By SUSAN BRINKMANN, CS&T Correspondent
Father Antoine Thomas, of the Congregation of St. John, says children understand the mystery of the Eucharist more than adults in many, many respects. (Courtesy Photo)
By SUSAN BRINKMANN
Ask any parent why they don’t take their children to Eucharistic adoration and most will tell you the same thing. Children don’t understand it.
Father Antoine Thomas, of the Congregation of St. John and a native of France, has an answer that will give us cause to pause.
“Do we adults understand the mystery of the Eucharist? We believe in it, but do we understand it? We think we understand it better than children but my experience after 10 years of leading children’s holy hours is that children understand it much more than adults in many, many respects.”
Father Antoine began leading Children of Hope holy hours for young people with remarkable success in France in 1994 and continued the practice after he came to the United States to found a new priory in Peoria, Illinois. Since then, he has given many YOUTH 2000 retreats throughout the United States, has made numerous appearances on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and has spoken at dozens of parishes across the country. St. Joseph’s Communications recently invited him to all of their conferences to conduct holy hours for the children whose numbers range anywhere from 800 to 1,600.
“Children — 4-, 5-, and 6-years-old — can be moved by the Holy Spirit much more with their innocent hearts than adults with their rational way of thinking. The children can lead us in prayer!”
Father Antoine says. “Once you teach them, they can lead adults in prayer, by their really genuine attitude toward Jesus. They don‘t begin to rationalize and argue about it. I have tons of stories to tell those adults who think that children should not be admitted to adoration. I think their opinion is not the truth.”
He tells of one little girl who he was preparing for reception of her first Communion. “I was playing the devil’s advocate and I said to her, ‘You don’t really believe that Jesus, who is God, the God who made the heaven and earth, can be present in a piece of bread, do you? It’s crazy! How can you believe that?’”
“After a few minutes of silence, the little girl said, ‘Well, nothing is impossible for God!’”
“And we say children don’t understand,” Father Antoine chuckled. “I just smile.”
His experience has shown that children who are regularly present at eucharistic adoration are much more comfortable with the mystery surrounding the Presence of Jesus in the host. They seem to have a greater interest in the mysteries of the Catholic Faith, especially the Mass. They understand that there is a relationship between the Eucharist and the sacrifice on the cross much more than others their own age who have not experienced adoration. they are more aware of the degrees of sin and are more eager to receive the sacrament of reconciliation more often.
Should this surprise us? Not at all.
Father Antoine has come to believe that regular eucharistic adoration is the best way to prepare children for first Communion. “To talk and have all kinds of programs at school, it’s still in the framework of school. Therefore, the children consider the talk on the Eucharist to be just one of the talks they receive at school all day.
“When I teach them in front of the Blessed Sacrament, they see the immediate unity between the talk and the presence of Jesus. It’s a matter of experience.”
Adults need to let go of their preconceived ideas that eucharistic adoration is only for grown-ups. “In the order of love, what is the most revealing — talk and words, or gestures?” Father Antoine asks. “We know that in our experience gestures go further to manifest love than to just talk about it. So, my position is to say that at 4- and 5-years-old, children are able to see their parents, teachers, priests, bowing with them in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Little by little we give them the meaning of what is there — of Who is there.”
The Children’s Holy Hour is full of reverent gestures, such as prostration before the Blessed Sacrament. There are moments of silence, the singing of hymns, and reciting a decade of the rosary. Father Antoine leads the children in genuine prayer, exactly the kind that we think our children will never sit through. “Jesus doesn’t send me to entertain,” Father Antoine says in his characteristic gentle voice. “He sends me to lead them to the true Presence of Jesus and to receive His divine love.”
The holy hour ends with benediction, complete with the singing of the Latin hymn, Tantum Ergo. Not only do the children sing along, parents will be astonished to know that children, even those of very young ages, are remarkably attentive throughout the entire hour.
Four years ago, while conducting a YOUTH 2000 retreat in Wichita, Kansas, a young mother of three named Sandy Rongish looked at the literature about the Children of Hope program and couldn’t wait to talk to Father Antoine. “For a year or two before I met Father Antoine, every time I went to adoration I had this feeling that I should be taking the children. … more than just my own children.” When she saw his program, she knew this was something she had to do.
Their conversation lead to the beginning of the formation of a structured program complete with a manual, Web site, and video. They eventually showed it to Wichita Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, recently appointed to replace Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien in the Diocese of Phoenix. Bishop Olmsted loved it and gave it his imprimatur — official permission to publish a book about matters of faith or moral teaching.
They immediately made plans to send a packet of materials to every Bishop in the United States. Bishop Olmsted wrote the cover letter asking the Bishops to review the program and pass it along to someone who would like to begin children’s adoration in their diocese.
The response was overwhelming. “We had bishops calling from all over the country,” Rongish said. “Cardinal George loved it. One bishop from Kentucky decided to lead a holy hour himself and 500 children showed up.” The same Children of Hope holy hour is taking place to this day with an average attendance of 250 children. Mothers who never thought their children would sit through an hour of prayer had to drag their kids away when it was over.
Rongish, who leads a Children of Hope holy hour in her own parish, told the story of a mother who came to the first holy hour with her 5-year-old son Alex. “She didn’t want me to be offended if she left right after it was over but she had a 3 p.m. appointment. Well, I noticed that when I left, they were still there! Later she called me and said that as they were leaving, her son said, ‘Mom, can we stay a little longer? I’m not done talking to Jesus yet.’ She said, ‘I knew right then and there that my appointment wasn’t as important as this!’”
Jesus is infinitely capable of connecting with little hearts, if only we adults would stop letting our preconceived notions stand in His way.
“In a society where the children are more and more wounded by violence, by divorces, by lack of true love and unity in their families, eucharistic adoration for children is the great healing means to make them believe that God is truly a Father who loves them infinitely,” Father Antoine says.
“Instead of bringing our children to Jesus in the Eucharist or to a priest, we flock to psychologists, as if they were the new priests of the modern time. We empty our wallet, sometimes without satisfying results. Of course, some of them may provide temporary help, but only Jesus can truly heal our wounded children by revealing His divine love for each one of them.”
Questions@childrenofhope.org or call Sandy at 316-721-1758.