In my role as a director of religious education, I have listened to catechists make sweeping statements about their students, “These kids today don’t care about anything.” “Most of them don’t even want to be here.” Admittedly, such words are spoken in moments of frustration. I have also heard teachers make sentimental statements about their students, “They’re so sweet and innocent. What could they possibly have to confess?” Both expressions betray a lack of appreciation for the dignity of each child, a dignity which compels us to offer them a complete catechesis about who God is and who they are in relation to him.
It is one thing to assent to the truth that “children have a dignity of their own and that they are important not only for what they will do in the future, but for who they are now,” and another to treat every child with the dignity they deserve. How can catechists honor the dignity of children?
Jesus gives us some clues where he becomes “indignant” when the disciples try to keep the children away and he rebukes them. “He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me. Amen, I say to you whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.’ Then he embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them.”
Jesus offers us a most practical way to grow in the virtue of humility when he admonishes us to turn and become like children. We cannot appreciate the dignity of another person when we are filled with our own ego, need for control, or pride. Children may not always be aware of their littleness, but when they come up against the reality that they need help, they soon become beggars, unashamed to ask for help. They unabashedly and often gratefully receive all as gift. If we are to turn and become like children, we have to give up the illusion that we can live the Christian life by ourselves. No matter our level of experience or education, each of us is radically dependent on God. “Put no trust in . . . mere mortals powerless to save. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth; that day all their planning comes to nothing.” Our very life is dependent on God. If he were to cease loving us, we would cease to exist. Everything we have, including our education and experience, is gift. We have not earned and cannot deserve all we’ve been given. In addition, we are indebted to one another in ways we often take for granted. When we know how dependent we are on God and each other, we are free from the exhausting constraints of self-protection and self-promotion, free to give from the abundance of the gifts we’ve received, and free to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in the moment.
Humility encourages a stance of awe and wonder in the presence of God’s children who are temporarily placed in our care. An active pursuit of humility safeguards all those in relationship with us too, because it ensures that we act from a place of love and gratitude toward God and others.