The Religious Potential of the Child Reading Notes Ch 4

The Religious Potential of the Child Reading Notes Ch 4

Chapter Four: Christ the Good Shepherd and the Eucharist

Cavaletti begins by stressing the unique position of the Eucharist. A point that cannot be stressed enough as the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.

There does not exist a Bible that we read and the Liturgy that we live; there is a Bible that we live with the whole of our life and especially so in the Liturgy.

Therefore, the child who comes to know the Good Shepherd should be initiated into the greatest action in which we meet Him: the Mass. The Italian Episcopal document on catechesis states: “Catechesis constantly proposes Jesus as the living center of its very message and manifests Jesus present and acting in the most holy Eucharist”.

The approach to the presentation on the Mass, Cavaletti says, took 20 years to discover and yet it is so simple:

The Mass is the place and time in which we encounter our Good Shepherd in a most particular way; He calls His sheep to come around His altar to feed them with Himself in a special way.

Building on the children’s prior understanding of Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the parable gives them an easy entry point into the mass.

Thus the focus is first on the Eucharistic part of the mass, the Liturgy of the Word actually comes later. Cavaletti recounts how at first they invited children to create their own missals, beginning with the Liturgy of the Word, and no child ever finished this work. However, once they had the children begin with the Eucharistic prayer a great change occurred:

We saw with wonder that, by starting our presentation with the most essential moment, the children not only would copy the whole missal including the Liturgy of the Word, but it often happened that they would spontaneously write their missal as many as three times. Once more we realized that our failure did not depend on the child’s incapacity nor on the difficulty of the work; it was due to the fact that we had not found the path that led through to the nucleus.

The Sacrament of the Gift

The Mass is a very rich reality; the adult’s problem is to find the aspect that corresponds to the child’s capacity and fulfills his needs….

…The aspect of the Mass that has been demonstrated to respond to the young child’s capacities is that of the “sacrament of the gift.”

Children are introduced to the idea of gift by the use of two gestures: “the imposition of hands accompanying the prayer of invocation to the Father to send the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine” and “the gesture of offering concluding the Eucharistic prayer when the priest raises the consecrated bread and wine together to offer them to the Father with the prayer ‘Through Him, with Him, in Him.’”

Sloppy language or sloppy thinking here? The priest actually raises the Body and Blood at this point, not the bread and wine. Am I nitpicking? This bugs me.

…in speaking of the sacrament of the gift, we do not risk diminishing the reality of the Eucharist, even if we focus on one aspect, that is gratification. It is a dimension that nevertheless can be easily integrated with a commitment to effort and even suffering, when the child’s age allows. Indeed, not every age can receive every aspect of the Christian reality and, in our estimation, early childhood is the time of the serene enjoyment of God.

The Child’s Response to the Gift

There is a great emphasis, I notice, on this idea of “serene enjoyment” and the deep peace that children find in the parables and the figure of the good shepherd. I wonder if this isn’t a part of what it means to become like a little child; to be able to rest peacefully in God’s presence in the same way a child rests in her mother’s arms as in Psalm 131. I think of how sweet and peaceful Sophia is as she sleeps resting on my lap after nursing. 

If we put too great or too early an emphasis on man’s response, our attention will be centered on man rather than on God and then strain will prevail in our relationship with God. If we become too preoccupied with what we ourselves must do, then it becomes impossible to stop and enjoy God’s initiative, and thus we will ruin the relationship of covenant.

moral education and also a certain kind of preparation for struggle and sacrifice are necessary.But there is a time for everything and early childhood is not the time for moral effort….After the age of six other factors come into consideration.

This makes sense for the same reason the Church delays first confession and first communion till after age six or seven. That kind of moral reasoning is a later developmental stage. Useless to talk of sin to a child below the “age of reason”, they really aren’t capable of that level of moral reasoning.

Cavaletti says that young children’s response to the “sacrament of the gift” is offering not sacrifice. “Sacrifice… requires effort and pain; offering flows spontaneously from a joyful heart.” I think she’s right here. Sacrifice is a part of the moral dimension that young children are not ready for.

A gift is a positive experience at any age, yet there is an age when it can become constitutive of the person. The gift of the mother’s presence, based on the most recent psychological research, is essential to and exceedingly gratifying for the child…. It not only offers the physical well-being of warmth and food but it also unites mother and child in a true affective relationship. And the child needs this more than food…. We wonder what influence it could have on a child who is placed in the condition of becoming gradually conscious of a gift such as God’s presence, a gift that is unfailing and surpasses the limits proper to every human relationship.

And thus presenting the Mass in terms of the gift is situating the child’s experience “on a more solid base than that of maternal love, which is of course human and thus limited.” In other words, the teaching on the Mass allows children to remain in God’s presence in a peace that surpasses that of a child with his mother because, unlike a human mother, God is infinite. 

Introductory Work on the Mass

Here’s where I start to get a bit uncomfortable. The models of the altar, the chalice and paten, the vestments. I understand the theory: “the character of this work is sensorial and therefore responds to the child’s needs.” And yet it feels to me much too close of an imitation. Is it too familiar? These items are sacred, set apart. And even though the child is not using the actual articles, there seems to me a danger of blurring the lines, of them losing that sacred otherness through being handled too familiarly. I’m not sure I can really put my concerns into words that adequately express what is really more of a gut reaction than a reasoned response. Perhaps it might help to see this in action in an actual atrium? And then if I do get past my reservations and decide it is harmless or even a positive idea, the next concern is, of course, how does one translate this to a homeschooling environment? I’ve seen the mass kits in catalogs… never going to be in my budget.

This is my big quibble with what I know so far about Montessori in general, it’s a pedagogy that is rooted in an assumption that education happens in a classroom. Granted the Montessori classroom is vastly different than a traditional classroom, it still is an institution that serves a greater number of children and has a greater level of resources than a family does. It seems to me there is a fundamental blind spot in the method and I don’t know how to bridge the gap.

we think it best that the altar table be much smaller than an average child-sized table. The models of the articles and priest’s vestments associated with the Mass should also be considerably smaller than their regular dimensions. In this way it is clearer to the children that these are materials for exercises only.

Cavaletti’s caveat here addresses the topic obliquely but doesn’t really get to the heart of my concerns.

To recapitulate briefly, the work of the Mass pivots on three points: the Eucharistic presence, the offering, and for the older children, the communion, all three are linked to a gesture that renders its presentation more impressive. We apply here, as in all the other major themes, the Montessori principle of “isolating the difficulties.” In the area of religion this principle becomes “isolate the points of greatest theological content.”

The Problem of Controls

We believe that the greater the theme, the less possible and justified it is to exercise any kind of action of verification…. what we transmit is a seed that does not belong to us and even less may we claim its fruits…. In the presence of the Spirit who blows “wherever he wills and as he wills,” the catechist should have an attitude of deep reverence and gratitude for what he has been given to see, yet without expecting to see.

certain controls that are academic in nature give the catechist a sense of security, which is nonetheless empty: The catechist teaches, the child appears to know, and the adult has a quiet conscience. But this may be done on a scholastic, not a catechetical level. When speaking of matters of profound spiritual significance, all controls become illusory; we cannot exercise such control even on ourselves. Who among us knows how conscious he is of God’s presence in his own life? Who among us knows to what extent he lets himself become involved in the Eucharistic action?

The catechist who seeks security in academic controls is looking for security in the wrong place.

“Poverty is, I believe, the fundamental virtue of the catechist.”

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

Introduction and Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 5

Chapter 6



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