn to pray through the experience of prayer, and they look to the adults of their world to model this to them.

Importantly, teachers and parents should pray with them, and should provide regular opportunities for both traditional prayers and children’s own prayers.

Recently, Pope Francis called for a Year of Prayer as a time “dedicated to discovering the great value and the absolute need for prayer in personal life, in the life of the church and of the world”.

I believe that young children can “lead the way’ with the Year of Prayer. There is much in their nature from which adults can learn: their openness and receptivity, their imagination, their simplicity, their capacity for joy and their abiding trust in the God who loves them.

As parents, teachers and catechists we need to recognise, appreciate and nourish these qualities, so that they are not lost as the child grows older.

May we be ever mindful of the words of the Lord himself:

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. I tell you solemnly anyone who does not welcome the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mk 10:13-16).

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