There’s something particularly poignant about a pontiff’s interaction with children. Remember Pope John XXIII’s correspondence with a 12-year-old Italian boy who wrote asking if he should become a policeman or a pope? (“If you want my opinion, learn how to be a policeman. ... Anybody can be a pope; the proof of this is that I have become one.”)
Maybe it is even more striking when one observes it with Pope Benedict XVI, renowned as a top theologian, or with his predecessor Pope John Paul II, a world-class philosopher.
The most recent example came on Pope Benedict’s trip last month to the African country of Benin. In what Catholic News Service called “one of the most animated encounters” of the papal visit, he met with several hundred schoolchildren in a parish church. In the talk, the pope spoke about the day of his own first Communion, and pulled a rosary from his pocket and asked the young people to learn how to pray it. Each child was given a rosary at the end before they left.
Here are some excerpts:
“Jesus, who loves us very much, is truly present in the tabernacles of all the churches around the world, in the tabernacles of the churches in your neighborhoods and in your parishes. I ask you to visit him often to tell him of your love for him. ...
“The day of my first holy Communion was one of the most beautiful days of my life. It is the same for you, isn’t it? And why is that? It’s not only because of our nice clothes or the gifts we receive, nor even because of the parties! It is above all because, that day, we receive Jesus Christ for the first time! When I receive Communion, Jesus comes to live in me. I should welcome him with love and listen closely to him. In the depths of my heart, I can tell him, for example: ‘Jesus, I know that you love me. Give me your love so that I can love you in return and love others with your love. I give you all my joys, my troubles and my future.’
“What, then, is prayer? It is a cry of love directed to God our Father, with the will to imitate Jesus our brother. Jesus often went off by himself to pray. Like Jesus, I too can find a calm place to pray where I can quietly stand before a Cross or a holy picture in order to speak to Jesus and to listen to him. I can also use the Gospels. That way, I keep within my heart a passage which has touched me and which will guide me throughout the day. To stay with Jesus like this for a little while lets him fill me with his love, light and life! This love, which I receive in prayer, calls me in turn to give it to my parents, to my friends, to everyone with whom I live, even with those who do not like me, and those whom I do not appreciate enough.
“Dear young people, Jesus loves you. Ask your parents to pray with you! Sometimes you may even have to push them a little. But do not hesitate to do so. God is that important!”
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