Just three months ago, Catholic children jubilated in the joys of Jesus’ beautiful birth. Now, with Holy Week, they’ll be asked to observe the sorrows of his horrible death. The latter will lead some Catholic parents to worry: Are the details of the Passion too troubling for young hearts and minds?
Of course, the Church has plenty of experience catechizing the young. Which is why the experts agree that there’s no need to worry about walking children through the crucifix, the Stations of the Cross, works of sacred art and even some movies — as long as you take into account each child’s maturity, sensitivity and readiness for the defining facts of the faith.
“You don’t start teaching your child about Christ when they’re 12 years old and expect them to grasp everything,” says Loretta Williams of Spartanburg, S.C. She speaks from much experience, as she and husband, John, are the parents of 13 children. “This whole teaching them about the passion of Christ starts in preschool and slowly builds up.”
Williams finds that, with preschoolers, a brief explanation almost always suffices. For example, she says, her 4-year-old understands the Crucifixion as the time when “bad men gave Jesus boo-boos.” Williams draws on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary as presented in a children’s picture book.
In Mauldin, S.C., Keith and Tami Kiser report that several of their eight boys and one girl began asking about the Crucifixion when they were only 2 and 3 years old. Crucifixes in church and at home had clearly made an impression.
“They grow up used to seeing that,” says Tami Kiser. “It’s no shock. It dawns on them during Holy Week that the nails in his hands hurt. I tell them, ‘That’s Jesus suffering and dying because he loves us so much. That really must have hurt him. He wants us to be in heaven with him.’”
“I link the suffering,” she adds, “to his love for us.”
Father John Riley, pastor of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Spotsylvania, Va., had a blacksmith forge Roman joist nails, the type used to crucify criminals in first-century Jerusalem, to show a kindergarten class.
“I’ve never had a bad experience with the kids,” assures Father Riley. He helps the kids relate by asking if they’ve ever had a splinter or stepped on something sharp. “Children can handle a lot if it’s presented in a sensitive way,” he says. “They can understand ‘ouch.’ They have awe over the fact that Jesus loves us so much he let people do this to him.”
The Kisers have had similar experiences by using artwork in church and at home as visual aids to learning. “We’re not hiding anything from our children,” says Kiser. “The Church in her wisdom doesn’t say, ‘No, you can’t show Christ on the cross.’ We show them the truth.”
She’s quick to point out that her children can handle the Passion because they know it’s anything but the end of the story.
Father Riley voices his respect for the role played by moms and dads in imparting the faith, even the uncomfortable aspects, to their own children. “No one is a better judge of readiness than the parents of the individual child,” he says. “Some are very sensitive at 13 and other kids at 9 don’t think twice about it. Only the parents are going to be capable of making that judgment.”
The priest recommends reading Scripture together and talking about the images of the Crucifixion in works of sacred art — and in the crucifix.
And then there are movies and videos. Before Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, the Kisers watched the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth together. This Good Friday they’ll watch the Gibson movie, but, because of its realistic violence, only the older children will be allowed to sit in. The youngsters will watch a gentle Easter video. Then the whole family will come together to pray the Stations of the Cross.
Father Riley, who majored in film, says several of the most popular movies depicting the death of Christ are worth watching. He singles out King of Kings and The Robe, as they made such an impression on him when he was a boy. He considers Jesus of Nazareth one of the best depictions available, although he has some minor reservations about its scriptural accuracy in spots. All three of these, he says, can be shown to youngsters.
But none of these or any other comes close, he says, to what The Passion of the Christ accomplishes.
“The challenge of that film is to look beyond the ugliness and violence,” says Father Riley. “There’s a radiant beauty in every scene, even in the most difficult to watch. If you see and experience it over and over, the beauty of God’s love and the beauty in Christ and the characters overwhelms the ugliness and the violence like a quiet light.”
‘Care Must Be Taken’
With any choice of movie or other aid to contemplation of the events of Holy Week, Father Riley counsels parents to be judicious. “Wise parents view movies first, and then decide,” he says. “There are scenes in The Passion of the Christ that sensitive kids under age 13 should not see. If parents make correct judgments, they can view it with children under 13 or 14.”
Showing only selected scenes very carefully won’t work here because of the film’s technique, he explains. Movies are powerful tools that always leave an impression; why let a child’s first movie experience of Christ’s death be marked by a sense of foreboding and horror?
“Care must be taken, especially with the children’s very first images,” he says, “since it’s a common experience that the first images many see as a story told to them tend to be accessed in imagination in the years following.”
He stresses the Vatican’s clear teaching that parents are the primary educators of their children. If a child shows signs of being seriously distressed, the parents should intervene.
From her family’s experience, Loretta Williams is confident that her teenagers can watch most of The Passion of the Christ without undue disturbance because “it’s what really happened.” The older children also join in with the prayers of St. Bridget of Sweden, which, says Williams, help convey “the full force of what Christ went through for us.”
Tami Kiser’s conclusion: “The beauty of Lent and Holy Week is that, already at preschool age, the wheels are turning. Children grow up seeing the pictures and the movies, and then you give them the Church’s beautiful message of redemption.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.