Recently at a workshop I attended a story was told about a 3 1/2 year old girl who was looking at a picture book of animals when her somewhat mischievous uncle came to visit. He saw her preoccupation with the book and asked her “What are you doing?” She said, “I am looking at pictures of animals.”

Seeing a large picture of a cow on the opened page she was viewing he asked her, “What animal is that?”

She responded, “it’s a cow.” Then the mischievous uncle looked closely at the picture and questioned,

“Are you sure it is a cow? I think it may be a giraffe.”

The girl said without hesitating, “It’s a cow.”

The uncle paused for a moment then said, “Um, I believe it is a giraffe.”

The girl said again, “It’s a cow.” Then the little girl’s brother entered the room and the uncle said to him, “Jimmy, look at this picture. I need your help. Your sister says this is a picture of a cow but I believe it is a giraffe. Tell us what you think it is.”

Jimmy looked at the picture and said “It’s a cow.”

The uncle was about to continue his charade with his niece but the little girl stood up, pointed her finger at her uncle and shouted, “It is a cow!”

The discussion was over.

At 3 1/2 years old, this little girl knew the truth about the difference between a cow and a giraffe and she would not let her uncle alter the truth.

It is wonderful to see children learn with certitude such truths as the difference between a cow and a giraffe, an A and a B, a 2 and a 3, and so on. These are important truths to help children learn and prepare for their futures. But a more important truth for children to learn is that they are God’s creation, that they are called to be children of God and that as a Catholic they live as God’s children every day.

“Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” (1 John 3:2)

To grow spiritually, children must learn about the importance of God from their parents. They must see their parents pray and be taught how to pray by them. If God is to be real to them, God must be seen to be real in the daily lives of their parents. A family should share meals together and thank God for the food they have to eat. Children need to attend church with their parents and see their parents desire to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist. Before a 3 ½ year old can receive Holy Communion, for lack of sufficient understanding, they can recognize and be inspired by their parents’ hunger for the Eucharist and begin to long for it as well.

Everyone wants their children to succeed in the world and tries to help them prepare for the day when they will be on their own. But without knowledge of Jesus’ teaching their other learning can be all in vain. “…whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angel. (Luke 9:24-26)

There is much a 3 ½ year old cannot understand about Christ and the Church any more than they can understand how to do calculus or geometry or write a book. But just as they are able to learn letters, and numbers and the difference between a cow and a giraffe, and other things foundational to their growing in greater understanding of the world, they can learn the basic things about God who made them, who loves them and who sent his son Jesus into the world to love them and care for them each day.

They can see the love their parents have for God when they insist on going to church and take them with them. They do not ask them if they want to go to Church with them but simply say this is what we do as a family on Sunday. How much more important than the difference between a cow and a giraffe, an A and a B, etc. is it for a child to understand their baptism, their receiving of the Holy Spirit that makes them children of God and heirs of heaven and the Kingdom of God that is theirs to share in the Church now? There are many things that children need to learn to develop the many gifts that God gives to them, but the most important gift they need to develop is there relationship to the God who created them and the gift of eternal life he offers them. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26)

When we think about the Church, we need only look to Sacred Scripture to find many images given by Jesus to help us understand what Jesus intended his Church to be. We are to be united to Christ as one people, we are to trust in God and to find our security in God’s care, we are to welcome all nations without distinction and be truly “catholic”, which means universal. We are to be faithful to the teachings of the Apostles on which the Church was founded by Jesus, Himself.

I like St. Paul’s image of the Church as living stones, “And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:1-5).

The Church is not a building we go to but a body of people, living stones, who form one body united with Christ, “the Corner Stone,” as its head. It is an image of strength, stability and unity. It is a Church in the world, but not of the world.

I also like Christ’s teaching, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

This image reflects the roll of Jesus’ followers as they continue to be present in the world and continue to bring the Good News of Christ to all people. They remain securely united with Christ who gives them life like the life-giving vine. This image of Church does not allow us to live passively in isolation. It implies our involvement in the” world in which we live. Christ’s followers are assured vitality and life as long as they remain united to the life giving vine, which is Christ. At every mass Catholics are strengthened by God’s word proclaimed through Sacred Scripture and nourished by the living Body and Blood of Christ they receive in the Eucharist. For this reason a Catholic cannot separate himself/herself from the Church to live a relationship with God in isolation. The Church established by Christ, by definition is an entity in union with Him.

As Catholics, we must teach our children to long to receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist right up until the day they are able to do so. What a joyful day their first communion should be. if their parents reflect this joy when they receive communion each Sunday, their children will desire this joy as well.