Just before Advent, the Holy Father was leading his usual general audience when a six-year-old autistic boy, Wenzel, escaped from his family and wandered towards the pope. Blissfully unaware of the attention he was now attracting, young Wenzel scurried about Pope Francis and interacted with his surroundings—including a Pontifical Swiss Guard standing at attention nearby. After the boy’s mother explained the situation to the Holy Father, Pope Francis encouraged her to let him continue to play and then offered a beautiful teachable moment to the thousands gathered in the Paul VI audience hall:
This boy can’t talk, he is mute but he knows how to communicate. He knows how to express himself. He has something that made me think: He is free. An undisciplined freedom… but he is free. It made me think, “am I also free like that before God?” When Jesus says that we have to become like children He tells us that we have to have the freedom that a child has before his father. I think [Wenzel] preached to all of us.
In referencing the call of our Lord to “become like children,” Pope Francis affirmed the unique dignity of even the youngest of human persons, namely their innate innocence, senses of wonder and curiosity, and free-spirited (and sometimes seemingly limitless) energy. Rather than characterizing the source of the “disruption” as having to be managed or handled—perhaps as parents of autistic children are all too familiar with in social situations—the pope celebrated the liveliness of the circumstances and explained that the faithful could spiritually benefit from imitating the blessed boy before them.
Children are unconcerned with headlines, deadlines, schedules, requirements, and the expectations or the judgements of others. They often simply have wants they seek to fulfill and they set about observing and learning from their surroundings. They do not immediately know everything they should, and they recognize many of their needs require receiving help from another. When our Lord first called upon His disciples to become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, He had called a child to Himself before those gathered around. I imagine the adults immediately thought to themselves, “What could I possibly gain from becoming a foolish, helpless youth? I am successful now, I know so much now, and not because I kept thinking or acting like a child!”
Adults are all too susceptible to pride, be it of power, status, wealth, or knowledge. We get caught up in what the world (i.e. bosses, politicians, friends, and peers) expects of us in order to attain some level of temporal success. We entangle ourselves in the circumstances of situations, the reasons to do or not do something, and we may let too many external influences affect us unnecessarily. While intelligence or critical thinking itself is not a bad thing, adults may overthink certain situations a child would otherwise address head-on. For example, wanting to charitably help the less fortunate may tug at the heartstrings of a child to engage with that person; an adult, however, may become distracted from the needs of that person before him or her with personal judgements (or those of others around), embarrassment, selfishness, or any number of reasons to not offer assistance. Becoming like a child, then, would seem to be more pure and innocent.
Think of the demands of Christianity: love God more than yourself, care for your neighbors, avoid sin and sacramentally repent whenever you fail, faithfully go to church, generously give to the needy, pray for your enemies, and serve others humbly before yourself. These commands are not meant to be burdensome or harsh except to whatever pride or selfishness we cling to. Adults may overthink their capabilities to do good and avoid evil when evaluating circumstances and how to act. To children, however, these acts are simply directives they should obey and not question or “situationalize.”
This Christmas, let us renew our childlike faith by freeing our hearts and minds of prejudice and overcomplicated justifications. Our lives should be spent ministering and witnessing to God Who made each of us. In mirroring the innocent freedom of children, we can enhance our goodwill and loving charity towards others and increase our devotion and faith in God. Let us remember that our Heavenly Father loves us unconditionally: so much so that the Almighty sent His Son to dwell among us as a helpless Child.
Questions for Reflection: Why did Christ say we must become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Have you ever learned an important truth or lesson from a child?
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