Making More of the Mass for Small Children

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By Leigh Snead

There is no little debate about how young children should behave at Mass. Views and opinions are as wide and varied as discussions on how they ought to be catechized, fed, or potty trained. With kids on the autism spectrum it’s another level tricky, at least it is with mine, who are also inseparable identical twin boys.

Like most mothers, it is my wish that my sons can join us at Mass and have a positive association with holidays and Sundays. Even with time spent explaining what happens at Mass over and over, there is nearly always some offer of donuts or a restaurant breakfast proposed as the ultimate incentive after Mass if they’re well-behaved.

This Easter was no different. With family visiting, those frantic moments before loading all of us into the car, complaints about structured clothing, denied requests to bring the noisiest toys along, reminding the teenager he can’t wear filthy sneakers to Mass, there was inevitably the promise of a trinket-and-chocolate-filled extravaganza waiting for good boys after Mass, courtesy of the Easter Bunny. Sigh. Talk about losing the plot.

 Leigh with one of her boys.

Leigh with one of her boys.

Catechesis with my boys is generally a challenge for us because we spend a lot of time and energy learning how and working hard to be normal. And Christ’s Resurrection is anything but! This year, however, we had a real breakthrough.

On Holy Saturday, I pulled out The Easter Story Egg. My boys love nesting dolls of all sorts, but these nesting eggs proved themselves to be more than most manipulatives. Made of wood with very simple illustrations, they feel very nice to hold but don’t offer a lot of temptation to play with them in a way that has nothing to do with Easter (which is an everyday challenge).

In most nesting dolls, the tiniest one is solid and that’s the end of the story, but as my boys opened each egg, something set these eggs apart. The smallest one -- plain and gray -- also opened. And, of course, it is empty. They realized it was Jesus' tomb! I heard audible gasps from their mouths when they open the last egg to find it empty, capturing the childlike wonder we should all have in response to the Risen Christ. Additionally, this very tangible empty tomb allowed us to go deeper into catechesis because they understood that the tomb was truly empty - it wasn't just a foreign concept any longer. From there, they wanted to know where Jesus is, and who will save us now. It was incredible how something so simple led them to the very questions that are answered on Easter.

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The Easter story told through the The Easter Story Egg stayed with us in such a way that I was absolutely blown away Easter morning after our frantic effort to get to Mass. Our gorgeous breakthrough with the story eggs on Saturday made Mass a little different. One of my twins, a serious contrarian, who says "no" even to things he actually wants, was much more interested. Arriving to Mass early, we were seated near to a St. Matthew devotional area. He was understandably a little antsy and wanted to get a closer look. I agreed, but inside I was thinking I had made a mistake and that we’d never make it back to the pew after his taste of freedom. To my surprise and delight he knelt down and asked me to read the prayer affixed to the kneeler and then light  a candle. I obliged and as I was lighting the candle I heard his sweet little voice whispering his own prayer, asking St. Matthew to help him and protect him. Beautiful.

I may still have pull out my promises of donuts and other treats, but at least I know that some things are sinking in deeper than I ever expected.

Carrie Gress