By PETER KWASNIEWSKI
As parents know, the work of educating children in the Faith starts at the very beginning and never really ends. It might end formally when they leave for college or move out of the home, but that’s still a good 17 to 20 years’ worth of education. Those crucial years should be marked by exposure to good (as in: beautiful and reverent) liturgy, an introduction to orthodox theology, and an initiation into traditional spirituality. What I’ve seen in homeschooling families is that formation in the faith is happening more or less all the time, and this is a large part of the reason why the boys and girls know their faith, love it, practice it, and run circles around their peers. You simply can’t put students with an otherwise secular mentality in a religion class for an hour a week and expect them to get anything out of it.
But parents, like all educators, need good resources to lean on. We can’t be making everything up as we go along. After decades of relative drought, it is heartening to be witnessing a downpour of solid, traditionally Catholic books being published for children. Some of these have already been reviewed here at NLM (see here, here, and here). Recently I received two more that I can highly recommend to our readers.
The first* is M. Cristina Borges’ Of Bells and Cells. This book endeavors to present vocational discernment, religious life, and priesthood to small children in a way that they will understand, but without cutting corners, dumbing down the truth, or lessening the radical nature of the calling. Indeed, her strategy seems to be very much that of Pope Benedict XVI, namely, to present the reality in all its demanding grandeur precisely because this is when we can see most clearly how wonderful a gift it is, how worthy of Our Lord, and how appropriate to His holy Church. I do not know exactly which sources Borges is drawing upon, but her theology of vocation is both traditional and profound, yet clearly and simply expressed. She emphasizes the universal call to holiness while underlining the unique conformity to Christ present in religious vows and the priestly character.
Borges devotes several fine pages to the three evangelical counsels, which she explains with admirable simplicity but without the slightest hint of that wishy-washy embarrassment so typical of modern discussions of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In this book, the vows are presented as the ways in which men and women make a total gift of themselves to the Lord, rely completely on Him, surrender all to Him, and emulate, as perfectly as they can, His life and virtues. (Indeed, I cannot help thinking that this children’s book would make a better introduction to the subject than many highschool and college texts out there.) I also appreciated her entering into how religious life is structured, its daily round, the steps of entering and making vows, the taking of a new name, the rationale behind wearing the habit (some of the best pages of the book!), the differences between religious orders, and the active and contemplative lives.
The portion of the book dedicated to the priesthood is equally luminous and inspiring. Once again, the fact that the author is willing to explain things like the difference between a secular/diocesan priest and a religious priest, why the clergy wear black (and, in particular, the cassock), how the priest is made “another Christ” through ordination such that he can then offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and forgive sins, sets this book in a class by itself.
An appendix contains brief accounts of the Benedictines, Carmelites, Carthusians, Conceptionists, Dominicans, Franciscans, Poor Clares, Missionaries of Charity, Redemptorists, Little Sisters of the Poor, and Jesuits, to give children some basic information about their founders, most famous saints, and characteristics. This is an especially nice touch, because it helps children to start thinking about how God has provided many different “realizations” of the Gospel and raised up many different kinds of saints who are all living out the baptismal vocation of holiness.
* The second book reviewed by Dr. Kwasniewski is a recently published reprint of The Mass Explained to Children by Maria Montessori. The full review can be accessed here.