We talked about the cross

When I used to teach catechism, with a loud and hopping little class of eight- and nine-year-olds, most of them were more or less willing to learn how to repent of their little sins and get back with Jesus again.

So we talked about the cross. Of course we talked about the cross.

“Let me see your best sign of the cross,” I would call out in my best teacher voice, with one eye fixed on those two boys who would make the most trouble. “Let’s start the class off right,” I would say. And we would cross ourselves: up, down, left, right, amen. Begin.

One of the things I told them about was Miguel Pro. Here was a guy who was so joyful, full of tricks and jokes and trouble, but he was really ready to serve, and things got serious very quickly. He had to sneak around to be a priest, and he soon got arrested for it, and you know the rest.

You know the famous photo, which I decided to show my class: There he stands before the firing squad with his arms outstretched, making a cross with his body. That’s what he decided to do with his life: Make a cross.

Grentidez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Grentidez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I told the kids that, when they were baptized, they were marked with a cross, sealed, signed. “You know how pirates do,” I said. (Things pop out of your mouth when you’re in front of a group of kids).

“You know how, when they bury their treasure, they mark the spot so they can come back for it? How do they mark it?”

They all knew it was with an X. “Well, God marks his treasure with a cross,” I said. “That’s where his treasure is: That’s the spot that he wants to come back to. That’s the thing that he cares about: Right in the middle of the cross.”

And they believed me. They knew that Jesus was on the cross, and they saw that, when they made the cross on themselves, they were right there, with Jesus.

Plain as day. I thought about having them stand and make a cross with their bodies like Miguel Pro about to be shot full of holes, but we settled for making a sign on ourselves, marking the spot where God’s treasure is. 

It’s right there: Up, down, left, right, amen. And I had them shout: VIVA CRISTO REY. It was close to the end of class, and any time we had a little free time, we got a little shouting in. VIVA CRISTO REY.

I know this is too much for little children.

Who is this not too much for?

I’m thinking of Peter, Peter himself, the rock, arguing with Jesus that he should try and get out of suffering and dying, then when they tried to pin him down, denying he even knows the guy, then swinging wildly at people’s heads with his sword to defend him, then in his final wretchedly agonic act, begging to be crucified upside down because when he got a good look at the thing, he decided he wasn’t good enough to be on Jesus’ cross.

Right, left, down, up, good grief. It’s too much. But where else is there to be? Here I am, stuck in the middle with Jesus.

I used to worry, while I taught: How will these little children reconcile everything I am telling them? How will they understand that it’s all the same cross?

This weird little thing I told them about pirates, and the scary picture of the martyr, and the dusty brass crucifix on the classroom wall, and that one funny kid who always whips through the sign of the cross as fast as he can because it makes the other kids giggle, no matter what I say.

The sign that marks them as a spot so precious that God will climb up there and die for them, because that’s where he wants to be. 

It’s something to shout about in triumph, and also something they will probably someday run from in terror, once they get a good look at it. I do. I’m running right now, or trying to. All of my choices are bad and I’m pinned like a bug, so there’s nowhere to run. Last year, my cross was that I felt useless, and I feel like a jackass making that mark on myself, reminding God that I’m his little bitty treasure, and won’t he please come back for me?

People have gotten so mad at me for saying you can’t escape your cross, but I didn’t make that up. It’s always there, one way or another. Open your eyes. 

I recall that sometimes, while I taught catechism, the cross was just showing up. Some classes were terrible, chaotic, pointless, but I had to show up and try. And I did try. I really couldn’t fault the material, anyway. At least I always knew where to start: Up, down, left, right, amen, and begin.

So, open your eyes, and see that the cross isn’t empty. I don’t understand it, but that is where Jesus wants to be. Viva Cristo Rey. Mark the spot, and begin.

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A version of this essay first appeared in The Catholic Weekly on November 14, 2021.

Photo by Randy Greve via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Teaching 7- and 8-year-olds about their faith

In 2019, I started volunteering as a faith formation teacher for Grade 2, which is preparation for first confession. I always had it in my head that I’d like to do it someday, and that I ought to. Then suddenly it occurred to me that now would work, so I signed up before I could change my mind.

I only have a little bit of experience teaching a group, but I do love kids this age (seven and eight). They are extremely sincere and funny, eager to please, and ravenous for information about how the world works, and most of them haven’t developed a fear of asking questions that might sound foolish. They are also very silly, very immature, and some of them are in constant need of redirection. My hat is off to full-time teachers who manage kids for many hours every day! I don’t think I could do it.

I think it’s going well so far. Here is what I have discovered about teaching kids this age:

They love body movement. When I want them to remember something, I try to come up with a bodily motion or gesture to help it stick in their heads, and they love getting up and doing something.

One especially popular one is when I shout, “Who made you?” and they shout, “God!” I shout, “Why did God make you?” And they shout, “To know him [stamp left foot], to love him [stamp right foot] and to serve him [stamp left foot] in this world [point to the ground dramatically like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever], and to be happy with him forever IN THE NEXT [point to the sky dramatically like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever].

We also learned the American Sign Language sign for Trinity when we did our first lesson on the Trinity: Three fingers of your dominant hand are showing behind your non-dominant hand, then the dominant hand goes under and comes up in front with one finger. Three persons, one God. We shall see if they remember next week. I bet some of them will.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo By: Cpl. Katherine M. Solano (detail) (Public Domain)

What can Catholic parents learn from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

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Our kids need us. Most of our teenagers are not in danger of becoming violent jihadists like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; but unless we make a deliberate, consistent, sincere effort to live our faith and to make sure that our older kids are well connected with adults who can guide and educate them and answer their questions, and unless we give them many opportunities to practice their faith, then there is little hope that they will still be Catholics when they leave our homes.

 Read the rest at the Register.