Beneath the apple tree:
there I took you for my own,
there I offered you my hand,
and restored you,
where your mother was corrupted.
– St. John of the Cross (stanza 23 of the Spiritual Canticle).
I read this stanza this evening to my 11 and 8 year olds. The 8 year old loves the romance and imagery of the Spiritual Canticle and is naturally poetic herself. The 11 year old is very bright and immediately picks up on the fact that this stanza is talking about the apple tree in the Garden of Eden and Eve. I go on to explain that the wood of the tree is also symbolic of the Cross. We talk about the fact that St John of the Cross always talks about things that go on in the depths of our hearts, and also the ups and downs in our relationship with God. We notice this especially in the words ‘corrupted’ and ‘restored’.
My 8 year old tells me that she thinks she understands it in her heart but not in her head! I tell her that is perfectly ok because St John often speaks more to our hearts than he does to our heads. The 11 year old goes on to talk about what ‘restored’ means, and links it back to a computer game he likes to play. He gets it. They are both eager to read the next stanza tomorrow night.
All of this is a far cry from “I wish I was a Butterfly” and all the other regular offenders that are spoon fed to my kids at children’s liturgies up and down the country. My 11 year old finds that absolutely cringeworthy now and so do I. I often find children’s liturgy is obsessed with making the children as physically active as possible during the Mass – which I believe to be a mistake. If our minds are completely taken up with actions and songs and carrying things in the offertory or watching our friends do bidding prayers, then when is the time for learning to properly, internally actively participate in the Mass?
I think that one of the biggest mistakes we make in children’s liturgy is to try to keep the children entertained. This teaches them from the word go that Church is somewhere you go to watch a show. And when they get a bit older, and that show is still the same show they were watching when they were 5 years old, they don’t want to go see that show anymore because it’s babyish. Their internal spiritual life has been neglected, and has not had a chance to mature past “This little light of mine”. Of course they are going to reject it. They are not stupid.
Last week I heard that there was outrage in a Catholic Parish over a homily given at a First Holy Communion Mass. Apparently some of the parents felt the day had been ruined, and the children ‘traumatized’ because the priest had talked about the Eucharist being Jesus’ real flesh and blood. One has to ask the question what exactly has been going on here? But it is clear from this catastrophe that we are now looking at a 3rd generation of Catholics who have not been adequately evangelised or catechised. Whatever we have been doing for the last 3 generations has got us to this point. Something needs to change.
Another big mistake that I believe the church has made is to take evangelisation out of the home and into the catechist classroom. Now I am not saying that all Catechists are bad – far from it, most of them are absolutely brilliant. However, the faith is something that cannot be truly learned in a classroom. It needs to be witnessed through example. Parents are the first and most influential educators of their children, and it truly believe that if they are not living the faith at home, then there is very little chance their children will carry on the faith into their adulthood.
I do not think I am wrong in saying here that most Catholic parents today have good intention, but very little in terms of their own catechesis and evangelisation. In my experience, your average First Communion parent does not pray regularly, if at all, does not frequent the sacraments and does not own a Bible. And I must make it very clear here that it is not my intention to blame the parents for this. Quite the contrary – I am fighting their corner. It is not their fault they have not been taught properly.
When the church decided to catechise children in the classroom, it seperated knowledge from lived example. Now this was not a problem until catechesis took a turn for the worse in the 1960’s. At that point, the first generation of children were lost to guitars, the socialist Gospel, and little fluffy baby Jesus. When these children grew up and became parents, that is all they had to pass on to their children. This pattern continued into the next generation, and the next, and here we are today. The difficulty now is that the previous two generations have been left as spiritual infants – almost completely unable to offer any sort of evangelisation or catechesis to their own children, and so once again it is being left to those outside of the family home.
Now, you can have the best catechist in the entire world, and have a child who knows the New Testament off by heart. But if that child then goes back to a home where the faith is not lived with any maturity, and Church extends to some old boomer bashing out songs on their guitar from the 1960’s because ‘that’s what the young people like’, then at best the cycle of infantesized Catholic spirituality will be repeated once again. At worst, and more often than not, it will just be rejected. These kids are not rejecting the Catholic faith, they are rejecting the infantilised version of it that they, their parents and Grandparents have been spoonfed over the last 50 years or so.
Older children and teenagers will continue to find Mass boring and ultimately leave the church for as long as we keep them infantilised. And we will never break this cycle of misplaced catechesis until we begin to respect the fact that parents are the first and most influential educators of their children, and alert them to this fact. We need to equip and empower them to carry out this fundamentally important role that we have taken away from them.
This infantilization of the faith needs to stop. Today.
St. John of the Cross pray for us.