Amid the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I like to remind myself of the stream of evangelicals flowing into the Tiber, blessing not only the Church, but ecumenical dialogue, for Catholics and Protestants alike, on the nature of tradition, the role of Mary, and the need for an objective apostolically derived authority.
We should add to that mix parenting. In converting from Calvinism to Catholicism, I discerned a remarkable divergence in the catechetical lessons I give my children, a distinction so important that it can make the difference between having little Christs or little pagans running around.
It starts with baptism. Many evangelicals – thank God – still practice infant baptism. Although most do not teach baptismal regeneration, they still baptize legitimately with water and the formula “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Whether they realize it or not, their children have received the Holy Spirit, inherited the theological gifts of faith, hope, and love, and been incorporated into the body of Christ.
Unfortunately, many others Protestants delay baptism until the children reach the “age of reason” and decide for themselves whether to receive the sacrament. Children in many Protestant families may thus never do. For families who neglect to communicate the Christ-derived rite, their children effectively remain pagans.
That is only the first failure in many Protestant households. Most evangelicals, and certainly my own previous Calvinist tradition, eschew images, icons, and catechetical tools historically appropriated by Christian families for teaching the ways of God. Students of history will remember that the Reformation stripped the altars, threw down the statues of saints, and removed Christ from the cross. Rosaries were destroyed, relics discarded, and pilgrimages abandoned.
In the rush to purify Christian faith and practice, the Reformed seemed to neglect an essential question: how do you communicate the fundamentals of the Christian faith to a two- or three-year-old?
For evangelicals still in touch with some form or fashion within the Reformed anti-Catholic tradition, what remains is a shell, a practical poverty of catechesis. You can still pray with a little child, read religious books or sing songs about God to him. These are all objectively good and beautiful practices, which my family embraces. But they are all cerebral in nature.
Any parent knows that cerebral is not a good pathway to toddlers or little children. Reformation Christianity in this respect manifests a certain Gnosticism, emphasizing a hidden, abstract knowledge at the cost of one of the most beautiful and essential aspects of our faith: its incarnation.
These Protestant tendencies show an incomplete comprehension of what John the Evangelist meant when he said of Christ “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14) Or again, “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life.” (1 John 1:1)
Catholicism, by contrast, is thoroughly sensory: crucifixes, holy water, signs of the cross, saints cards, images, rosaries, and – ultimately – the Eucharist. Jesus inhabited a body, and his miracles occurred not just through His words, but his actions, through spit and mud, and pieces of clothing.
Devotional practices that recognize this enable even the youngest children to enter into the Christian faith. Jesus may have had that in mind when he exhorted the disciples to “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
I don’t think He had in mind giving kids an expository sermon on a Biblical text. Indeed, Jesus places his hands upon them! (Matthew 19:14-15) Think what it must have been like to be a child whose body was touched by our Lord!
When my family invites evangelical friends over for dinner, it’s always an amusing experience when our eldest daughter hasn’t yet gone to bed. Like any four-year-old, she loves visitors and loves sharing everything about her life: ballerina outfits, random toys, and the nightly bedtime routine.
Bedtime in our home involves cleaning your room, getting into pajamas, and brushing teeth. But it also involves explicit Catholic practices: kneeling and praying before a crucifix, singing Catholic songs out of the beat-up hymnal, and reading a book, which often, by my daughter’s own choice, is thoroughly Catholic.
I haven’t asked my Evangelical friends what they are thinking when my daughter talks to Jesus on the crucifix as if He were alive, requests a “Mary song” from the hymnal, or pulls TAN Books’ Saints for Girls down from her little bookshelf.
But I know how vibrant her devotion truly is. She carries prayer cards around with her constantly; blesses herself with holy water at church – not once, not twice, but probably a dozen times; places little cups of water with flowers before our small household altar as her own special gifts to Jesus.
I’m reminded of the young Cordelia in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, who in her youthful innocence and zeal, donates money to help the missionaries teaching children in Africa, and rejoicing that they will be baptized with her own name.
Evangelical readers, please understand: this isn’t sentimental Catholic claptrap, smells and bells with no theological substance. Living in Thailand, we have a Philippine babysitter, a Pentecostal very outspoken about her evangelical faith. She has repeatedly confessed her amazement that our eldest daughter knows so much about Jesus and the Bible.
More, she thinks, than children at her church. I surmise that’s because all the sensory parts of Catholicism make the stories of Scripture — which we routinely read her — come alive in her still developing understanding.
If I had stayed Calvinist, I would have tried to introduce my children to Christian faith and practice as early as possible. My many evangelical friends do exactly this, which obviously has potent effects.
Parents in the typical evangelical or Calvinist family have to work with one hand tied behind their backs – leaving their children unable to contemplate a religion that should engage not only their minds but their young bodies and whole being.