ASK FATHER: How to explain the Eucharist to a 3 year old?

first communion card 01From a reader…

Father, My son is three years old. I’m looking for a very simple way to explain the Eucharist to him. I have been pointing out the host to him and saying, “See that’s Jesus that Father is holding.”, but this doesn’t seem to be making much of an impression. Would it be correct to say that Jesus is hiding in the host? I think this would make sense to him but I want to make sure whatever I tell him, even if simple, is true.

To explain the deep mystery of the Eucharist to anyone, regardless of age, is difficult.  This mystery requires a lifetime of grappling with even to come to some minimal understanding of its profundity. One runs the risk of lapsing into heresy.

Perhaps the best way to expose children to the mystery of the Eucharist has a twofold approach.

Firstly, allow them to observe the reverence and awe that we adults show to the Blessed Sacrament.  Let them see our deep and genuine genuflections toward the tabernacle, our silence in church, our heads bowed in prayer, our regular reception of the Sacrament of Penance, our reverent reception of Holy Communion (not, by the way, in the hand).

Secondly, state matters as directly as possible. “Yes, dear Athanasius, that is Jesus whom mommy and daddy receive in Holy Communion. … Yes, little Etheldreda, we genuflect because Jesus is in the tabernacle. … No, Philomena, Jesus isn’t hurt when we consume the Host.”

A correct answer to some of their questions might be a simple, “It’s a mystery, which is why mommy and daddy spend as much time as we do praying at church, meditating on it, asking God to deepen our understanding of it.”

Many efforts to explain deep theological mysteries in terms that children understand fall into a sort of simplification that can, in fact, be heresy. It’s okay that little Paphnutius doesn’t understand the Eucharist in all of its profundity.  Who does?

One of the beauties of mysteries are that they allow a growth in understanding over time.  As we grow and mature in faith and in grace, our understanding can grow proportionally.   Consider the wisdom of the Church’s sacred liturgical year.  Each year, year in and year out, we are presented with the mysteries of the life of Christ and of the whole history of salvation from Creation to the End.  Each year we are a little different.  We, who receive the presentation of these mysteries, each year can glean from them something new for our identity and love of God, helpful for our salvation, helpful for our zeal to help others to salvation.

Of course much of your task and process of helping young children to grow in the Faith will be influenced – and heavily so – by the sacred liturgical worship at your church, on Sundays and other moments.   Is this worship mainly man-centered, and horizontal?  Raucous and constantly noisy?  Is this worship mainly God-oriented, and vertical?  Including silence?

Is it beautiful?

Children get these things pretty quickly, I’ll wager, and I bet parents will back me up.  If adults and older children around them behave a certain way towards … anything… they’ll pick that up.

I am sure that parents and grandparents out there have some practical wisdom to share in this regard.

UPDATE:

Amy Welborn dropped me a note (give her page a visit!):

This is pitched at First Communion age, but Pope Benedict is *so* clear about things that it might even help a 3-year old!

God bless, and thanks for all you do in these..interesting times.

Friendship with Jesus: Pope Benedict XVI Talks to Children on Their First Holy Communion   UK link HERE

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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25 Responses to ASK FATHER: How to explain the Eucharist to a 3 year old?

  1. Legisperitus says:

    Exactly. I told my young son that it was fine he couldn’t understand, because God can do things beyond our full comprehension.

    In fact, if He couldn’t, how would He be better than us? (If my dog could understand every single thing I do, I wouldn’t feel right keeping her as a pet!)

  2. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Would it be correct to say that Jesus is hiding in the host?”

    No.

    That is closer to consubstantiation than transubstantiation. This would imply that Jesus and the Host are separate entities (since He is hiding in it). Jesus is the substance, the reality, of the Host. The physical appearance, round, white, flat, are the accidents of the Host to the eye. “Jesus is the Host,” might be one way to say it to a three-year old, although he or she might think Jesus turned into the Host by a magic spell, which is not correct.

    You might have two wait a few years to explain the substance/accident distinction.

    The Chicken

  3. Rev. David Bayardo says:

    Catechesis of The Good Shepherd does a great job explaining the Eucharist. It starts with children as young as 3 or 4 yrs. old! Google it!

  4. Elizabeth D says:

    I would say “When God says something it always comes true. God said ‘let there be land and sky and plants and animals and people (both mommies and daddies),’ that happened, God said it and it happened because he said it. God became man–remember Christmas, and Jesus being born as Mary’s little baby, in the manger? After Jesus grew up he said to sick people “be healed” and just like that they got all better. Jesus is God, so what he says always comes true. Finally, Jesus was at supper with his friends and he took bread and said “this is my body which will be given up for you” and he took wine and said “this is the chalice of my blood” and the bread became Jesus’ body and the wine became Jesus’ blood. It still looked like bread and it still looked like wine. But what Jesus says always comes true. At Mass it is not only the priest but really Jesus who takes bread and says “this is my body” and takes wine and says “this is the chalice of my blood.” And it really comes true. The bread Mommy and Daddy eat in Holy Communion is really Jesus. Holy Communion is also called the Eucharist. What we see when we see the Eucharist or Holy Communion is bread and wine, but what is really there is Jesus, and he can see and hear us. We give a lot of love and attention to the Eucharist because it’s not bread, it’s Jesus. We love Jesus because he loved us first. He gave us the Eucharist because he wants to be with you and me forever. When the priest holds Jesus in his hands, pay attention! Jesus sees you and loves you, he has very special love for little children. You can say to him, in your heart, ‘I love you Jesus.’ When you are bigger you can receive Jesus in Holy Communion, too, now is the time to make a place ready for him in your heart so that when the time comes you will welcome him with great joy.”

  5. MariaKap says:

    You might say (if the child has a younger sibling or memory of Mommy being pregnant), “You know that Jesus came down from heaven and took on a human body in his mother’s womb and grew right there within his mother Mary until he was ready to be born. Well, he also comes down from heaven at Mass and he takes on the appearance of the host so that he can be within each one of us! And when you are ready to make your First Communion he will be within you and love you from inside out! He’ll grow and grow within you, not like a baby grows but in a way that will help you love everyone just like He does and that will help you to be more like Jesus every day.

    And that’s the way I would put it to a 3 year old.

  6. Saor Alba says:

    A fine Opus Dei priest once told me a story of a priest quizzing a boy to see if he was ready for his first communion. When asked whereabouts Jesus was in the church the lad replied, “That looks like but isn’t (pointing to the crucifix) and that doesn’t look like but is (pointing to the tabernacle”. A perfect exercise in concision, with which the priest was well satisfied.

  7. cdet1997 says:

    I explained it to my 5 year old via The Transformers Catechism. I showed him a pic of Optimus Prime in truck mode and then:
    Me: “What does this look like?”
    Him: “It looks like a truck!”
    Me: “And if it was parked next to you, what would it sound, smell and feel like?”
    Him: “Like a truck!!”
    Me : “But do you know what this thing really is?”
    Him: “It’s Optimus Prime!!”
    Me: “Yup. And it’s kinda the same way with the Eucharist. It looks like bread, feels like bread, smells like bread, and tastes like bread, but it is Jesus!”

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    Children see things so concretely, it is better to give them a very short answer at that age, and even older, depending on the child. They are not going to understand, since we don’t really, and because it is a confusing idea to them with their concrete thinking. Fr. Z is correct, the attitude and behavior of the people around the child towards the Eucharist, church, prayer, etc., is what has the greatest impact. Children learn by observing you. Define your terms, always. If you say “host”, make sure they know what “host” is. We often assume children know vocabulary they don’t actually know at all. That’s why any explanation should be very short, with as basic a vocabulary as you can muster. A short response appropriate to the age, spoken with love and reverence, will get the basic idea across. Most children have an idea of words that express something “amazing” or “incredible”, so words like that can tell them this is something beyond the ordinary (even if we can’t explain it). They have much time to grow in their appreciation for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

  9. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    I think there’s a lot of over-thinking going on here.

    [So… what is your excellent solution?]

  10. My son is now 1.5 year old. I tell him that’s Jesus, and I tell him that the Tabernacle is where he can find Jesus. He knows he has to bow to the Eucharist. (Technically that’s half-sit-half-bow, but that’s the best he can do). I don’t think I’ll tell him Jesus is “inside”, rather I would tell him that’s Jesus in bread shape.

    Yes he hasn’t reached the age to question everything, but I guess if I continue to tell him that’s Jesus, it would make him easier to understand when he is 3 or 4 years old.

  11. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “That’s Jesus.”
    “Jesus?”
    “Yes. Where’s your other shoe?”

    [That’s one approach!]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  12. clarinetist04 says:

    Read St. Theresa of Lisieux’s autobiography. As I recall, the first third is about her childhood and she describes how her father explained it to her. He had wonderful analogies.

    You know, on second thought, regardless of the topic of the Eucharist, read her book! It’s wonderful reading and nothing like I imagined with the spiritually challenging St. John of the Cross – her books come across like the childlike simplistic saint that she is. (Matt 18:3).

  13. Bea says:

    Children like to be read to.
    I would teach by God’s own words from the bible:
    “I am the Way the Truth and the Light, no one comes to the Father except through Me”
    and
    “Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you will not have eternal life.”
    and the words of the Last Supper:
    “This is my Body, This is my Blood”
    Our Lord gave Priests the power to stand in His Place and use His Words to make this happen.
    I would introduce these “little” phrases a little bit at a time.

    and/or use the time-honored “mommy phrase” (“because I said so”) and say
    “Because God said so”

  14. PA mom says:

    Agree with Dr Peters.

    Mine sounds a bit more like, “Shush. This is the extra special part… Jesus is up there…” pointing… ”

    Elizabeth, I like that way too.

    Our parish had the Eucharistic Miracles exhibit and it was awesome! The stories were understandable and the pictures beautiful. I do believe that it made it more real for all of the children, youngest is 3 (and probably even me :).

  15. haydn seeker says:

    I don’t explain anything to my 3 year old or his younger sister. I just keep them quiet during the consecration and then ask him where Jesus is. He points to the crucifix behind the altar and that’s good enough for now.

  16. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    CDET1997: Well done with the transformer analogy. To push it further, after showing him Optimus Prime, you can take him to Mass and show hime Christus, OPTIMUS ET PRIMUS!

    H.E. Basil Meeking gave First Communion to the youngsters at St. John Cantius on Quasimodo Sunday about ten or fifteen years ago, and gave the loveliest and sweetest explanation to the communicants about making a friend in receiving Communion, a friend with whom they could confide their joys and worries. I thought him very clever to build upon the catechizing they would have completed to be elected to receive the Blessed Sacrament with a mystagogy on the Eucharist being the source of a life of prayer in language so appropriate to their age. Maybe some good Canon or parishioner has a copy of that sermon to share.

  17. Chuck says:

    All analogies fail, but I tried to explain to my 6-year using a reverse analogy. I asked her if she was taller or shorter than she was last year and she said taller. I then asked her who she was and she said her name. I then asked her who she was last year and she said her name again. So then I said your still the same person on the inside but you’ve changed on the outside and asked her to think of the Eucharist as the reverse of her changes. While she was changing on the outside she was still herself on the inside and what appears to be bread, and was bread to start, remained the same on the outside but changed on the inside. At least she hasn’t asked my why half the people in the pews assume the orans posture during the Lord’s Prayer.

  18. Gail F says:

    When my son was three he one day announced cheerily, “We kill our God and drink his blood!!”
    Not QUITE right…
    We had some Catechesis of the Good Shepherd materials around and we did the wine and water “work” the next day. He was fascinated by it and did it over and over. I don’t know if he made the existential connection the way kids are supposed to, but he never said anything like it again.
    That’s a day I’ll never forget!

  19. byzantinesteve says:

    My son is, ironically, also three years old. The Eastern tradition is that we receive the sacraments of initiation at infancy so my son has been receiving a host for nearly two years (before that, only precious blood on a spoon). He refers to the Eucharist as “Jesus bread” but he knows it is extra special and looks forward to it at every liturgy. I have him stand to observe and listen to the words of consecration and explain that the priest is praying over the bread and wine and the holy spirit comes down from heaven to make it “Jesus bread.” That seems to be a sufficient enough explanation for now. We have a lot of time to get more in depth.

  20. Elizabeth M says:

    Great timing! Interesting to read the answers because I’m addressing this now. At the elevation we tell the children that is Jesus. We kneel, we adore silently. It is a gift of Faith to understand. I am not too concerned about his level of understanding at least at this age. (he is also 3) So far we’ve only gotten the question “How does He get His Blood in the golden cup?”

    Dear Chicken,
    I have a hard time doing the “hidden Jesus” crafts with the kids specifically for the answer you gave. Jesus isn’t hiding. We’re also explaining the difference between magic and miracles.

    It’s like the Trinity, you won’t really understand it until you reach Heaven.

  21. robtbrown says:

    Chuck says:

    All analogies fail . . .

    Analogies limp–they do not fail.

  22. SueDe says:

    With my very young children I would simply say that it was “Jesus Food”. It was Jesus and it was Food. As they grew older the more literal translation took place.

  23. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear SueDe,

    I agree. It seems to me that in some ways the simplest explanation is the best (and the truest). Jesus told us that he ws giving His Flesh for the life of the world and then followed up with the actual gift at the Last Supper. As to the the mystery of transubstantiation – kids readily understand that, as the Archangel Gabriel said, “Nothing is impossible for God.” It’s only as we get older and limited in our trust that we must rely on Thomas Aquinas – “Senses cannot grasp this marvel/Faith must serve to compensate”. (Slightly OT – I find that the decision to include the entire Bread of Life Discourse over the course of three consecutive Sundays in the “B” Cycle of the Lectionary of the Ordinary Form to be a wonderful opportunity to meditate on this great gift and mystery.)

  24. ad Deum says:

    Dr Peters: I think there’s a lot of over-thinking going on here.

    I agree. My 4 year-old, when asked many times over the year, states “Jesus” when asked who God is, who the Host is, at home and at Mass.

    She also will draw a circle and when asked states it’s “Jesus”.