Suffer the Little Children
“And they brought to him young children, that he might touch them. And the disciples rebuked them that brought them. Whom when Jesus saw, he was much displeased, and saith to them: Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God. Amen I say to you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, shall not enter into it. And embracing them, and laying his hands upon them, he blessed them” (Mk. 10:13-16). Let us look briefly at this important passage from Scripture and draw a few conclusions about how Christ wants us to care for our own children.
Parents Act for Their Children’s Benefit
The above Gospel account does not tell us how many children were present, nor does it mention their age. We can suppose, however, that they were little, small enough for our Lord to take them up into His arms and embrace them. Those who brought the children were probably their parents or nurses. They led their children before Christ, a testimony to the great respect and esteem they had for Jesus. By seeking Christ’s blessing, they hoped to bring some spiritual benefit to their children, even if they only considered our Lord a prophet and did not realize that He was also king, high priest, and God.
Parents, on numerous other occasions, brought their children to Christ to be healed from their sicknesses. Here, however, the children seem not to have been suffering any illness. Our Lord thus teaches us that we too should come to Him often and seek Him freely, not only when a crisis drives us in our dire need to beg His aid. In this way we profess our general dependence on Him, our persistent love, and our unwavering faith.
The disciples, however, rejected the parents’ request as vain and frivolous, seeing these simple people as impertinent and troublesome. They either thought it below their master to take notice of little children, or they thought He was too busy with other, more important work and did not wish to be disturbed. Jesus reprimanded the disciples: “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not!” God here corrected the short-sightedness of man. Our Lord wants children; even those who have not reached the age of reason should be brought before Him.
Parents are the trustees of their children’s wills and by the rights of nature act on their behalf and, hopefully, for their benefit. Christ, in this sense, considers the actions parents perform on their children’s behalf as if the children had performed them themselves. Likewise, those parents who neglect the duty of seeking good things for the children entrusted to their care displease Christ.
Foster a Sense of Beauty, Mystery, and Reverence
But let us further consider this passage following the comment on St. Mark, once attributed to St. John Chrysostom. This gloss expands upon three aspects of the encounter between the children and Christ.
First, the gloss notes: “Being God, he still acted as a man, for he truly became man.” Jesus’ conduct accords with our physical, emotional nature. He takes the children into his arms and imposes his hands on them. Christ still wants children to be close to him today. He therefore wants parents to bring their children to church and have them surround the altar, so they can take part in the liturgy and physically enter the world of God. This is an important first step.
The gloss also notes: “Indeed, Christ imposed his hands on the children as was the custom of other men, but he accomplished what no other man could.” Christ, with this loving gesture, stirs our hearts. There is a fundamental difference between Christ’s action and those of all other men. Jesus Christ is God! Children, in accordance to their powers, must be taught to recognize that Jesus is different, above all other men. Likewise, they must learn that his house, the church, is a holy place, above all other dwellings. The rites celebrated within God’s special house of prayer belong to the supernatural world and are greater than all purely human actions. Children must learn reverence for God and for his house as best they can, and as early as they can. Most importantly, they have to develop a sense of the mysterious,
a sense of something beyond their powers to fully comprehend, a sense of overwhelming beauty and majesty.
The gloss finally explains that God desires to draw little children up to Him: “Jesus fittingly takes them up into his arms to bless them, drawing them close to his chest.” God reaches out lovingly to the souls He created in order to draw them nearer and nearer to His heart, though He will normally only do so when He finds them attentive and well prepared. Parents possess a far-reaching responsibility as God’s collaborators in the sanctification of their children. They should gradually instill into them the knowledge of God’s presence so as to prepare them for God’s loving call.
Difficulties Are Inevitable but Can Be Overcome
This brief gloss on St. Mark’s Gospel demonstrates Catholic parents’ duty to bring their children to church and to teach them about God. There will, of course, be difficulties, just as the apostles initially put up resistance. These difficulties arise from the nature of children, from the fact that many parents are charged with the care of several young ones simultaneously, and of course from the parents’ own weakness. Babies and young children are unpredictable. They make strange noises whenever they please and at times even seem to relish a good screaming fit. Soon they will crawl, then walk... then run. As toddlers they tend to ask questions constantly. Many have a hard time sitting still or kneeling during High Mass. Children find it torturous to keep silent and to listen to long sermons. Parents, for their part, cannot always keep track of all their numerous offspring and at times become either impatient or overly indulgent, failing to discipline their children fairly, firmly, and (most important of all) consistently.
Children First Learn through the Senses
The liturgy, however, is a great aid. It is sublimely sensory, with its holy signs and gestures, its grand music, beautiful vestments, lifelike statues, and ornately decorated altars. These all impress children. Children love and fear the moment when the priest sprinkles water in their faces during the Asperges. Most children carefully scrutinize the priest when he is speaking at the altar. They are amazed by the reflections of light on the golden vessels. They generally love fire and candles (especially the boys). With eyes wide open they admire the priest in his colorful and solemn vestments. He impresses them as he speaks from the elevated pulpit, even when they cannot understand what he is saying. Children are also fascinated with music and singing. They gaze curiously at statues, eager to hear the heroic stories behind each of these great saints. Finally, what a joy and honor for a young boy to be admitted to the service of the altar, to be vested in cassock and surplice, to carry the incense boat or candle!
Children clearly learn to love the Mass through their senses. Rather than fully understand, they “feel” the sanctity, awe, and mystery of this very house of God. They learn to love and respect God based on these beautiful sensory experiences. Parents should encourage their children in this holy “play.” They should promote a reverent yet childlike participation in Mass and should even share in this innocent joy. When children do attain the use of reason, parents can then build an intellectual appreciation of the Faith upon the important foundation provided by these early (and indispensable) experiences drawn from the senses.
Parents, however, must first prepare their children for church at home. For example, parents should show children how to sign themselves with holy water when they come in, how and when to genuflect, how to make the sign of the cross, how to walk and sit in church, how to recite the different prayers, etc. The church is not a training-grounds or classroom but the holy and awe-inspiring house of God and home of saints. Children must realize that any action which does not correspond to the sanctity of the church will result in exclusion and punishment. Along this way they will recognize—before they enter the church—that the house of God is fundamentally different from all the other places they know. Parents who are lax in this regard dishonor God and do a great disservice to their children.
What small children learn by example is more important than any verbal instruction. When Dad puts on his best suit and helps his son to do likewise, when mom leaves all toys and food at home or in the car, children understand that church is something different, something important, and something grand.
- Stay in the church with your child as long as he remains still and behaves well. If your child cannot be quiet, he cannot stay in the church.
- Go outside as soon as you see that your child is becoming restless. He should realize that going out of the church is an act of exclusion from the community and thus a punishment and dishonor.
- Never tolerate any misbehavior inside the church. This includes: excessive fidgeting, lying or playing on the floor, standing on the pew, making faces at his siblings, sleeping, gazing distractedly backwards, etc.
- Never discipline your child in the church as it is the place of God’s mercy. Do this outside.
- During Mass, point out discreetly to your child where he should look, what actions are most important, where the statue of his patron saint is, etc.
- Do not remotely tolerate any activity—even if your child does it silently—which is not befitting of the house of God.
- Never bring anything mundane into the church. No toys, no profane reading materials, no sketch pads, and most importantly, no food or drink.
- If you have several children, perhaps entrust some of them to other adults who will carefully guide and watch over them.
- The parents’ behavior must always set a good example which the children will then naturally imitate.
- Where possible, consider attending High Mass instead of Low Mass. Even though longer, the music, the incense, and extra additions may capture a child’s imagination and attention.
- Children should be brought back into the church itself as soon as possible.
1 I have cited this gloss as it is found in St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea in Quattuor Evangelia, (Rome: Ed. Marietti, 1953), 509: “Chrysostomus. Bene autem amplexatur eos ad benedictionem tamquam in proprium sinum elevans, propitiatus facturam suam ab eo cadentem ab initio, et divisam. Imponit autem parvulis manus, docens divinae virtutis operationem. Et quidem secundum consuetudinem aliorum manus imponit; sed non secundum consuetudinem operatur: Deus enim existens, humanum modum servabat tamquam verus homo factus.”