Catholic News Service
What is a gift?
In our contemporary world, a gift is something to be unwrapped, looked upon, acknowledged and then it can be used, or set aside, or stashed and forgotten about. It can be returned or exchanged, maybe for something “better,” or something more appropriate.
Pope Francis pours water over the head of a baby as he celebrates the baptism of 26 babies in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican Jan. 10. In reading Pope Francis’ exhortation, “The Joy of Love,” it’s apparent that he is a man with a deep appreciation for the joys of family life and the welcoming of children into our families and into our faith. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)
In other words, we may or may not welcome these gifts, depending on how they fit into our lives. So how do we regard the gifts God gives us — specifically, the gift of children?
Children are a product of the greatest of God’s gifts, the gifts of love and life, Pope Francis declares in “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), in a chapter that speaks about welcoming children into a family. “Love always gives life,” he writes.
“Each new life,” he continues, “allows us to appreciate the utterly gratuitous dimension of love, which never ceases to amaze us. It is the beauty of being loved first: Children are loved even before they arrive.”
And that “gift of a new child, entrusted by the Lord to a father and a mother, begins with acceptance, continues with lifelong protection and has as its final goal the joy of eternal life.”
Our challenge, of course, is to recognize children as God’s gifts to us and not to fret over whether we can afford them or whether they will somehow inconvenience us as we pursue our chosen course in life.
“Some parents,” Pope Francis notes, “feel that their child is not coming at the best time.” Or, maybe we welcome children, but on our terms, as if they were a means to achieve what we want. And, if they don’t meet our needs, we regard them as disappointing.
“It is important,” the pope reminds us, “for that child to feel wanted. He or she is not an accessory or a solution to some personal need. A child is a human being of immense worth and may never be used for one’s own benefit. So it matters little whether this new life is convenient for you, whether it has features that please you, or whether it fits into your plans and aspirations.”
That means we welcome children not because they are cute, not because they entertain us in one way or another, not because we can mold and shape them like pieces of clay into whatever we want.
“We love our children because they are children,” says the pope, “not because they are beautiful, or look or think as we do, or embody our dreams. We love them because they are children.”
Jesus knew this, certainly better than his disciples did, or at least those disciples who complained when children seemed to interfere with whatever Jesus (and the disciples) were doing. “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them” Jesus told his disciples, no doubt rather sternly. “For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Mt 19:14).
The Gospels of Mark (9:37) and Luke (9:48) further recount Jesus’ admonition to his disciples, spoken as he embraced a child: “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
It’s important here to note the context of Jesus’ words. His disciples had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest, which prompted Jesus to say, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35).
That shouldn’t be ignored by those of us who are parents. In fully receiving and welcoming the gift of children, it’s not our needs — our job, our night out, our sleeping late — that come first.
There is something else worth contemplating, at least for those of us who not only believe in responding to Jesus’ call to “go and make disciples,” but welcome that call as well.
“By their witness as well as their words, families speak to others of Jesus,” says Pope Francis. “They pass on the faith, they arouse a desire for God and they reflect the beauty of the Gospel and its way of life. … Their fruitfulness expands and in countless ways makes God’s love present in society.”
By welcoming children, we welcome the opportunity to pass on our faith — to teach our young people the value of feeding the poor, comforting the afflicted, seeking justice for the lowly and, yes, welcoming all of God’s children into the family of the kingdom.
“Children are a gift,” writes Pope Francis. “Each one is unique and irreplaceable.” Like all of God’s gifts, they are not something that we earn, not something we deserve. They are generous signs of God’s love for all of us.
“We are all sons and daughters,” the pope reminds us. “And this always brings us back to the fact that we did not give ourselves life but that we received it. The great gift of life is the first gift that we received.”
And, like Jesus, we are called to welcome and embrace these gifts with joy.
(Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.)