When my daughter was six years old, I remember deciding with her which saint she’d be for her Catholic school’s All Saints’ Day celebration.
She had two choices, given her name—Catherine Louise. She knew about St. Louise de Marillac who had served the poor with St. Vincent de Paul in 17th century France. But she was also reading about St. Catherine of Siena. The story of Catherine of Siena emphasized not only her spiritual wisdom but also her extreme austerity, which led her to sometimes sleep on a board and subsist on a few grains of rice a day.
My daughter carefully considered both options. There was a silence (a long silence), and then she spoke: “I wanna be St. Louise.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question we ask children almost from the moment they can speak. We ask it because their answers are both entertaining and illuminating. As we seek to raise and form these children in our care as family, friends, and catechists, we understand that children’s answers to that question give us a clue as to who they think they really are.
Ultimately, we want these children to know that fundamentally they are children of God, loved into existence and called to eternal life.
What better way to help them understand and respond to this than to put the saints at the heart of catechesis?
Catholicism is rich, multifaceted, and complex. As catechists, we have so much material we could present to children. Even with an established curriculum, it’s sometimes difficult to focus. Giving due attention to the saints can be a powerful way to bring all those facets together, because when we talk about the saints:
- We are telling stories. Abstractions may not stick, but stories usually do.
- We are telling stories about every aspect of faith. We’re telling stories that encompass prayer, spirituality, the sacraments, the virtues, the works of mercy, and Church history. All richness is there, enmeshed in memorable narratives.
- We are introducing children to real brothers and sisters in Christ who will be lifelong friends, role models, and intercessors.
- We are immersing children both in the universal and the particular qualities of Catholicism, as well as its diversity and the adventure of that journey!
- We are talking about the gospel, discipleship, and Jesus Christ himself.
Saints Reflect Jesus
When we catechize children, it’s natural to emphasize themes of gentleness, peace, friendship, and comfort, but we know that the life of a disciple is anything but gentle and hardly ever easy. Even though they are young, our children are aware of this reality. They know how difficult it can be to tell the truth and to be kind, helpful, and patient. They struggle with greed, envy, and resentment. Children can also experience the temptation to despair in the face of loss and suffering.
Just like us, children know the challenge of Jesus’ call to love our enemies, to love him in the poor, and to die to self. For all of us, sometimes it’s easier to respond, “That’s just too hard. Maybe later, but not now.”
What Do the Saints Do?
Quite simply, saints show children how it’s possible to be a joyful, faithful—and did I say joyful?—friend of Jesus.
Benedict XVI put it:
[Saints] tell us that it is possible for everyone to take this road. In every epoch of the Church’s history, on every latitude of the world map, the saints belong to all the ages and to every state of life, they are actual faces of every people, language, and nation. And they have very different characters…This goodness, which they have developed in the faith of the Church, is for me the most reliable apology of Christianity and the sign of where the truth lies.”
We introduce our children to the saints through story, prayer, and image. In doing so, we invite them to discover people just like them whose “yes” to Jesus opened up a whole new world. So the next time they are asked, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” they can aspire to these holy men and women and answer, “I want to be a saint.”
Amy Welborn is the author of many catechetical materials for children and youth, including The Loyola Kids’ Book of Heroes, and Be Saints! An invitation from Pope Benedict XVI. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama. For more information on Amy’s writings visit AmyWelborn.com.
This article was published in RTJ’s Creative Catechist, October, 2013.
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