(This post is part of the Patheos Book Club on Dear Pope Francis: The Pope Answers Questions from Children Around the World.)
One of my favorite scriptures is Mark 10:13-16:
Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.
Too often religious leaders focus on what they think are the important things and forget that God is equally present in the simple and young. Since children, youth, and college students are only temporary residents who can’t contribute to the budget, they are often neglected and even seen as impediments to the true mission of the church. Budgets for children’s, youth, and campus ministries are often among the first to be cut in tough times. In contrast, Pope Francis’ response to children’s questions gives us another side of spiritual leadership, one that sees God in the least of these, in the vulnerable, powerless, and innocent.
My theology is grounded in the affirmation: “God in all things and all things in God.” To me, this means that God experiences the cries of our children, their hopes, dreams, and struggles. God wants every child to flourish, and this should be at the heart of our ministries as well.
As a village pastor on Cape Cod, I try to put this in practice every Sunday. I have a very special group of children, including my own grandchildren aged five and three, who often can’t distinguish between “Gabby” (Grandpa) and the Pastor, and on occasion wander up to the chancel or want to help me with announcements at church or stand behind me while I’m preaching!
We have a number of other children, bright and inquisitive, yet dealing with challenges of growing up, and each Sunday, I single them out, personally greeting them and engaging them in conversation, often before I greet the older adults. You see, I believe that church can be pivotal in a child’s growth and that our church’s love can make the difference between life and death, and success and failure, for these children, especially children and youth from “at risk” families.
Jesus said “Let the children come to me” and, like Pope Francis, that is my goal as a pastor, too. I encourage their questions, listen to their answers, and honor their achievements. For our children are not just future leaders or members, but leaders and members NOW!
I feel blessed to be able to offer communion to every child at our church, South Congregational Church, UCC, in Centerville, MA. We don’t exclude by age or belief. We believe that what’s most important for a child is to experience God’s “original wholeness” and our love, celebrated in the sacrament of communion and the potluck dinner following communion, whether they are one, three, five, or our oldest member, 103. Faith is not about intellect but receiving God’s grace and trusting that God is with us in all our challenges, joys, and imperfections.
Pope Francis is a model for today’s priests, and is affirming what ministry is at its best, a welcoming of all God’s children, regardless of who they are and where they come from. Let the children come to me, Jesus said, and let us bless them!
(South Congregational Church’s website is http://southcongregationalchurch-centerville.org/)