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First communicants await Pope Francis's arrival in Sacred Heart Church, Rakovski, Bulgaria, 6 May 2019 First communicants await Pope Francis's arrival in Sacred Heart Church, Rakovski, Bulgaria, 6 May 2019  (AFP or licensors)

Theology of Childhood: treating children as Jesus did

Sr Nuala Kenny presents the first in a 4-part webinar series hosted by the International Union of Superiors General rooting the safeguarding of children in Jesus’s own behavior toward children.

By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp

Covid-19 has forced everyone to understand what it means to be vulnerable. Thus Sr Nuala Kenny began her presentation of the first Safeguarding Webinar organized by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) in collaboration with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), the Centre for Child Protection of the Gregorian University and the Telefono Azzurro hotline in Italy. The title for Sr Nuala’s presentation was “Safeguarding children, youth and vulnerable adults and the need for a consistent theology of childhood”. Almost 800 people from all over the world participated in the webinar. Many others watched the live-streamed version on the UISG and PCPM web sites.

It begins with culture

For any safeguarding to be effective, Sr Nuala says that a “culture of safeguarding” is necessary, otherwise “policies and protocols are not effective”. She continued, saying children in many parts of the world are immersed in a culture that contributes to their harm. They are objects of abuse, child pornography, child labor, trafficking, forced to be soldiers, etc. A culture within the Church itself has “continually failed to address underlying beliefs and practices” that fosters abuse and denial, and the consistent, inappropriate response of leadership for centuries

Vulnerability and systemic issues

Any relationship in which another person is trusted are “open to the possibility of loss and abuse”, Sr Nuala notes. Childhood is the period in which the human person learns how to defend his or her own vulnerability. Those who experience abuse as children are therefore particularly devastated. For a child to be abused, certain conditions need to be in place, Sr Nuala explained. These conditions create the ground for the person to abuse a child, and the ground in which the child’s normal protective mechanisms are overcome. When a priest is the abuser, “double damage” is done, Sr Nuala said. Some people say “soul murder” takes place, she said.

Conversion in the family

The conversion that needs to take place is a process in which long-standing practices that do not reflect Jesus’s example need to identified and transformed, Sr Nuala said. It begins in the family, which is the primary place of nurture and protection for children. Any theology of childhood needs to therefore root out the harmful aspects of our “domestic churches”, she said: that children are the purpose of marriage, the having a child proves male virility, that boys are more desirable in the family than girls, that faith is optional, etc.

Conversion in the Church

Within the Body of Christ, this conversion means that we understand what unites us rather than divide people into special categories or statuses. It also requires “meaningful dialogue”, Sr Nuala said. “We are called to speak out against injustice”, especially when the vulnerable are targeted. Not speaking out allows the abuse to continue. Ideas about morality need to be converted from talk about sinful behavior that can easily be forgiven in confession to understanding the harm that sinful actions do to others. Lastly, Sr Nuala illustrated the prevalent idea that pro-life activity is reduced to targeting sexual behavior and abortion. The pro-life understanding, she said, needs to be enlarged to embrace the protection of anyone, especially the vulnerable, from any type of harm.

Treating children as Jesus treated them

Sr Nuala believes that the conversion required to provide a child-friendly culture is that of rooting ourselves “in Jesus and His loving care and touch toward children”. Nuala emphasized the care that Jesus had for children. He cured both boys and girls and rebuked His disciples when they wanted to keep them from drawing near to Him. It was a child, she reminded those participating, who provided the loaves and fish that Jesus multiplied and fed the crowd (see Jn 6: 9). Jesus also displayed “righteous indignation” and had harsh words to say to those who harm children (see Mt 18:5-8).

The bottom line, Sr Nuala said in conclusion, is “that we in Jesus’s Church must provide what He would provide for His children”.

08 June 2020, 15:45