An angry lynch mob emerges from the evening shadows at the Maycomb County Jail, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, demanding the inmate Tom Robinson. Armed with a floor lamp, a book, and his integrity, lawyer Atticus Finch defends Tom against the mob’s seething anger. Tempers are fraying into violence when a small voice steps out of the shadows and identifies a neighbor through the faceless mob.
“Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” pipes up Scout Finch, six-year-old daughter of Atticus.
“I said, ‘Hey,’ Mr. Cunningham. . .I go to school with your boy. . . .Tell him ‘hey’ for me, won’t you?”
Scout’s words remove Mr. Cunningham from the anonymity of the mob and replace him squarely back in Maycomb County, a poor farmer with a life-story, children, and connections of his own. Chastened back to personhood by the clear-eyed sight of a child, Mr. Cunningham returns Scout’s greeting, and signals the end of the mob’s intent. “I’ll tell my boy you said, ‘hey’,” he promises, as the mob drifts slowly away into the darkness.
In the history of the Church, when the Lord has wanted to impart a particular message to His people, especially through His Mother, He has chosen children as His couriers.
From Jacinta, Francisco, and Lucia of Fatima, to Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes, Dominic Savio and Maria Goretti of Italy, and contemporary Carlo Acutis of Milan, the Lord reveals His wisdom to the little ones. He Himself came to us as a little Child, as the English poet William Blake reminds us, “He is meek, and He is mild,/ He became a little Child.”
There is something about the gaze of a child that pierces through adult lies and confusion to the truth. We have all, no doubt, experienced a moment of profound veracity spoken to us through the directness of a child. Children don’t flatter, and children don’t pander; children exist in the transparent now.
They can be tempted and can do wrong, but their honest guilt is usually quite evident. They may, at the moment, bristle, when they are corrected, but they are soon deeply grateful for the love of which discipline is an essential expression. They tell you what they are thinking; they love without shame.
Children forgive and forget, and are unfailingly faithful. They don’t hold grudges, and they start afresh each day. They believe in the good, and they wait through the bad. They have been heroically patient as we have asked them to forge a way through a new, daunting and contradictory reality in recent times. They have not changed, and they remind us of what is real.
Children also lack the defensive shield from reality, which we adults pull around ourselves as needed. Dante Alighieri speaks in Inferno of the betrayal of the trust of children as particularly grievous, because their trust is so freely given. The veil of reason, or even self-defense, with which we rationalize, protect, and cut down to size problems and people and situations that we find overwhelming, is not a tool children are capable of wielding. Reality presents itself to them in all of its raw force.
In all of this lies a sacred trust. Robert Royal wrote a compelling column last year titled “In Search of Young People,” asking whether lovable, responsible, faith-filled young people were getting what they really need from the Church, even when Church leaders are desperately trying to “reach out” to them. That question would best be answered by an inquiry aimed at “Finding Real Adults.” A child responds to the adult who believes in him, who sets boundaries for him, and who provides a way forward in growth and maturity.
One such adult who understood this formative role was Pope St. John Paul II, who spent a significant part of his papacy calling young people to give their lives fearlessly for Christ. On his deathbed, this Pope of Youth was reportedly informed that just outside his papal windows, in St. Peter’s Square, throngs of young people were keeping candlelight vigil with him. He responded, with gratitude and conviction, “I have looked for you, and you have come to me, and I thank you.”
The heart of a child receives the stimulus of its surroundings with openness. Exposure to these influences, positive or otherwise, profoundly impacts a child’s soul in its formative years. If the environment is one of faith, and trust, and high ideals, the child will respond with open joy and loving acceptance. When children feel secure, they are filled with peace. They become the young people, and then the adults, that someone has taken the care and the time to believe they can become.
A child’s eyes see truth, and so often, if we just look, there is a person in their eyes we ourselves should reflect. They see reality as it should be, and they remind us of what they know. They see Mr. Cunningham when we have sold out in fear, they see Our Lady when we see a muddy stream, and they see mother, father, teacher, and guardian, every time we speak and act and love.
Our children are watching us, listening to us. They are watching us to see what kind of people they should become. They are listening to hear us speak life into their souls, to pour blessing and purpose upon their hearts. The words of a parent and, in particular, of a father, profoundly call forth life and identity within them. “This is my beloved Son,” the Father speaks, identifying Christ by His essence.
Let’s be worthy of the eyes of our children, and the truth they see. Let’s remember Our Lord’s call to become as children ourselves, in order to come to Him, and receive His love, and know His grace. Through a child’s eyes, we are strengthened to become the noble, trustworthy, self-sacrificing men and women we have been called to become, and as we are known by our own loving Father.
*Image: Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me (Laisser venir à moi les petits enfants) by J.J. Tissot, c. 1888 [Brooklyn Museum]