Teaching Children God’s Gift of Grace in the Eucharist

I teach second grade faith formation at my parish. Yesterday, the children and I were talking about God’s gifts (wisdom, knowledge, faith, and so forth). Perhaps the most basic gift is that of God’s love. I talked about the sacraments as special occasions to experience and receive God’s love and about how God’s love is the best gift there is. Some children objected that gifts such as cash or Play Stations are better gifts. One of the children observed that God’s love is the basis for God’s gift of life, which in turn is the basis for any other possible gifts. That insight is important, of course, but the experience left me wondering how best to present the abstract notion of God’s love to children who, by their age level and by their (and my!) formation in a material culture, are unaccustomed to thinking abstractly and symbolically.

These children are preparing for first Holy Communion. How can we best talk to children about how the gifts of God’s grace and love in the Eucharist help us to be followers of Jesus by helping us to be kind and loving? We have talked about how the Mass helps us to remember how much Jesus loved his friends and us. We have talked about how we are all supposed to be kind and courteous when we have guests over for dinner and about how such kindness and courtesy is supposed to extend beyond the meal. Likewise, sharing in the Eucharistic meal means extending kindness and courtesy beyond the meal. The theme of remembrance/anamnesis is of course central to the Eucharist and there is also a rich and important history linking ethics and worship—a history stretching back at least as far as the prophet Amos. I am wondering what other themes/images/comparisons Pray Tell’s readers might use in their capacity as DREs, catechists, liturgy directors, etc.






10 responses to “Teaching Children God’s Gift of Grace in the Eucharist”

  1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    We had a thread about teaching liturgy to children that broached some of these topics, and the post might be worth revisiting. It’s a pity the meal thematic, which is so closely related to the ethical concerns Tim raised in this post, proved to be controversial in the discussion that followed, but the posts themselves were of a positive nature.

    A liturgical catechesis for children does need to be concrete. The catechesis of the Good Shepherd (Sofia Cavalletti) is replete with instances of how the parable is an entry point for children to understand the mystery of God’s love, and I can’t help but think the flock cared for by the shepherd works here. She is also very strong on liturgical signs. I remember a story recounted in The Religious Potential of the Child of how she dropped a gold ring from her outstretched hand to teach / show the gift of the Holy Spirit imparted through the extension of hands. I had to give her a lot of credit. Teach “special bread” teach “Jesus present” — these are staples. Teach epiclesis? Wow.

  2. Tony Phillips Avatar
    Tony Phillips

    When my now-17 year old daughter was preparing for her First Holy Communion, I told my wife I was worried she didn’t understand anything about what she was preparing for. My wife, who to her credit is neither a theologian nor an intellectual, replied, ‘Does anyone understand it?’

    I realise your question was how to ‘talk to children’ about the Eucharist, but I believe we have to acknowledge that talking can only do so much. Even as adults we are not purely cerebral creatures. We’re physical beings who act and breathe and move.

    Some of you have guessed where this is heading. In many–most–of our parishes, physical reverence has been removed from reception of Communion. We take the host in our hands like any other morsel we’d eat, we queue up for the sacrament and cannot kneel without making a spectacle of ourselves, we hear a truncated formula from the lips of the priest without a sign of the cross to remind us that communion is not only the Maundy Thursday meal but the Good Friday sacrifice.

    What children need–what I need–is more than words. It’s living the sacrament through our actions in the church, so that we can live it through our behaviour in the world.

    (PS…that link Rita F is interesting but gets a bit nasty. Really all you need to read there are the jokes about psychologists.)

  3. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    I guess your basing your conclusion about reverence from the fact that in most parishes, most people choose to receive communion in their hands. What you gratuitously assert, others may gratuitously deny. If priests can reverently receive communion with their hands, why not priestly people? Reverence lies in the hearts of the faithful. If someone chooses to receive on their hands or on their tongues it may be with various amounts of reverence. The problem with preparing children for communion is that they’re too young at 7 or 8 to grasp either real presence–let alone how to offer the Eucharist–or confession, contrition, and absolution. Without denying that Pius X is a saint, his precious idea about letting little children come to communion has had lots of unintended consequences.

  4. John Kohanski Avatar
    John Kohanski

    And what of Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox who begin to communicate their children at their baptism and chrismation?

  5. Tony Phillips Avatar
    Tony Phillips

    ‘Reverence lies in the hearts of the faithful.’
    No it doesn’t actually, & this is the big mistake of the NO crowd. We don’t just believe with our hearts, we believe with our bodies. We worship with our bodies just as much as our voices. That’s why we need to kneel, genuflect, beat our breasts.

    But Fr Jack brings up a good point—don’t most people in parishes choose to receive communion in their hands? Isn’t this exactly what I’ve been banging on about—the people deserve to have their needs met—whether it’s the Tridentine rite or something like this?
    Fair point. Now that the horse is out of the barn (unwise as it was), we should be pastorally sensitive to people who insist on communion in the hand.

    But I also think it was a huge mistake to introduce the practice many centuries after it was abandoned. (We know communion in the hand was used in the early church, but a lot we don’t know about, including how it actually worked, or how universal the practice really was.) Note that this re-instituted practice—given our lack of knowledge, perhaps we should say ‘this re-imagined practice’—didn’t come out of Vatican II, but it shares one of the defects of V-II: a complete lack of understanding that practices changed because it was useful & beneficial for them to do so, not because of ‘accidents of history’. Before re-imagining this obsolete practice, it would have been worth asking: (i) what possible could it provide, & (ii) what possible untoward effects could result? And it would have been wise, had a more measured decision been made, to plan subsequent re-assessment of these same questions.

    No time at the minute to address why reception on the tongue can help children’s catechesis on the sacrament…will do so anon. But would be interested in people’s reactions to Fr Jack’s suggestion that Pius X royally goofed by lowering the age for communion.

  6. Donna Eschenauer Avatar
    Donna Eschenauer

    See the above post on my new book for some sound, practical ideas for preparing children for First Communion.

    1. Tim Brunk Avatar
      Tim Brunk

      @Donna Eschenauer – comment #6:
      Thanks, Donna. I just ordered it.

  7. Aaron Sanders Avatar
    Aaron Sanders

    Pius X could not have royally goofed by ‘lowering the age for communion’ because ‘his precious idea’ was not his own. He was merely re-enforcing, by reiterating, the decretal law he had inherited. That this is his intention is clear from Quam singulari itself (his rehearsal of authorities magisterial and canonical for the practice) as well as the historical scholarship backing his claim (Ed Peters cites Canon Law Studies n. 247 by Crotty).

    But considering that the age of reason is paired with the child’s ability to distinguish the Eucharist from ordinary bread, we are indeed wise to remember that all the talk in the world is not as likely to be as effective in teaching this difference to a 7-year-old as are the practices with which we surround the Eucharist with reverence. Not even an adult can distinguish a consecrated host from an unconsecrated piece of altar bread absent some attestation from another that this ‘bread’ is indeed the Christ, so the children’s ability is wholly dependent upon the signals we send to them.

  8. Tony Phillips Avatar
    Tony Phillips

    No 7: ‘…all the talk in the world is not as likely to be as effective in teaching this difference to a 7-year-old as are the practices with which we surround the Eucharist with reverence’

    Exactly!!! I’m confident that if we re-introduce a sense of reverence, the practice of communion in the hand will wither away. Here’s why reception on the tongue is preferable for both children & adults:

    1) As I’ve argued so eloquently above, we pray not just with our voice but with our entire selves. When we refrain from touching the sacrament with our hands, following Jesus’s command ‘Noli me tangere’, when we fall to our knees, we repeat through our actions what we just said moments before (3 times, one hopes): ‘Lord, I am not worthy!’
    Lex orandi = lex agendi = lex credendi. Communion (standing & in the hand) = PRIDE; but Communion (kneeling & on the tongue) = HUMILITY. Simples.

    2) When we kneel & receive on our tongue, we not only put away pride, we become ‘as little children’ (or baby birds?) who depend on Another for sustenance. One of the big criticisms militant atheists have against religion is that it infantilises us & makes us passive. But to Christians, this is a virtue: ‘Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, & become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’

    3) Furthermore, when we receive in a way that is markedly different to our normal way of eating, we emphasise the fact that this is no ordinary food, but something truly special.

    4) The good news: you don’t have to explain any of this to the children (or adults). It will be understood in a way that requires no words, that’s beyond words. The beauty & power of the sacred drama we call liturgy is that it speaks more profoundly to our souls than mere human speech can ever do. (Which, incidentally, is why a vernacular liturgy is not only unnecessary, but can be an impediment—but that’s another conversation).

  9. Ian Coleman Avatar
    Ian Coleman

    Speaking as a parent, but a non-theologian, I wonder whether ‘Grace’ is really the best angle here. It seems to me that ‘presence’ is a more fruitful way forward; one might phrase it ‘Jesus is here’, ‘Jesus is with you’, as a starting-point for 7-year olds (or, indeed, 77-year olds!). I concur with what has been said about the signs of reverence, and the atmosphere of reverence, but the sheer physical presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is, I believe, the centre of what we need to convey by our catechesis to those receiving their First Communion.

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