How to Talk to Children about the Papal Transition

February 15
By Daniel Sarell

In light of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation and the coming Conclave, which will elect a new Vicar of Christ on earth, Catholic parents and educators are challenged to harness this moment in the history of our Church and world.  How best do we communicate these events and what they represent to our children, and what value does it add to their faith formation as young disciples of Jesus Christ?

In April 2005, I wrote an article, “How to Talk to Young Children about the Death of Pope John Paul II.”  Since then, I have had my own child, who is almost five years old.  We mostly shelter her from the 24/7 news cycle, because of the violence and devastation depicted, even though I am a self-professed “news junkie.”  The news follows the maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  The day will come when we can no longer withhold information from her, and slowly we are exposing her to more of the realities of the world in which we live, to the extent that we believe she can process them in a healthy way.  Some of my earliest memories of historic events include the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which began when I was five, in 1979.

As parents, keeping one eye on our children’s innocence and their progressive need to grow in knowledge and understanding, and another eye on the world around them, just makes good sense.  How much should they know?  How important is it for them to understand various events, both tragic and hopeful?  These are difficult choices each family must make for their own children.

Back in 2005, when Blessed Pope John Paul II died, there was a great deal of media saturation, and not just for Catholic geeks like me.  If you turned on CNN, it was literally wall-to-wall coverage.  The learning opportunities were multi-faceted.  In addition to Roman Catholics enjoying a moment of global “center stage,” we were dealing with the death of great man, a shepherd for us as Catholics.  Parents were faced with a steep learning curve for themselves and what the papacy means to our lives and faith, but they were also challenged to serve as a kind of filter, between the faith formation they have or have not received and the fire-hose of information that poured out through the secular media, which often focuses on the aspects of the Church that are so often misunderstood by non-believers, or even among Catholics who are not well informed.

Fast forward eight years later and not much has changed.  The circumstances of this papal transition are quite different, but much of the coverage, even if there is less of it, will still likely focus on the most divisive, scandalous and scurrilous aspects of the life of the Church.

What I propose is that capturing this moment in our history is an opportunity to help our children grow in their understanding and appreciation of the papacy from the perspective of the Communion we share with the Church around the world.  “Communion” is both an action – we receive Communion, the Body and Blood of Jesus – and a reality, the Church is unified in its diversity by the Holy Spirit as the Mystical Body of Christ, the People of God, a Communion of Disciples.  The old hymn that sings, “we are many parts; we are all one Body,” expresses with elegant simplicity this reality.

The Church is diverse and global.  Traditionally, the Catholic Church was largely understood as culturally centered around Europe, but demographic and societal changes over the past several decades have signaled a dramatic growth – in influence and population – of the Catholic faith throughout the “south” – Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  Much of the coverage that we see over the next several weeks will focus on this multicultural reality, and the impact it will have on the election of the new pope.  As revolutionary as it was for John Paul II to be elected the first Polish pope ever, and the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years, could we be at the cusp of an even more dramatic development of seeing the election of a non-European?  Perhaps the successor of Benedict XVI will be an African, a native Spanish speaker, a Sri Lankan, a Brazilian, or a Filipino.  Even if the new pope is an Italian or European, the diverse realities of the Church will continue to transform our understanding of who we are as the Church.  These shifts are well-illustrated in pie charts at the following weblink:

For children, the election of the pope is an opportunity to understand the size and expanse of the Communion we share with other believers.  If the people of the world are a whole pie cut into seven pieces, Catholics make up one piece of that pie (1 billion).  If you cut one of those pieces into 3 pieces, you would total all the people who live in the United States (about 300 million). 

The pope is a man chosen by God, through the Church, to be the pastor of the Church around the world.  His coworkers, among whom he is the first of equals, are the bishops, like our own local shepherd, Bishop Isern.  Parents could relate to their children that the pope is the pastor of the Church around the world, just as your pastor is the shepherd of the Church in your local community, and as our bishop is the pastor of the Church of southern Colorado.  Looking a map of our diocese on the Diocese of Pueblo website, and then relating where we are to where the pope lives in Rome, would be helpful.

It is important to assure children that the Church is in the hands of Holy Spirit, and the people who are called to lead her will continue to love and guide us in our faith, as it has done since the time of Jesus, thousands of years ago.  There is sadness in losing the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, whose wisdom and gentle care taught many who were skeptical about what kind of pope he would be, to be a little more trusting, generous, and faithful in their assessment.

After speaking to our children, parents may consider praying a family Rosary together, even if this has never been your custom before.  This moment in history is a good time to learn more about what Pope Benedict XVI has taught us, and his faithful support of the family, as the “domestic Church” and that parents have the primary responsibility to pass on the faith to their children.  With each Mystery of the Rosary, families might want to offer the following petitions: pray in thanksgiving for service of Pope Benedict; pray for the Church and that God might send us a wise and holy pope; pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life; thank God for the guidance of the Church to youth, children and families; and thank God for helping people to live in peace, no matter what religion they may follow, their race or ethnicity.

In joy and hope, we celebrate the life of service for Pope Benedict, who will continue to be a source of prayer and grace for the Church, God willing, for many more years.  As we now pivot and look to new leadership in the Church, we must be confident that Jesus Christ is risen among us.  We can reflect anew upon the scripture (Hebrews 13:7-9), “Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”