The Religious Potential of the Child Reading Notes Ch 6

The Religious Potential of the Child Reading Notes Ch 6

The Historical Events in the Life of Jesus Christ

In introducing children to the Bible, Cavaletti feels it is best to begin with the life of Christ, not with retracing the development of the covenant between God and man through its successive stages.

In our estimation, children should be initiated into their present religious reality, and fundamental to it is the presence of a mediator through whom we go to the Father. Moreover, in order to approach the Old Testament it is necessary to be able to move easily within time, and to be able to imagine customs and habits different from our own. What impression would a child receive, for example, from the account of the sacrifice of Isaac, without knowing or being able to understand that there were cultures in which the offering of a son in sacrifice was an act deemed pleasing to their deity? We maintain that the children’s initiation into the Old Testament should not begin before the age of eight.

While I think it generally does make sense to begin with Christ, I’m not sure I entirely agree with holding off on the OT until age 8. I think younger children can begin to grasp God’s love for mankind in the Old Testament and that God acts through history. God as creator, God as lawgiver, God who rescues his people when they are in distress.

Cavaletti advocates “concentrating solely on the passages the theological meaning of which the child can penetrate…. we cannot separate theology from history in the Bible, for if we did we would be unfaithful to the message.”

She says that to give a child narrative passages when he cannot understand the theology is to risk making them into fairy tales. But I’m not clear why it is a bad thing for the Bible to be a book of stories for a child, even if he doesn’t fully understand that it is history, that these stories are real in a way that fairy tales are not. Then again, doesn’t the Montessori method in general avoid fairy tales and stories of that sort? I’m not sure I understand it and without understanding the rationale, it seems rather silly.

In our view it is a mistake to give children texts that are predominantly, if not exclusively, narrative in nature. As a matter of fact we think that the more articulated and detailed the narration, the greater the risk that it will obstruct the children from reaching its depth.

I suppose she has more experience with how children relate to the materials presented. Perhaps this is wisdom gained from observation. If so, there are no anecdotes to support these claims.

I suppose I could see keeping Bible stories out of the catechesis program if they don’t seem to add much to a child’s growing relationship with God; but it there real harm done if they enjoy the Bible stories as narrative now outside of the catechesis and later have them integrated into it? Surely one can’t and shouldn’t keep children from hearing the Bible stories, especially in a homeschooling context or a family context in which the whole family gathers to listen to readings. I’m thinking especially of traditions like the Jesse Tree in Advent which involve the whole family. It seems silly and impractical to segregate younger children from older in this matter. The Bible is the word of God and while we may choose which parts to focus more closely on with children at different stages, I don’t think we should prevent them from listening to whatever parts are presented to the community at large.

I do not think it right that the child first know certain facts, and only at a later time enter into their theological significance. I believe that an event learned only as a story (or legend) will stay a story even when the child is grown, and it will be extremely difficult to recover its theological content later on.

This seems to fly in the face of the entire history of catechesis and certainly is contradicted by my own experience and the experiences of most adults I know. Children have always learned their Bible stories from an early age and somehow managed to learn to plumb their theological depths appropriately as they grow in understanding. Certainly, if the stories are never re-introduced later when the children gain in their ability to understand their theological significance, they will remain only fables. I certainly have seen much evidence of that happening. But in those cases I would think the blame lies not in the stories being introduced too early but in insufficient time being given to unpacking their meaning at the appropriate time.

She suggest using children’s drawings as a guide to judge their readiness: “If the child, in relation to a specific biblical passage, only knows how to draw descriptive rather than interpretive illustrations, then it is better to avoid that text; it is obvious his understanding has stayed on a level of superficiality.” Again, I can see this as a guide to developing an age-appropriate formal catechetical program; but it seems impractical in terms of an actually lived faith in the domestic church and homeschool.

The Prophecies

Thus for children under six CGS limits Old Testament to “a selection of a few, short prophetic passages during the season of Advent.”

Prophetic language is composed of images and consequently corresponds very well to the capacities of even young children.

She cites Isaiah, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” as it connects to the image of Christ the Light. Also the text from Isaiah that announces the light bearer as a child with wonderful names: “Wonder Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

What seems important to us is that the texts be few in number, brief in length and formulated in images.

Our aim is to offer images and expression that are striking to and readily grasped by the children.

She adds that the various names of the Messiah furnish the child with a language of prayer.

The Incarnation

In the New Testament focus on parables, and events of birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ; but greatly restrict discussion of miracles:

It seems to us that the particular power Jesus manifested in working miracles should not be separated from the consideration of that power He continues to exercise through the Church. But to achieve this unity with the children has proved difficult up to the present. On the other hand, the miracles considered on their own can tempt the children, in our view, into the world of magic that many assert to be indivisible from the religiousness of the young child; however it is a quality we
have never seen in children, except for that magic which has been induced by the adult.

This part, frankly, mystifies me. I don’t understand the caution. Again, I have a vague notion that Montessori frowns on fairy stories and tales with magic in them. I don’t have a problem with either and I don’t see why it should be problematic. Though it seems like she might address this matter further in later chapters.

The events of Christ’s infancy appear rather difficult due to the misuse that is generally made of them by often telling them (with many diminutives!) as if they were beautiful fables.

She’s lost me again. I’m more of the Lewis Tolkien school of Jesus’ life being the “true myth”. Is that really beyond children’s grasp?

The Lucan texts we have been speaking about also emphasize a great contrast; many expressions have an awesome grandeur, others refer to a very simple reality… These contrasts are not without significance; they bring us face to face with the wonderful reality of the Child: son of woman, like each one of us, and Son of God!

The catechist should have this contrast in mind when speaking with the children, so as to lead them to ask themselves, full of wonder: But who can this Child be? In this way we will accustom the children to the fact that the biblical text contains something to be discovered, which is to be read in depth, which is not readily exhaustible. In this way we will educate the children to humility in facing the Word of God.

I rather like this idea. Though am not exactly clear how it plays out in practice.

Meditation and Prayer on the Mystery of the Incarnation

As with parables, episodes presented one at a time, narrated in catechist’s own words, then gospel read solemnly and that followed by a reflection. “we should feel ourselves personally involved in the listening and the response to the text.”

sample reflection included:

“The words the angel proclaimed to the Mother of God are addressed to us as well, to me too. How shall we respond? Mary expressed her joy saying: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord!’ Her joy is mine too…. And how shall I express it?… The Magi came to the crib after a long journey. They knelt down before Him, they worshiped Him and brought Him gifts. But now we too are around the crib. I am here too. What shall we do? What shall we say?”

Introduce samples of prayer: the angel’s greeting (beginning of the Hail Mary), Magnificat, Gloria of angels, Nunc Dimittis of Simeon.

I like this idea. Praying with scripture. This is of course the basis for the Liturgy of the Hours. I am accustomed to praying the Magnificat at Evening Prayer and Nunc Dimittis at Night Prayer. I’m already in the habit of reciting a short antiphon occasionally and having Bella repeat it as I say my prayers. She enjoys it and it seems quite a natural way for her to pray.

Such examples should be offered to the children with great discretion so as not to stifle their own personal prayer. If we wish to give the Magnificat, for instance, we restrict ourselves to suggesting only the first verse

I agree that children should learn to pray in their own words, in set prayers, and in the words of scripture. I can see why suggesting short verses is most appropriate for young people. Not so sure about the idea of stifling their prayer with words of scripture.

We give a text like this as one example among many of the ways one may respond to God, as a stimulus to personal prayer, so that each person finds in his own heart his response to the Lord Who speaks to His creatures.

This is of course the basic idea of Lectio Divina: the scripture is the starting point of the conversation, a stimulus to prayer. I think this is well put.

The material for the infancy narratives is different from that for parables:

The figures are three-dimensional, and the historical character of these events permits and requires research into details to make the scene more living. The difference between parable and historical events should be clear even from the material itself.

Interesting. It wasn’t clear from earlier chapters that parable materials were two-dimensional.

Material reconstructions help children who can’t read to recall biblical content. Much like stained glass and other figurative narratives in older churches. But interactive as children are hands-on learners.

Cites child who prays before crib: “I say to him: Allelulia to the mighty God.”

Expressions like these are a warning for us not to use baby talk with children, not to minimize what they know how to receive in all its greatness. We have observed how easily we speak in diminutives, whereas the child speaks of “the mighty God.”

Definitely agree with this. Adults too often underestimate what very young children are capable of.p>

The drawings of the children unite the child Jesus and the Good Shepherd… another demonstration that the children do not stop at the fact itself, but rather through it they contemplate the mystery of Christ’s person.

Biblical Geography

In our view it is important that the historical events also have materials relative to their geographical reconstruction in order to let the children know how to situate them in a point in space. This material helps them to concretize the events.

I was talking about this idea the other day with Dom. I think I would have benefited from some map work. It wasn’t until shockingly late that I made connections between biblical narratives and geography and history in my other classes. Religion and the Bible were always pigeonholed for me and did not connect to what I thought of as “real history”. This in relation to Indiana Jones. I don’t think when I first saw the movie I really had any idea what the Ark was supposed to be, how it connected to the Bible, where everything was supposed to take place. The idea of putting Biblical events on a map was really quite foreign to me. Of course a major advantage to homeschooling is being able to dismantle the artificial separation between different areas of knowledge.

materials: globe of world, dry land is white only color is red of Israel.
plastic relief model of Palestine
relief model of city of Jerusalem

re events of the passion restricted to indicating location of Cenacle, house of Caiaphas, Antonia Tower, Temple, Garden of Olives, Calvary, tomb of resurrection.

texts with details of the passion should not be given to children:

At times these passages go into details that arouse horror, such as we could not bear in relation to anyone dear to us; why then should we dwell on them with respect to Jesus? We risk inciting sentiments that should not be aroused. We concentrate on the Last Supper, the death and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I suppose age-appropriate is the factor. I suppose the assumption must be that children will naturally hear the accounts of the passion at Mass, but we don’t invite them to meditate on them outside of that?

The Death and Resurrection

is when the Good Shepherd parable is rooted in history.

the proclamation of the death of Christ should never be disjoined from the announcement of His resurrection… we do not even pause temporarily on the death alone, considering it perhaps it a well-known fact that the death was followed by the resurrection


Death is a common event; many men have had the courage to face death for love of their brothers. What is absolutely new is that in Jesus, death is followed by renewed and eternal life

it seems appropriate to avoid long accounts of the passion in order to balance the length of the passion narration with the account of the resurrection.

form should follow meaning, to emphasize resurrection one must in a way de-emphasize the passion. I can see this with children. Too long a meditation on the passion might swallow the resurrection and lessen its impact.

The parables leas especially to meditation and through it to prayer; the infancy narrative lead more directly to personal and spontaneous prayer; the paschal events adapt themselves especially to be lived by the children in more structured celebrations…. frequently retrace the great services of Holy Week and Easter triduum… become a direct initiation into the Liturgy of the Church.


Our catechesis is Christocentric, as we have said, but it is obviously Christological-Trinitarian. The person of the Father is illuminated particularly through the Mass: it is the Father who sends us the gift of Christ’s presence, and it is to the Father that we make our offering as the expression of our gratitude. We also speak of the Father especially in relation to the Annunciation…

The Holy Spirit’s work appears obvious to them, and they know how to recognize it spontaneously in the most important moments… it is through the spirit that Jesus was born and raised from the dead—and also through the liturgies of Eucharist and Baptism. Therefore the children know the Holy Spirit’s work both in the person of Jesus Christ Himself and in His continuing work within the Church.

What has been particularly enlightening for the children in relation to the holy Spirit is to see His action in the Eucharistic presence. When we hit on this point there was what Montessori would have called an “explosion”: Starting with this essential aspect, the children then knew how to see with ease the Spirit’s many other manifestations.


The presentation of sacred scripture—parables of historical narratives—should never be disunited from prayer, in a structured or unstructured form. The proclamation is complete when it has been received, and, in one form or another, when it has been given a response.

This would seem to require a great deal of deliberation on the part of the catechist. The point isn’t to impart information but to proclaim the person of Christ, to initiate the child into prayer. This is so much more demanding than most classroom-based catechesis, which means well but misses this most important dimension. If the proclamation fails to result in prayer, then what really has been communicated? Not the presence of the living God who is Truth, merely dry, lifeless facts that have no connection to the inner life of the child and that fail to connect the child to God.

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

Introduction and Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5


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