A joyful squeal erupts from the hallway outside of the kitchen as I prepare dinner.
“En garde!” shouts my son in the deepest, throatiest voice his 8 years can dig up.
“En garde!” volleys his 3-year-old sister in a voice far less successful at impersonating a pirate.
Like many I parent by ear, so I wait for the plastic thwack of play swords to determine how aggressively they are playing. Do I have to intervene? How soon before someone cries? Instead, all I hear as they parry is a light rustling, a gentle swish-swish just audible under the smack of bare feet attempting fancy pirate footwork on laminate flooring. I dry my hands on my apron and peek around the corner to see my kids using blessed palms as swords.
“You guys! What are you doing? Those are blessed palms!”
They pause briefly, the 3-year-old looking to her brother for an answer. “We know,” he says, thrusting his sword palm toward me. “This one’s called Jesus.” With a thumb in his sister’s direction, “Hers is Mary.”
Many Catholic parents report similar incidents. Says one mom, “My girls will use a toy mop, holding it up in the air as a crucifix, and process from the play room to the living room where they bow to the ‘altar’ (fireplace). They will then stand on the step in front of the fireplace and read the gospel.” Another mom reports all of her kids have used the dog’s water bowl as holy water. Yet another parent asked if she should have stopped her boys who referred to their baths as baptisms in “the water of Christ.” On an online Catholic forum, one parent shares that his “daughter once constructed a church with a Ken doll as a priest and Barbie and some of her friends in attendance.”
The most popular way Catholic children incorporate Catholicism into play is to pretend to distribute communion using potato chips, Sprees, or bits of bread. One parent shared that her 3-year-old held up Cheerios and said, “Body of Christ” before depositing it in her hand. “What this showed is that she paid attention at Mass and that she understood this was something very important,” decided the mom. “We did not discourage her from this play since we felt it was her way of ‘coming to grips’ with communion.”
I lean toward this type of play being just that: a “coming to grips” with the faith that surrounds them. But still I have questions about how to react when my children’s play threatens but does not quite reach sacrilege. It’s a fine line we are drawing here. In the wrong hands, the treatment of our articles of faith can quickly become abusive. In a scene from last year’s popular Lady Bird, two of the main characters chat casually while tossing back communion wafers from a jar like a snack. “They’re not consecrated,” one of them argues defensively. But clearly the intention here is ridicule even when the host itself is not yet sacred.
When it comes to our kids, intention isn’t even part of the conversation, but respect is. The dad whose daughter constructed a Ken and Barbie Mass service took the opportunity to deepen his daughter’s knowledge of the church. “I suggested to her that if you leave the dolls in the church with a monstrance you could have perpetual adoration. I think what matters most in this sort of play,” said the dad, “is whether it is respectful or not.”
After finding my kids parrying with palm swords, I asked my son, “So whose sword is going to win, the Jesus sword or the Mary sword?”
He rolled his eyes and gave me a that’s-a-dumb-question look. “Jesus’, obviously.”
“Wait,” I said, “You think Jesus would beat his own mother in a sword fight?”
He stopped fighting for a moment and put his free hand in his chin in mock contemplation before quickly retorting, “Yes, because he’s God. He just wins. That’s what he does!”
I could have made it a bigger conversation. I could have taken the palms away and reminded them what it means for something to be blessed, for it to be used in God’s name. But I didn’t need to because my son’s answer revealed his respect. When they were done playing, I picked up the palms and placed them high on a shelf where they couldn’t be easily reached. Jesus and Mary had fought the good fight and from the looks of things in our house and in the houses of thousands of Catholic families their presence in the imaginative play of our kids proves they’re both winning.
Molly Jo Rose’s column, In and Of the World, focuses on finding God's goodness in the darkest places of the world.
Image: Unsplash via Ben White