Three Ways to Teach Children About the Eucharist
I was sixteen years old when the concept of the Transubstantiation became clearer to me. Until that time, I attended Mass with my parents half-heartedly and out of obligation. It wasn’t until I left my Catholic elementary school only to enter the cesspool of public high school, riddled with all varieties of unbelievers and even some colorful Satanists, that I began to question what I believed and why in terms of religion.
My parents reluctantly permitted me to attend a megachurch youth group with my closest friends from school, as long as I agreed to continue attending Mass on the weekends with my family. The terms seemed mutually beneficial, so I concurred without much thought. However, the megachurch had a worship band, and I was feeling the vibrancy and zeal from the hundreds of local youth who charismatically raised their hands in praise during the service. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before.
At one point, several months into altar calls and accepting Jesus into my heart, I became disillusioned. It happened after a faint and fleeting prayer I uttered during Mass one Sunday morning. Mass felt familiar to me, but it wasn’t alive in my heart, and I knew this. All I could think of was the megachurch and the alternative Christians who seemed so fiercely and genuinely excited about God. I wanted that, and I hadn’t discovered it in Catholicism at that time in my life.
So I offered a weak petition, asking God with the sincerity of an adolescent to please show me Truth. I wanted to find where I belonged and claim my own Christianity, but ultimately I sought to know truth. This was a vital impetus of finding my way back to Catholicism.
Shortly after I asked God to know Truth, my heart was restless during the megachurch worship services. Something was missing, but I didn’t know what that something – or Someone – was. The interior intensity was swelling within me, but I dared not share this with anyone, because I didn’t fully understand what was happening to me.
Then, when I could bear no more, I began to silently sob during a subsequent Sunday Mass. I was so desperate to find spiritual fulfillment and was genuinely perplexed at the lack of substance I experienced at the megachurch. Bewildered and broken, I lifted my tear-filled eyes at the precise moment our pastor elevated the Consecrated Host during the Eucharistic Prayer. It was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes, because suddenly I saw Truth with newfound clarity, and the tears of frustration transformed into tears of gratitude and joy. Peace flooded my soul as I recognized Jesus, fully present, His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in that hidden Host. I knew it was truly Jesus, and I had found my way back to the faith of my childhood, much to my parents’ delight.
Teaching the concept of the Eucharist is difficult, at best, for us as parents, especially when our children are preschool age or younger. If I – while a teenager and a cradle Catholic – struggled to comprehend such a Mystery of our faith those decades ago, how can we, as parents, possibly strive to incorporate an authentic understanding of the source and summit of our faith into our children’s lives?
I’m certainly no parenting expert, but I have a few ideas I’d like to share that I’ve tested with children of varying ages, and they have been surprisingly successful in at least providing the rudimentary tenets of the Eucharist.
Use the metaphors found in nature.
One of my favorite symbols of faith is the butterfly. As a child, I was enraptured with these fanciful creatures, and as I grew into young adulthood, I noticed the spiritual significance in the message of metamorphosis.
A treasured book I have often revisited is Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus. Its message is universal and timeless, using the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly as an example of spiritual transformation and personal growth for humanity. Intended for children, the book’s underpinnings are quite deep and applicable to adults, as well.
We can teach our children about the concept of the Eucharist using the caterpillar, cocoon and butterfly. This can be done in a variety of ways, from reading the aforementioned book, watching videos, using coloring pages, or – my personal favorite – following a caterpillar through the entire process of metamorphosis so our kids can watch with incredulity as it becomes something entirely different.
The caterpillar represents the plain bread and wine before Consecration. The cocoon symbolizes the words of Consecration said by the priest in persona Christi, and finally, the butterfly signifies the Body and Blood of Jesus. The butterfly is no longer a caterpillar due to the phenomenal act of metamorphosis, much like the words of Consecration during the Liturgy of the Eucharist literally change the mere bread and wine into Jesus’ actual Flesh and Blood.
It may sound strange, but my brother and I used to play “Mass” during the formational years of our childhood. This is a critical time in which imaginative play is the most powerful teaching tool we can offer our children, so why not role-play the Mass with our kids and explain why we do what we do as Catholics? My brother would wear a towel as his stole and a robe for his cassock, because he wanted to play the part of the priest, of course.
There was no sacrilege in what we did. In our minds, we were learning about one of the most sacred and beautiful mysteries of our faith, and neither of us forgot about it when it was time for us to learn the propriety of receiving our First Communion.
So go ahead and role-play with your children. Tell them it is a time to explore the meaning of the Mass, and they can ask any questions they want throughout the activity. It may very well serve as a critical moment of enlightenment for them to realize the ultimate gift we have in being able to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood.
Read Scripture together
I recently had a fruitful discussion with a local middle schooler about the Eucharist, based on the Eucharistic Discourse found in John 6 (verses 22-71). The young lady, a born-and-bred Protestant, attended Mass with us and asked about “the small circle” that the priest elevated. Knowing the value of Scripture, we took a look at John 6 and discussed the meaning behind the crowds murmuring about the impossibility of Jesus’ literal flesh being consumed and how Jesus reiterated this truth several times.
Scripture is so often overlooked by us, and yet it is the Living Word. Because of this, every time we read a verse from the Bible, it is new and comes alive for us. God’s grace is magnificently demonstrated when we meditate on the truth found in Scripture.
This exercise is especially beneficial for older children who can read and comprehend well, and for children who are avid readers or enjoy story-telling.
All three of these suggestions present opportunities for us to engage in thoughtful and purposeful dialogue with our children about the centrality of the Eucharist in our faith tradition. Even lofty concepts like this are rarely lost on our children, because children are guileless and pure-hearted before the age of reason. They don’t think with complexity like adults do.
We should never underestimate the grace God provides in these teaching moments, however awkward they may feel or however we may believe the lesson was lost on our kids. When our oldest daughter Felicity was only a toddler, Ben and I asked her before Mass, “Where is Jesus?” We expected her to point to the large crucifix hanging above the altar, but instead she pointed to the Tabernacle. Children often understand very deep spiritual truths far before we recognize that they do.
When we model reverence and total devotion as we prepare our hearts to receive Jesus, our children will be profoundly moved by our actions, and God’s grace will inevitably enlighten them with a Divine illumination that far exceeds our finite attempts to offer them theological explanations of such Truth.
St. John Vianney summarizes this concept with clarity: “…if we speak of the adorable Sacrament of the Eucharist, we may say that here is the marvel of the love of God for us…He gives us Himself: we receive here not the application of His Precious Blood, but the author of grace as well…It is Jesus prolonging His life and His benefits in our midst. O inestimable grace, immense, incomprehensible, divine liberality.”