“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”—these are words we use every time we pray the Sign of the Cross. Even young children know them. The prayer expresses the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, that God reveals himself in Three Persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is difficult for anyone to understand, especially young children. St. Patrick famously explained the Trinity by relating God in Three Persons to the shamrock. A three-leaf clover has three lobes that are unique from each other but all part of the same clover or shamrock. They are three leaves, but one leaf.
When I recently taught the Holy Trinity to my third-grade faith-formation class, they were full of questions that I had come to expect from their eight- and nine-year-old minds:
“So, God is in three places at the same time?”
“Did God break off his arm and make a new person out of it?”
“Can they hear what each other is thinking?”
Their questions reveal a difficulty in teaching and understanding the concept of the Holy Trinity.
The children were trying so hard to understand how God can be Three Persons at one time. Yes, there is one God, and this God is our Father. This God is also the Father’s Son, and God the Holy Spirit is the love that flows between the Father and the Son. “The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e., by nature one God.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #253)
This can be a little difficult to explain in a way that satisfies the curiosity of my third-grade class.
At some point I simply had to tell the kids that it is OK if we do not fully understand the Trinity. That’s what makes it a mystery: it can only be known through God’s Revelation. Sure, we can learn about the Trinity through his work in creation and in Scripture, but ultimately, it is something that we cannot understand through human reason alone. It can only be revealed by God through faith.
There are some things that we know are true because of our faith, even if we do not completely understand them. Our faith helps us believe and accept God’s Revelation, even when we do not fully understand these things with our rational minds. That is what we mean by the word mystery: it is something that can only be known through God’s Revelation. The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the source of all the mysteries of our faith.
We can be faithful followers of God and profess our faith in the Holy Trinity while it remains a mystery. When I explained that we, adults and children alike, cannot fully understand everything about the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the class seemed satisfied.
How do you explain the Most Holy Trinity to the children in your class?