By Francis Etheredge
‘In sermons and talks, use simple language and a homely conversational style to explain each particular point” [and, as] “far as you can, give plenty of examples’ (an excerpt from St. Vincent Ferrer, 1350-1419, On the Spiritual Life).
The advice of St. Dorotheus (c. 505 – c. 565), an Abbot in the age of the Fathers of the Church, invites us to find fault with ourselves when things go wrong. He is discussing why one brother can upset another and says: ‘we can say the reason for all disturbance[s] is that no one blames himself’.
More directly relevant, then, to these thoughts on introducing our children to the sacraments of Christian initiation is that the Catechism of the Catholic Church, says, ‘Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist – lay the foundations of every Christian life’ (CCC, 1212).
In what follows, then, there is a mixture of our experience, from different times, of introducing our eight children to the Christian Faith; and, indeed, it is both an ongoing work and, at the same time, it is ever the work of God.
Saints. Paraphrasing St. Augustine of Hippo, we must accompany all that we do with prayer, begging God that our words will bear fruit because of His interior help! While, then, quoting these saints is not exactly to do with introducing our children to the sacraments of the Catholic Church, yet their advice is invaluable to us because, after all, it is how we live and react which communicates whether or not our faith is a “lived faith” or not. And, therefore, what helps us helps our children. When, however, it comes to the sacrament of Confirmation and the choosing of a confirmation name, we may want to talk about what saints we are influenced by, and why, and explore the possibilities for our children. A writing-child may choose St. Luke, the patron saint of artists, thinking that because he was a writer he is the patron of writers – whereas St. Francis de Sales is both the patron saint of writers and a wise counsellor, advocating that we pray as we can. A child who loves cooking, in addition to everything else, chose Martha, the sister of Mary; remembering, at the same time, having been busy with life to take time out with the Lord!
“When, however, I called my son he did not come; and, mortifying as this was, it showed me that my relationship to him was very imperfect.”
Relationship. I have both attended classes with our children and taught them ourselves. On one occasion, I was attending a first communion class with my eldest son and we had to let the children go to a corner of the room and, in due course, call our own child back to us. The whole point of this exercise was to illustrate Christ’s relationship to us: We are His sheep and He is the Good Shepherd; and the sheep know His voice (cf. Jn 10: 27). When, however, I called my son he did not come; and, mortifying as this was, it showed me that my relationship to him was very imperfect. Incidentally, what may have given us grief as parents may not be the criticism our children challenge us with later; but, nevertheless, it is important to listen and to reflect on them.
At the same time, however, it is generally a part of any sacramental preparation program to both “review” our faith generally and, at the same time to consider it as a natural opportunity for the sacrament of reconciliation. Discussing concrete examples of problems can be an indirect way of addressing a common one; however, if something is very obvious, a candid discussion can be a way forward. Challenging a child’s preoccupation with the use of the phone, an almost “totally uphill” task may result, unexpectedly, with one of them turning to us, having compared our “two-hour slot” to others and saying: “I am glad that you didn’t allow me to be on my phone for six hours!” But, as St. Don Bosco says, sometimes it is necessary to say less and pray more!
Resources. It is good to use a variety of resources to stimulate us, and our children in our faith-conversations: whether it is the Adult Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Youth Catechism, called YOUCAT, novels, like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Christine Sunderland’s The Magdalene Mystery or films, like Unbroken, or Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son, all of which need to be appropriate to the child’s age and awareness of life. At the same time, let us not avoid the difficult questions. When we went to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, news of abuse was breaking. My prayer was twofold: that we need to recognise that the Lord brings to light what needs just recognition and healing; and, at the same time, that He needs to help us to answer the difficult questions which arise, knowing that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church (cf. Mt 16: 18).
These conversations can be both at a set-time and at any time. Indeed, St. Don Bosco observed that a particularly good time for children to raise their questions is before sleep, when I often get questions on ethics, heaven, hell, the soul, purgatory, prayer and when there are particular difficulties with friendships. Thus, with regard to the sacrament of Confirmation, that sacrament which indicates our turning outwards to others, we begin to see a kind of practical implication that we need preparation and help to be ready for “who” or “what” we will encounter.
When, however, we are considering a set time, there is a plan which begins with Creation and the history of salvation, a recommendation which again goes back to St. Augustine of Hippo if not earlier.
God as Creator. Whatever the problem with discussing creation, whether it is what kind of account it is, whether or not evolution is a competing account or how our own faith is founded on God who brought new life to me as a sinner (cf. CCC, 298) – it is crucial to recognise that God as Creator is the God whose word brings about what it seeks to accomplish (cf. Is 55: 11). Thus beginning, however briefly, with the history of salvation, we begin to see that God is faithful to His act of bringing to exist a good creation by providing for the coming of His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit who, together, bring the remedy that undoes, more and more, the harm of the original disobedience to God which, as we discover, we continue if we do not turn to Him for help.
At the same time, we can begin with ordinary examples of setting out to accomplish, by word and deed, an event that unfolds in time. Marriage, for example, comes about with the word of consent of a man and a woman; and, therefore, there is an outward word which bears an inner act of God – that what God has joined man may not put asunder (cf. Mk 10: 9). Alternatively, almost all projects, like building a house, begin with a commissioning buyer, an architect’s design and the activities of builders. In other words, just as we can see all around us the evidence of work, so it is not difficult to recognize that the order of the world, weather, soil, cultivation, human work, animal and bacterial activity, all contribute to a human ecology that is too coherent to be accidental; and, indeed, while there are chance elements, like what particles of gas are where, the overriding order takes up all that is “random” and shows us how it fits in to the systems of the world. In other words, just as ideas exist in what is made, the spiritual power of God brings about concrete effects.
Sacrament. The specific actions of God, then, that we call sacraments are the actions of Christ “embodied” in the action of His Church, whether through priests, laity or even a person who, in an emergency, is not even a Christian but baptises with the intention of the Church – both pouring water over a person’s head and proclaiming our adoption by God in “The name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. A sacrament, then, paraphrasing St. Thomas Aquinas, is an outward sign of an inner action of God. Just as a word is a sound but has a meaning, a kiss is a sign of love or betrayal, so the Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, is an event of Christ being with us through the action of His Church. Just, however, as we cannot see a visible change in a married couple because of the words of consent so the Eucharist, the sacrament of thanksgiving, bringing the body and blood of Jesus Christ to exist as our food for life, brings to exist a change we cannot ordinarily see. But, like the food we eat, the Eucharist builds us up in the reality of being Christ the servant. Similarly, with the sacrament of Confirmation, we do not automatically become witnesses to what God has done in our lives but, little by little, the impulse to speak of God begins to shape our thoughts and actions and to make a “visible” difference in our lives: a positive difference that we can begin to share. Indeed, it might be that we accept, with a struggle, to dress modestly, to pray at mealtimes or to renounce a destructive habit.
“The whole Creed, beginning with “I believe in God the Father Almighty”, begins to take on a more personal meaning and, at the same time, this personal meaning is informed and infused by the teaching and the life of the Church …”
In general, then, the whole Creed, beginning with “I believe in God the Father Almighty”, begins to take on a more personal meaning and, at the same time, this personal meaning is informed and infused by the teaching and the life of the Church which comes, both into our own lives and the life of the world as a leaven which, freeing what we do from sin, it will be ‘illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom “of truth and life, a kingdom of justice, love and peace”’ (Gaudium et Spes, 39).
Mr. Francis Etheredge is a Catholic layman, married with eight children, plus three in heaven and a writer. More on theology in Scripture: A Unique Word and books one and two of a trilogy, From Truth to truth: Volume II – Faith and Reason in Dialogue and Volume III – Faith is Married Reason, published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. He has earned a Certificate in Religious Education, a BA Div (Hons), an MA in Catholic Theology, a PGC in Biblical Studies, a PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction).