Let Children Aim High This Lent

We should see our children’s youth not as a hindrance to bold acts of love, but as an asset.

“I’m giving up snacks for Lent.” This resolution on the part of a co-worker, friend, or spouse might present itself as laudable. You’d cheer this person on and offer support. But what if it comes from your 8-year-old? The one who can’t seem to manage the few hours before lunch without a second breakfast large enough to satisfy a hungry hobbit?

“Uh, er, I don’t know…Maybe give up candy this year. Won’t giving up snacks be a bit too difficult?” you ask, adding silently “for the rest of us?” 

Your trepidation is understandable. What if this Lenten resolution proves way too hard for him? While you’re nervous about having a potentially whiney, hungry kid on your hands, that fear is outweighed by your concern for his own feelings should he fail.

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There are two things wrong with this common parental reaction. First is the notion that children need child-like penances; second is the fear of the child’s failure.

Before he was martyred, 12-year-old Cristero St. José Luis Sanchez del Rio refused to apostatize when tortured and threatened by government officials – even urging on another Cristero who was killed before his eyes. At age 17, Bl. Chiara Badano suffered from bone cancer, refusing pain medication because the pain, she said, brought her closer to Our Lord. So much did St. Tarcisius love the Eucharist at age 12 that he died rather than see it desecrated.

How do we dare hold our children back from doing hard things?

Our Lord’s words, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:14) might evoke an image of Our Lord with a child on his lap and a baby in his arms, while other children stand nearby, longing to be close to him. Amen to that. 

But José, Chiara, and Tarcisisus – not to mention Maria Goretti, Imelda, Dominic Savio and so many others – reveal another facet of our Lord’s words. Sometimes children’s approach to Jesus won’t be painted in the soft tones of Mary Cassatt. Sometimes it will put us timid adults to shame.

And, instinctively we know that when we admire St. Tarcisius, for instance, we are not admiring him because he was a child doing an adult-like thing. No, his youth was not something he cast off in order to carry out the heroic act. Rather, it is an integral part of what he did – it was fuel for the fire of his faith. 

But these child Saints all succeeded in what they set out to do. What if your child fails at the hard penance he’s undertaken? Then you have the opportunity to walk him through the failure. Can’t you perhaps speak from personal experience? And, what if he succeeds?

We should see our children’s youth then not as a hindrance to bold acts of love, but as an asset. How unburdened they are with the spiritually deadly habit common to modern adults: over-thinking. Are you able to imagine any of this sort of internal dialog on the part of these child Saints and Blesseds? 

  • “There may be better ways to promote reverence for the Eucharist than sacrificing my life.” – Tarcisius
  • “Pain medication is a gift from God because He gave man the ingenuity to develop it. Wouldn’t it be wrong to suffer needlessly?” – Chiara
  • “It will break my parents’ heart if I die so maybe that’s not what God wants.” – José Luis Sanchez del Rio

I’ve spent a month now talking with people about my recently-released book The Stations of the Cross in Slow Motion: A Daily Devotion for Lent. This book provides 3-4 daily meditations on each Station, so that they can be pondered slowly, one at a time, over the whole course of Lent. Since it’s designed for use in the home, many folks have asked me about how to present the violent events of the Passion to young hearts and minds. 

My answer is that we need not – must not – have a “child’s version” of the Faith. Yes, we should be aware of a child’s intellectual development while we form them, but this means that in some ways more can be expected of them, not less. Their little brains are powerhouses of memory and concrete thinking, and they are highly visually impressionable. This is a primary reason that the abstract-idea-based, cursory, and cartoonish catechesis of recent decades was a colossal failure. 

In my book’s introduction I tell the story of how attending the Stations of the Cross as a child impacted my faith and planted in me life-long devotion. One interviewer asked if I would be writing a prayer book next for “Children’s Stations of the Cross.” My answer was an emphatic No. In my book I draw on the beautiful Stations of the Cross we have from four Saints of the Church: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. John Henry Newman, and St. Josemaría Escrivá. These are the Stations that should be used when the devotion is prayed in a Church (or anywhere else) as well – no matter who is participating. 

The Stations of the Cross of St. Alphonsus Liguori puts repeatedly on our lips, “I love Thee, Jesus my love; I repent of having offended Thee. Never permit me to separate myself from Thee again. Grant that I may love Thee always; and then do with me what Thou wilt.” Which of these words would we refrain from having our children pray? 

St. Josemaría exhorts us in his tenth Station of the Cross, “For us to reach God, Christ is the way; but Christ is on the Cross, and to climb up to the Cross we must have our heart free, not tied to earthly things.” Good advice for people of all ages. 

A number of people have shared with me their own stories about praying the Stations of the Cross as a child. One said that he always thought Veronica should hold up her veil to show the image to the soldiers, proving that Christ was God so that they would not kill him. A child-like idea? Perhaps. But one that reveals a soul in love. The Stations are a powerful way to help children leverage their imaginations to enliven their faith.

When I chose images for the Stations in my book, I discovered those of Theophile Lybaert, a late 19th century Belgian painter. His images, like all masterful sacred art, call out to the longing for truth and beauty that resides deep in the soul of every human person. Study his ninth Station of the Cross, where Jesus falls for the third time. Religious leaders look on approvingly; a portion of the crowd following Our Lord can be seen with more or less dispassionate expressions; a soldier has just raised the whip to spur Jesus on. And there’s one more person in the image: a young boy with a look of anguish on his face is reaching out to stay the soldier’s hand, heedless of any danger to himself.  

That young boy’s bold act is what we want our children to emulate. Would the boy be successful? Surely not. But would his act of love console the suffering heart of Our Lord? Would it transform the heart of the boy himself? Surely it would. Let us allow the same to happen for our children this Lent. Let them aim high – as high as the Cross. 

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