There’s a whole world in each child!

“I’m Leo the lion, and I’m king of the jungle, and my jaws are open wide. Roarrrrrr!” sings my three-and-a-half-year-old great-nephew Patrick, roaring at me over and over again in his family room.

Then he says, “You be Leo.” So I sing away, roaring to my heart’s content, with jaws (arms) opening wide toward him. At this, Patrick tumbles backwards laughing, and squeals, “Don’t eat the little boy on the floor.”

                It’s not only his vivid imagination, the capacity to enter into a scene and play, that catches my attention. He often expresses surprising insight into what’s happening around him, and surprises with affection, with a clear distinction between pretence and reality, and with much more. Yet my focus here is not on Patrick. He could be ‘Everychild’; each one in a different context, with a different personality, gifts and challenges. The truth is there’s a whole world in each child!

                Recent sociology of childhood has taught me to be far more attentive to the children in my life. Early twentieth-century approaches to childhood, influenced by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), saw child development as having a particular structure, with pre-determined stages, eventually resulting in the logical competence of adult rationality. From this perspective, children were seen as natural, passive and, as yet, incomplete adults.

                Among the many insights of post-1980s sociology of childhood, we have been encouraged to see children as active agents in the construction of their own social lives. Through language and gesture they find expression for the meaning of their situation. Children’s language articulates human meaning, facilitates the discovery of new meaning, and enables them to grow. Adults, therefore, have much to learn, both about children and about our shared humanity through being attentive to children’s articulation of meaning.

                In the early 1960s, twenty years before the shift in the sociology of childhood, German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner insisted on the unique and unsurpassable value of childhood. In his essay, “Ideas for a theology of childhood”, Rahner says that seeing childhood as simply a period of preparation for adulthood fails to do it justice; neither does it do justice to children’s relationships with God.

                Rahner insists that children’s relationships with God are just as significant as those of adults; children are as close as adults to God’s infinite love. He says, “Childhood itself has a direct relationship with God. It touches on the absolute divinity of God not only as maturity, adulthood and the later phases of life touch upon this, but rather in a special way of its own.” Making use of the image of human flourishing through different phases of a journey, Rahner says, “The strange and wonderful flowers of childhood are already fruits in themselves, and do not merely rely for their justification on the fruit that is to come afterwards. The grace of childhood is not merely the pledge of the grace of adulthood.”

                A very similar perspective can be found in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ interaction with children. Most strikingly, in Mark’s gospel we read Jesus saying of children, “To such as these belongs the Kingdom” (Mk 10:13-16). The phrase “the Kingdom of God” sounds odd in our day because for us, kings and queens are usually associated with wealth, prestige and power but Jesus’ phrase has the opposite meaning. Through the phrase “the Kingdom of God,” and indeed through his healings, meals and parables, Jesus shows that God’s unconditional and liberating love is at work, transforming people’s hearts, lives and relationships; indeed whole communities.

                While children are only mentioned occasionally in the gospels, it is telling that Jesus associates children with the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. Following her extensive study of children in the bible, New Testament scholar Judith Gundry points out that through Jesus’ encounters with children, and his association of them with the Kingdom, he not merely includes children in the Kingdom, but indicates that the Kingdom must be understood from their perspective. In Gundry’s words, “The Gospels teach the reign of God as a children’s world, where children are the measure… where the small are great and the great must become small. That is, the Gospel teaching calls the adult world radically into question.”

So, Karl Rahner and recent sociological reflection have led me to a renewed appreciation of the God-defined mystery of the lives of my great-nephews ‒ Patrick, Finn and Owen. Their sense of surprise, their wonder, and even their search for meaning can mediate the grace of God to me. Recognising this demands a new openness on my part ‒ a willingness to understand the world from the perspective of children, on their terms. Of course, it does not diminish my responsibility to protect and nurture children. But it does mean I must be open to discover the mystery of God’s presence in their lives. With them, I must find expression for God’s love.

James McEvoy is a priest of the Archdiocese of Adelaide, teaches in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at Australian Catholic University, and is theologian-in-residence in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle 22-27 July. He will be working with teachers, parents, parishioners, parish teams and educational leaders on the theology of childhood. To learn more P Brian Lacey 4979 1211 or email.

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James McEvoy

James McEvoy is a priest of the Archdiocese of Adelaide, teaches in the Faculty of Theology and
Philosophy at Australian Catholic University, and in June delivered the 2017 Cathedral Lecture

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