Preaching to children

Thursday night, I got a call from a classmate and  friend, the DRE in my parish, Deacon Bill, explaining that his mother-in-law had died after a long illness.  As a result, he would not be attending or preaching at the special mass for third graders in our parish Sunday.  He asked: Could I fill in for him?  I said sure.  Saturday night, I took a crack at revising and rewriting my original homily (you can read it here) to make it understandable to eight-year-olds.

It was harder than I thought. The original dealt with opium addiction, abortion, alcoholism and pagans with illegitimate children.  “Great,” I thought.  “The kids will love that.”

Going through this process, I realized that this is something they don’t teach you in homiletics — but, I thought, it might make a good exercise for seminarians and deacon candidates to have to do two versions of the same homily, one for adults and another for children.  Among other things, it forces you to ask “What is my homily really about?”

While it’s debatable whether this kind of child-friendly liturgy is all that necessary or helpful — believe me, I have my doubts — what isn’t debatable is that we all need to work for clarity and concision in homilies, without “preaching down” or “dumbing down” the message.  (For his part, my pastor tends to do Q-and-A homilies when he’s talking to kids — an engaging method, but one that runs the risk of turning Mass into a talk show and the homilist into Art Linkletter.)

For better or for worse, here’s the homily I preached to third-graders at this morning’s 10 o’clock mass:


Every Saturday night, my wife and I call her parents down in Maryland, just to check in and catch up on the news.  So we called last night, as usual. I told them that I was going to be preaching at this mass this morning.  They’d been to the five pm mass down at their church and they knew the readings, so I asked my father in law what he thought I should preach about this morning.  What should I tell the third graders?

“That’s easy,” he said.  “Tell them to obey their parents.”

So there you have it.  That’s my homily.

I think that’s probably one message of many in this Sunday’s gospel – and it’s an important one.

But I’d like to leave you with another thought, too.

It is a beautiful, and hopeful message, and one that we sometimes forget.

It’s this: every one of us has the ability, the possibility, of being a saint.

We think of saints as being mysterious, holy people.  We see them in statues and on holy cards and in stained glass windows around this church.  We hear stories about their courage and how much they loved God, many loving Him so deeply and so perfectly that they died for Him.

Yet we tend to forget: so many of them were people like you and me.

People who tried to do good, and sometimes failed.  People who made mistakes – sometimes, serious ones.  They often sinned.  But when they realized their sins, they chose to do something about it.

St. Paul is a famous example.  He wrote the letter to the Philippians that we heard just a few minutes ago.  He started out as a man named Saul, a very devout and very strict Jewish man, a man who made his living sewing tents.  But Saul believed that people who followed Jesus were not only wrong, but evil.  He did everything to stop them.  At one point, he even stood by to watch as they were killed.  But one day, traveling on the road to Damascus, he was blinded by a bright light, and Jesus appeared to him and asked him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

In the days that followed, Saul searched his heart and came to realize that God was calling on him to do something different with his life.  He changed his name and he became one of the most famous writers and speakers in early Christianity.  Eventually, he died for the faith that he had once condemned.

And so, someone that you would never have expected became a saint.

In the same way, in the gospel, we hear the story of the son who disobeyed his father, but then changed his mind.  And yes: part of the moral of that story is that children should obey their parents.

But it also shows that anyone can change his mind, and change his heart. By doing the will of the Father, and turning away from sin, anyone can enter God’s kingdom.  Even some of the most serious sinners of Jesus’s time, tax collectors and prostitutes, were converting.

Anyone can decide to do the right thing and be saved.  Anyone can change.

In fact, anyone, can become a saint, if only they want to.    That’s how it is for you and for me.

This morning, as you prepare to receive Jesus in communion, think about the choices you have.   What parts of your life do you need to change?  What would help to make you a saint?  What can you do better?

Ask God to help you be like the son who finally did what his father wanted.

Pray for God to help you do the right thing, to make the right choices, to be what your father in heaven wants you to be.

Pray for God to help you be a saint.

That should be the great prayer for all of us, no matter how old, whether you’re eight or 18 or 80.

Pray for God to help you be a saint.

And, yes, as my father-in-law put it, “Obey your parents.”

Trust me: your life will be lot easier if you do.

You’ll make your parents happy.

And, you’ll make your Father in heaven happy, too.

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8 responses to “Preaching to children”

  1. A+

    There isn’t an adult who should have escaped this version. It has all the simplicity of one of Jesus’ parables without becoming simplistic. This one speaks straight to the soul!

  2. Much better than the Q-and-A homilies, which seem mostly aimed at keeping the parents amused. I’m a little surprised you didn’t make more of the kid who told his dad he’d do the work but then failed to come through. I suspect plenty of 3rd graders could identify with that.

    We seem to be phasing out the “special children’s liturgy” at our parish. But we did have younger children lector at the noon mass today, and they used the dumbed-down readings in the children’s lectionary. Both the kids were good readers who could easily have handled the real thing instead of the Dick-and-Jane rewrite. I hope we will soon see the last of what strikes me as a failed experiment.

  3. I am with Gerard on this one DcnGreg.

    You are spot on in suggesting new clergy to develop two homilies for the same readings for the reasons you gave. Concise/ clarity- always use a laser beam instead of buckshot!

    My question to you is, after having done this, having refocused on what your homily is really about for Third graders, would you / did you modify your original homily?

    Your post suggests this assignment made you think about your homily in a different way.

    thanks for sharing

  4. Joe…

    I delivered the original homily at 5 pm Saturday, and didn’t start reworking it for children until after. So no, I gave the original as posted. I don’t think I would have done anything differently — though my pastor remarked that I seemed more into the second version. Go figure. But it was a constructive exercise all the same.


    I considered going that route. But to preach on disobedience means having to preach on the consequences of disobedience; in the parable, Jesus doesn’t really go into that. He speaks more about the rewards of obedience — sinners entering the kingdom of heaven — so I chose to go in that direction, which I think helped put an affirmative and positive spin on the message and make it accessible to young minds.

    But it’s hard to tell if you’re having any impact with stuff like this. Eight-year-olds aren’t apt to come up to you after mass and tell you “Great homily! Really gave me a lot to think about!” But the gal who works with Deacon Bill in the religious ed office gave me a “thumbs up” as I processed out at the end of mass 🙂

  5. “It’s this: every one of us has the ability, the possibility, of being a saint.”

    Oh, my, gosh …. Deacon, the moment you said this in one simple sentence, I knew that this would be a great one, and that you have dared to go where so many preachers today forget (fail) to go.

    So much preaching today is focused on social justice issues or this cause or that, or some weird concept that the average pewgoew cant understand (when you have professor priests preach), that its forgotten that these classic messages for homilies or Catholic concepts, are what help produce the Church’s most faithful Catholics and/or saints. If only more clegy would preach like you just did, think how many of my fellow youth would still be coming to Mass and being happy to be Catholic, or even coming back.

    Way 2 Go deacon. YCRCM

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