PEORIA, Ill. — It is something of a small miracle that Father Antoine Thomas is able to still the fidgeting bodies and wayward attention spans of children who live in a culture of extreme stimulation.
To the amazement of parents and teachers, he does it by bringing them before the Blessed Sacrament, through a eucharistic adoration program he has developed for children of all ages.
Although eucharistic adoration is sometimes dismissed as inappropriate for young children, especially those who have not yet made their first Communion, Father Thomas, a member of the Community of St. John, believes it is not only suitable but desirable in the spiritual formation of kids as young as 4 or 5.
“Jesus himself asks us to care about the children and we fulfill Jesus’ intention by leading the children to him,” said the French-born priest. Conversely, he added, “If we teach children to pray, if we lead them into contemplative prayer, they will help us to pray. They will lead us to Jesus.”
Indeed, in Matthew 19:14, Jesus chides his disciples for trying to prevent children from coming to greet him: “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Known as Children of Hope, Father Thomas's program was begun in France about nine years ago at the request of a mother who had asked the priest for a way to bring her children to Christ in the Eucharist beyond the Mass.
Short and Simple
Father Thomas developed a service using short, simple songs that would dispose children toward quiet adoration. During the service, he suggests that the children sit back on their heels on the floor of the church, and prostrate themselves the way the monks in his community pray.
“I teach them that we don't pray only with our mind, but also with our body. If we are not comfortable with our body, it's hard to pray, concentrate and be quiet.”
Father Thomas recommends scheduling the services before or after weekend Masses to revitalize the Sabbath as the day of the Lord in keeping with Pope John Paul II's 1998 apostolic letter Dies Domini.
He finds that adoration services also can give families an experience of Christ in the Eucharist apart from their Sunday Mass obligation. “I knew if we could get the children into a certain joyful experience of the presence of Jesus the whole family would come. When you begin to care about the children, you bring the family back together.”
In Peoria, where he is chaplain to Catholic students at Bradley University and Illinois Central College, Father Thomas holds the services before Mass in the Newman Center at Bradley.
He said children benefit because when they discover the silent, loving, real presence of Christ through eucharistic adoration, they often experience an intensified desire to please Christ in every detail of their lives.
Children of Hope services open with the sign of the cross, an invocation to Mary and a decade of the rosary, an Our Father and a short song, followed by exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The children then make a series of three prostrations for silent adoration, interspersed with light commentaries by the priest and meditative songs.
At the end of the adoration, Father Thomas said the children offer their own intercessory prayers “so as to stimulate their missionary spirit.” The service, which lasts about an hour, concludes with the Divine Praises and reposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, who learned of Father Thomas's work while he was bishop of Peoria, said he considers the program to be age-appropriate and added that it has been very well-received by both children and their parents.
“People ask, ‘How can you keep them quiet for more than 20 minutes?’” Father Thomas said. “I say, ‘Come and see.’”
Sandy Rongish, a mother of five in Wichita, Kan., where Father Thomas presented his adoration services for more than 700 children at St. Francis of Assisi parish, said she has seen a long-term positive effect on the participants.
“There were kids who went through it just one day and their moms told me they never had it formally again,” Rongish said. “Those kids started asking in the weeks following if they could go to school early to go to adoration … Once they get it, they know that they can go there and [Jesus is] listening to them and he's their friend.”
Rongish, the eucharistic adoration coordinator at St. Francis, said she thinks that the experience of adoration helps improve children's behavior during Mass because it gives them a better sense of church as a holy place where Christ is present. She said her own children, who have been going to adoration with her for about six years, rarely ask to leave the pew to get a drink or go to the bathroom during Mass. “They know the focus is on the altar.” And, she said, “They don't think Mass is boring when they understand it.”
She added that her children, who are now between the ages of 2 and 20, also have a strong belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, something that she didn't fully grasp until she was an adult.
As for parents who think their children might be too young, Father Thomas said he would ask them, “Do you wait until your children can understand what quality food is before giving them the proper food when they are babies? My point is, let's show them the Eucharist, even if they don't fully understand it.” Even parents, he added, cannot completely comprehend the Eucharist.
“Allowing children from 4 or 5 years old to kneel or prostrate before the Eucharist with other children or adults present gives them a practical experience of praying, even if the full intelligibility of the mystery of Eucharist is way beyond their minds or head. Little by little, it prepares them for their first Communion and it also gives them a different attitude toward the Mass.”
Father James Weldon, a chaplain and religion teacher at Kapun Mount Carmel Catholic High School in Wichita who formerly served at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, said he, too, has found that introducing eucharistic adoration to both children and teens enhances their understanding of Mass.
Said Father Weldon, “They're much more aware that this is God coming to us in the Eucharist, and it makes their reception of Communion much more profound.”
Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.