A child’s capacity for understanding the faith


By Morgan Davis
Guest Column

Morgan Davis and his family pose outside a church in Springfield, Ill.

Throughout his 15 months outside the womb, our 1-year-old has taught my wife and me a great deal about the faith. His joy singing the “Alleluia” during Mass, the mini-Gospel processions that take place with a missalette raised above his head, his awe of Father Ben and Father Jason’s vestments, and his attentiveness to Jesus in the monstrance during Friday benediction profoundly impact how we see children and our Catholic faith.

I think we underestimate children when it comes to their capacity for understanding Cath­oli­cism. As adults, we can fall into the trap of sweeping aside toddlers and focusing on lugging them to Mass. I mean, realistically, how can a 1- or 2-year-old expound upon the Mass, transubstantiation or the homily?

Despite a toddler’s limited ability to verbalize, studies have shown that children are profoundly pre-dispositioned for belief in God! In watching our son, we can attest to the truth of that statement. We often catch glimpses of it in quirky ways. He sometimes has greater spiritual sight than do some drowsed adults in church!


Recently, we attended Mass with the Norbertine Fathers in Springfield, Illinois. Their church is one of sublime beauty that possesses a timeless genius lost amidst the cacophony of modern ecclesiastical architecture. Countless mosaics, beautiful paintings, stained glass windows, gold leaf, reliquaries, magnificent arches and a massive baldachin are among the many details that adorn this masterpiece of a church. This beauty set the scene for a toddler’s encounter with the Divine.

When we walked in, our son quickly fixed his attention on Jesus in the tabernacle at the head of the church. The tabernacle resembled the golden Ark of the Covenant. Our eucharistic Lord was enthroned under a detailed baldachin and set amidst lit candles on the high altar. Immediately, our son pointed to it and with the tiniest whisper said, “Jesus!” He knew who was there.

Making our way to a front pew, we sat where our son could get a good view of the liturgy. Being young Catholic parents, we’ve also learned to bring books, quiet toys and snacks to Mass to keep our toddler relatively content. That Sunday was no exception. However, our son was enraptured. As the bells signaled the start of Mass, he transferred his attention from the tabernacle and the artwork to the Gregorian chant of the Norbertine fathers. The soft, timeless chant drew him into the mystery unfolding before his eyes.

Our son watched and listened during this Mass, filled with Latin and ancient chant. Sitting squarely in his papa’s arms, our son fixed his gaze on the priest, the various liturgical happenings and Christ in the Eucharist. His disposition indicated that he understood more than he could tell us. Undoubtedly, internal processes were taking place that only the Lord knew about. Christ was speaking to our son in a soft gentle whisper he could understand through the beauty that filled that Sunday Mass.

We know that it can be a struggle to bring children to Mass. Their wiggling, crying, tantrums, honest reactions, awkward exclamations and yelling are enough to make any parent lose patience. However, I believe children possess a greater capacity for embracing God, due to their purity and innocence. Our job as parents is to foster their heartfelt response to the Lord during the liturgy and to help them enter into the mystery of the Mass that they can so readily see. Next time you’re at Mass with your family, see what you can learn from your toddler. The Lord is trying to speak to both of you!

(Morgan Davis is director of faith formation and evangelization at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bettendorf.)

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