Many people consider Albert Einstein the smartest man the world has ever known. He revolutionised the way we view space, time, and gravity.
Although Einstein was three years old before he began to talk, he was far from being a backward child. By the age of eleven, Einstein was reading about science and philosophy. By the age of thirteen, he had read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Einstein is not alone in being a child prodigy.
At the age of fourteen, Leonardo da Vinci entered the workshop of Verrocchio in Florence and was studying chemistry, mechanics, drafting, metallurgy, plaster casting, along with drawing, painting and sculpting. By the age of eighteen, he had already shown his great artistic skill.
French composer Georges Bizet, who wrote the opera Carmen, entered the Paris Conservatory at the age of nine. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma played for audiences at five. Mozart began playing the harpsichord at the age of three, was reading music at the age of five and, a year later, made his debut on the music scene before European royalty. We should never underestimate the abilities of children.
However, for young people today, the age of innocence with its freedom to discover their own gifts ends too early.
Television, texting, tweeting, along with Facebook and constant internet surfing immerse our young children in the happenings of our day. There is no secluded space where they can be protected from the harsh realities of our world. For some, the violence of adults, drugs, sexual abuse, forced labour and family breakups rob them of their childhood and, sometimes, their lives.
Parents today are not unaware of what our young children must face. Many mothers and fathers do their best, sacrificing their time and comfort to make sure their children have a good education, participate in organised sports and socialise with others.
Yet, there is one area where our young people are not always given the chance to discover a great gift they have and to develop as fully as they are able. That is the area of their relationship with God. So many good parents place their young in the catechetical programs of their local parishes. Many make great sacrifices to have their children attend Catholic schools so that they know the faith.
But knowing the faith is not the same as growing in the faith. Being a follower of Jesus is more than just getting the right information. It means at any age developing a personal relationship with the Lord. In this, there have been some young children who have shown that age is not a detriment to great holiness.
On 13 May 2000, the 83rd anniversary of the first apparition of Our Lady at Fatima, Pope John Paul II beatified Jacinta and Francisco, the two little shepherds of Fatima. It was an historic moment. Jacinta and Francisco died at the ages of ten and eleven respectively. They are now the youngest non-martyrs ever to be beatified in the history of the Catholic Church. Their beatification reminds us that all of us at every age are called to holiness.
Recently, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of another child, Antonietta Meo, who was even younger than these two visionaries of Fatima. Nennolina, as she was affectionately nicknamed, was neither a martyr nor a visionary. She was a playful little girl, happy, joyful and sometimes a bit mischievous. She died of cancer at the age of six in 1937 and now her cause for sainthood is being promoted.
What was special of this young girl born in 1930? Nennolina was like any little girl living in Rome in the 1930s. With page haircut, spade and bucket, she enjoyed playing at the beach. She loved going to Villa Borghese, Rome's largest park. She took delight in dressing up in costume for Carnivale. Sadly, when she was six years old, she had to have a leg amputated because of bone cancer. But that did not keep her down. With an artificial leg, she went to school, eager to learn and to play.
As a young girl, as soon as she could write, Nennolina wrote letters to Jesus and to Mary. Her handwriting shows a little girl just learning to use a pen, but her thoughts, simple and direct, show a profound relationship with God. After receiving her First Holy Communion, she wrote, "Dear Jesus in the Eucharist, I am so very, very happy that you have come into my heart. Never leave my heart, stay forever and ever with me. Jesus, I love you so. I want to let myself go in your arms and do what you will with me."
All in all, she wrote 105 letters to Jesus, to the Father, to the Holy Spirit, to our Blessed Mother, to St Agnes and to St Thérèse the Little Flower. Professor Milani, who visited her in her last days, took one of her last letters to Pope Pius XI. He was so moved by the closeness of this young child to the Lord that he immediately sent a message asking Nennolina to pray for him.
On 3 July 1937, Nennolina died. Immediately conversions and graces were reported through her intercession. Her grave at Rome's Verano cemetery was covered with petitions and thanksgivings. Speaking about her, Pope Benedict remarked, "Nennolina, a child of Rome, in her very short life - only six and a half years - demonstrated a faith, a hope, a special charity, and other Christian virtues as well. Though she was a frail little girl, she succeeded in giving a strong and robust witness to the Gospel and has left a deep impression in the diocesan community of Rome."
At every age, from childhood to maturity, through Christ we have "access to the Father in the Holy Spirit" (Eph 2:18). In fact, simplicity and innocence make that access easier and more frequent. As Jesus reminds us, "Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18:3).
The above article was first published in 'The Beacon', newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, and is reprinted with its permission. It has been slightly shortened.