The Religious Potential of the Child Reading Notes Ch 3

The Religious Potential of the Child Reading Notes Ch 3

Chapter 3: Christ the Good Shepherd

Begins with question: Should catechesis be theocentric, Christocentric, or anthropocentric?

I understand the need for primary focus, but am not sure about the exclusivity. Why not introduce both God the Father and Christ? I don’t think children will be confused. Bella seems to take in stride praying the Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be… each prayer speaks to a different aspect of God: fatherhood, incarnation, trinitarian nature.

It seems to us that the theocentric foundation does not take adequate account of the great event of the Incarnation and the fact that, after it, man’s situation with God is truly changed… we have to pass through Christ who constituted Himself as mediator.

Of course, I suppose we’re really talking about what is our starting point. What do we present first. In that case, Christ is the way to the Father.

In regards to Christ we also find ourselves faced with a choice: whether to center the proclamation on the history of His life… or to initiate the child more directly into the mystery of the person of Christ and His relationship with us, in the form of the parable.

I’m not sure I like the either/or aspect here. Why not both? I understand the need to focus for a classroom curriculum, I suppose parents could supplement with reading life of Christ at home. But I don’t really like leaving that out. (Of course, I’m not actually sure they do leave it out in practice, because in following the liturgical year children must surely encounter the narrative of Christ’s life.)

The children’s reaction…has demonstrated to us once again that it is only the greatest realities that correspond to the needs of the youngest children; their response has made us experience personally how capable they are of piercing beyond the images into the metaphysical reality.

In other words, don’t estimate what children are able to receive. They have a greater capacity than they are often given credit for.

Finally Cavaletti introduces the idea that the central element for young children is the parable allegory of the Good Shepherd, for older children it is the True Vine. (does not give age ranges here)

It has been noted by many catechists that often the children most lacking in human affection are the happiest in the encounter with the Good Shepherd. One could say therefore that the experience of his love need not necessarily be grafted onto an experience of human love, but that it is independent of it, uniting the child in a direct bond with God.

This is a wonderful insight, that the proclamation of God’s word is able to reach even the child who seems to have no foundation in human affection. But I think this is also the root of the very large blind spot in the philosophy that focuses solely on the institutional experience and ignores the role of the parent as primary educator of the child and the role that foundational family love will play in the domestic church when there is a loving family.

We wonder if the fact that it is the very fact that the Good Shepherd image does not correspond to any precise figure in the child’s life that makes it so rich. Any particular reference can be limiting; if we speak of God as Father, the connection will be made with the human father exclusively, and the paternal image is probably not even the one that relates most fully to the young child’s needs. It is not difficult to imagine the damage the child will undergo, in the religious sense, whose father is quite the opposite of the ideal figure. However, since the Good Shepherd is open to an enormously vast affective range, the child will always find a loved person in whom he sees the reflection of the Good Shepherd’s love.

On the one hand, I very much see the point here. I have known people who are very much crippled in their ability to relate to God because of damaged paternal relationships. And I can see how that might be even more the case for young children. However, I also find this to be problematic since God has revealed Himself to us as Father. Again, what about children in a happy home with a very positive father figure? This seems to dismiss the father’s primary role in the religious education of the child. The father is, after all, head of the domestic church and should be just as involved as the mother in religious education. In fact, I have seen very little written about that relationship.

The child never forgets the parable because the affective integration…is compete; the image of the Shepherd is by now a part of the child’s very person. The affective integration is an element that is generally overlooked in catechesis… and that often makes religious education for children from four to seven years of age appear like an “alien body”….Affectivity is more or less ignored to the advantage of the cognitive component, resulting in an arid and sterile knowledge that does not permeate the child’s life.

As I read this I couldn’t help but think of Jan’s comments below on the post about fairy tales in which she describes her son who “doesn’t have a head for stories”: She says “he has consistently been drawn to books for information about things which interest him (math, various mechanical devices, (real) animals) and not to literature.”  and “He will read or listen to what he calls ‘Mommy books’ (Do we HAVE to read a Mommy book today?), but it’s usually as a trade-off for a mind-numbing chapter involving steam or internal combustion engines.”

What’s hardest for me is trying to teach him the faith. How do you teach Catholicism to a child who doesn’t have a head for stories? He is fascinated by the patterns and the symmetries of the faith. Concepts such as the dual action of the Mass, the symmetry of the Trinity, vocabulary like ‘transubstantiation’, he is enthusiastic and eager to learn these things. He loves to pray the rosary, with its patterns and rhythms. We spent ten minutes going over the Paschal Candle this spring, and he would happily draw you a very accurate one and explain all the symbols. We spent two weeks on three Old Testament stories, and my guess is if you questioned him he would get them all mixed up. We’ve managed to master the high points of the life of Christ (although he probably wouldn’t get them in the proper order). But the parables? The stories of the saints? The figures of the Old Testament? He’ll do his best if I insist, but his heart isn’t in it (and it doesn’t stick). In this, more than anything, I feel myself strained to the point of inadequacy. Ah, well. We do the best we can, and leave the rest to God, right?

Jan’s experience suggests to me a big gaping hole in Cavaletti’s theory of the child. Not sure how to address it, though I am certain of one thing: God created her son and thus must have some plan for how to reach him. I think Cavaletti’s basic idea, her starting point, is sound: that the child should lead and will himself somehow show the adult what he needs and it is the adult’s role to stand back and watch, to make the introduction and then learn from the child how best to proceed. Sound in theory. Not very helpful in practice.

The child knows how to link [the parable of the Good Shepherd] with the other subjects he gradually comes to know in a spontaneous synthesis that is oftentimes rich in theological content. Frequently the child connects this parable with the death and resurrection and the image of light.

Many examples given here of children integrating the figure of the Good Shepherd with other images from the liturgy and the life of Christ. Interesting. There is a synthesis but it is child-led. Allows the child to discover the connections for himself. I do like that. Education is the process of making connections. If the adult does it for the child, it won’t become a part of the child.

From the doctrinal point of view, the parable is a fundamental text that centers on the mystery of the person of Christ and His relationship with us, as relationship at once personal (the Shepherd knows each sheep by name) and communal (the sheepfold). It is the parable of the providential love that reaches the ultimate sacrifice of life, and as such it is a paschal parable. Christian tradition has in fact always given it a special place during the Easter season.

The parable will gradually unfold all its riches to the child and he will integrate his childlike vision with visions that are always wider and more complete, without however having to disown anything he received previously.

I really like this about not having to disown that which he has learned previously. We don’t water down the faith or lie to children. Reminds me of when I was teaching religious ed how uncomfortable I was when presented with the question on the death of pets. Someone had told one of the boys his dog would go to heaven. That’s problematic for me because a more mature knowledge has to disown that “knowledge”. The fact is dogs do not have immortal souls. A tricky point to address with children, yes.

I suppose the general idea of the use of the parable of the Good Shepherd is contained in the parable itself: Christ himself is the shepherd, the shepherd is the gate, the way by which the sheep enter into the sheepfold. Thus the figure of the Shepherd is for the child a gateway, the path by which he enters into the fold of the Church.

But I wonder if, while in general most children respond to the figure of the Good Shepherd, it might be possible that for some children other parables, other images will actually have more resonance?

Additional Reading Notes to The Religious Potential of the Child by Sophia Cavaletti:

Introduction and Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

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  • I’ve been wanting to read this one, but the library doesn’t have it.  Time to bite the bullet and buy it, I guess.

    I loved In This House of Brede, and we have two of Godden’s children’s books as well.

  • I’m on a Rumer Godden reading binge, too! It’s such a nice break from slower non-fiction reading, but I tend to stay up late since I can’t put the novel down! My library doesn’t have a single title by her, so I’ve had to buy some over time.

    I loved this book, especially the story of the founding of that community. I was in tears with the beauty.

  • Yeah my bedtime has been creeping later and later.
    I’ve been going to bed at 1 the past week!

    I haven’t even bothered to look at our library. I’ve been getting her books via Book Mooch. It’s great for getting junk out and treasures in; but there are no fewer books in our home.