In the coming weeks as Christmas unfolds, Catholics will hear about the Wise Men and the shepherds who sought out the infant Jesus. In the case of the Wise Men, they traveled quite a distance guided only by a glimmering star that pointed the way. They had no navigation, no Waze, or even a simple map to follow. They continually had to trust and allow themselves to be led to Christ. In their wisdom, they became child-like, not childish, to find the Christ child.

The life of children has come under some scrutiny of late. People dream of living their entire lives as children and never having to venture into adulthood. But this childish desire has dramatic consequences for a culture.

In 1906, a sociologist pointed out that a civilization can’t regenerate itself without spiritual adulthood. Without parents who pass on to their children the keys to spiritual maturity, a civilization simply cannot thrive or survive.

There is plenty of evidence that adults are not “adulting” in the ways previous generations have. Some adults have given up altogether and are looking for their inner bliss by returning to preschool – quite literally. New Yorkers are lining up to attend the “globally prestigious preschool for adults,” or Preschool Mastermind. The adult preschool is complete with “show and tell, arts and crafts, practice sharing, storybooks and nap time.” According to the site, “Our inner innocence and sense of wonder holds keys to fulfillment. It’s time to tap into your whimsical well of wisdom!”

Others are trying to address the problem from a different direction by learning basics skills they didn’t pick up in all the x-box hours, social media bingeing, selfie sessions, and “gender studies” classes. The Adulting School in Portland, Maine, is trying to help millennials gain the essential adult skills that they lack: budgeting, meal planning, investing, or even how to do small talk. 

These baby steps to maturity point to a bigger problem. If there are generations of people who don’t know what it means to even be an adult, then spiritual adulthood is lagging far behind. Spiritual adulthood usually depends on a basic level of maturity. One priest who forms seminarians confided to me that the first thing he has to teach many of them is how to be adults. Basic attitudes and habits like taking responsibility for one’s actions, being considerate of others, using good manners, and punctuality are taught first. Grace builds upon nature, so there must be a functioning adult before there can be spiritual adulthood.

There are, of course, plenty of examples among the saints of children who showed remarkable spiritual maturity, such as Fatima seer Jacinta Marto, and St. Maria Goretti. These children certainly would not have needed adulting school. Jacinta at her tender age of 9 was already well equipped to live in an adult world, having worked long hours as a shepherdess. And Maria took over running her household at nine after her father died and her mother had to work in the fields to support the family. The classroom of struggle and suffering go a long way to transform a child into a grownup.

The on-ramp to spiritual maturity isn’t easily found in the old familiar places – from the pulpit, Catholic schools, or in our homes. Our penchant for avoiding pain and suffering at any cost hasn’t helped. Yes, many will comment that it is the priests' and bishops' fault. Perhaps. But pinning blame doesn’t really solve the problem. Part of being an adult is to stop blaming others for what is wrong, and seek out real solutions. Whining is a childish trait.

The problem of spiritual immaturity will only be solved through our own prayer, sacrifices, service, selflessness, and seeking – through our own effort to grow into spiritual adulthood. Part of that process means passing it on to others, particularly our children, but we can only give what we have. There is a reason airlines suggest putting your own oxygen mask on first before assisting your child, and the same applies in the realm of the spiritual. You aren’t much use unconscious.

The biggest irony, of course, is that the responsible adult finds the key to spiritual maturity in child-like trust. Like the Wise Men of old knew, as they followed that star, even in all their pomp, intellectual acumen, and riches, they too had to become like children to find the Child.