“Hi, Jesus! I love you, too, Jesus! Mmm …” my oldest daughter blows Jesus a kiss as we drive past a Catholic church on the way to a play date. Normally, I initiate the ritual, but she does it on her own today. The motion is natural to her, effortless. She knows that Jesus is there, really there, in the church. She knows he is present in the Eucharist.
She is also only 3 years old.
She isn’t a prodigy or a saint. She’s an average 3-year-old. She loves to play with her dolls, watch cartoons, read books, and smother her baby sister with affection. She throws the occasional whopper of a tantrum. So, how is it that she possesses such a sweet and pure piety?
When it comes to raising babies and toddlers in the faith, the advice I hear falls into two camps. The first line of thought emphasizes taking little ones to Mass in order to help them learn about their faith and learn how to behave. The second line of thought emphasizes the need for parents to manage their expectations and not expect too much from their little ones at Mass.
There is truth to both of these perspectives. I’d like to add a third perspective — that of focusing on just bringing them to be with Jesus when they are small. Yes, you should teach them, and it is also helpful to keep in mind that they aren’t at the level of an older child yet. But we should not limit the faith we offer to these little ones. We shouldn’t be afraid to offer the faith to them in all its fullness … and that includes offering them a relationship with Jesus in the Eucharist.
From the beginning of their lives (even when still nestled inside me), I have made a point of bringing my daughters frequently into the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. This time with him is part teaching, as they learn about Mass, the sacraments (especially the Eucharist), the saints, etc. I manage my expectations for this time, knowing that they will not be able to behave perfectly and that they may not fully grasp what I tell them.
But my focus for their time with Jesus is something beyond knowledge of who he is, beyond learning how to behave in church. I want them to know that they are children of God, wanted and loved by him. I want them to learn to love him. And so, we take them to be with Jesus in the Eucharist as often as possible. They may only spend a few minutes in Adoration, and they may have to be carried out of Mass multiple times each Sunday (or weekday). The goal is for them just to be with Jesus in the Eucharist.
Their love of him is so sweet, so innocent. I thoroughly enjoyed listening in on the conversation my older daughter recently had with Jesus in Adoration. She informed him that Mary was in heaven with him (I’m pretty sure Jesus is aware that his mother is by his side, but my daughter recently learned that about the Blessed Mother, and she wanted to be sure he knew, too), and then she invited him to play some sort of game involving alligators with her. I’m not sure what she had in mind, but the point was that she invited Jesus to play with her. She looked at Jesus in the monstrance and saw in him a friend.
My younger daughter does not yet know much about Jesus. We take her to Mass and Adoration with us, but she is usually more concerned with getting her diaper changed than she is with the goings-on at Mass. Still, we whisper to her, “Jesus is here. Jesus loves you.” And a quick look at her older sister reminds us that this persistence pays off. I’m reminded of this every time I hear a small voice in the backseat chirp, “Hi, Jesus! I love you.”
Oh, my little girl. Never forget that he loves you, too.