Reading Notes on The Religious Potential of the Child Ch 7

Reading Notes on The Religious Potential of the Child Ch 7


Not yet participating fully at Mass, prayer is the principal way [children] nourish their baptismal life and prepare, at the same time, for active involvement in the Mass, the highest and most complete form of prayer.

First, Cavaletti says, we should become aware of how children pray, be careful not to “impose our own prayer guidelines on children” lest we extinguish “spontaneous expression of their relationship with God and give rise to the idea that when we pray we say certain fixed things.”

This makes sense to me. In children’s literature many child-protagonists’ failed relationships with God are the result of an idea of fixed prayers that are empty of meaning for a child. Also reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ account of his failures and frustrations with prayer when he was a child.

For the most part, children’s prayer is expressed with few words, in short and essential phrases.

The adult should learn how to wait, convinced that silence is also prayer, and that it is in silence that the spoken expression germinates. The adult should learn to be respectful of the child’s rhythm, which is much slower than our own.

True in all dealings with children. Their conversation proceeds at a much slower pace. I’ve noticed this when talking with Bella, especially when she’s recounting things that have happened in the past. She needs a certain amount of time to pause and think but she’s not necessarily done speaking, just gathering her thoughts, reflecting and dwelling in her memories.

The prayer of children up to the age of seven or eight is almost exclusively prayer of thanksgiving and praise. The adult who tries to lead the child to prayers of petition falsifies and distorts the child’s religious expression. The child feels no need to ask because he knows himself to be in the peaceful possession of certain goods.

I suppose we’ve kind of followed this rule. While our bedtime prayers do include petitionary prayer, that is led by Dom or myself. We don’t expect Bella to participate in that. She does spontaneously join in the very simple, “God bless,” sorts of petitions: God bless mommy, daddy, granddad, Father Murphy, etc.

Magical Prayer

If children’s prayer is—as it is—essentially thanksgiving and praise, it cannot be magical in nature. I realize I am making an affirmation in contrast to what has been stated by eminent scholars in the field; however, the fact is that in more than twenty-five years of observation I have not seen magical prayer in children, that is a prayer that tends to bend the divine will to one’s own advantage.

…magic would appear to be a deviated manifestation, an indicator of an encounter with God that is not satisfying, or, better an indication that the person of God has not been presented in a way that satisfies the child.

This seems to be in response to a concern that I’ve not previously been aware of, not knowing the claims of the eminent scholars. I guess I’ve heard of magical prayer, but not in connection with children. Though I can think of many examples in literature: Huck Finn rejects both God and prayer precisely because the image of God he has been taught is so unsatisfactory. His idea of prayer is definitely magical and he has been alienated by the failure of petitionary prayer to yield immediate results. But it does seem a fairly obvious that such thinking is the result of an poor understanding of God, one which is profoundly unsatisfactory to a child.

How to Help Children’s Prayer

what the adult can do is to establish the premises that will help prayer to arise. Such premises should be as indirect in character as possible, so as to allow the greatest space for the child’s personal response.

Sort of like Charlotte Mason’s masterful inactivity. Also reminds me of making introductions at a party of two people you hope will hit it off. You do just enough to get the ball rolling and then step out of the way.

Prayer, before it is the response of the person, is first the listening to God, thus we believe the “kerygma” [proclamation] is the departure point for an initiation to prayer.

[it] is the means with which the catechist is enabled to give the child’s prayer the necessary nourishment: knowledge of God’s word and His great deeds with regard to man, leaving the child to find his own response.

True for everyone, not just children. In everything God initiates and we respond.

The tasks of the catechist and parent are distinct and complementary: Without the help of parents, prayer risks being removed from the child’s personal everyday life, by concentrating too exclusively on certain areas even if they are the great gestures of God in the history of mankind; without the catechist there is the danger that prayer will become impoverished within confines that are too limited and too personalized.

I can see the first part, the necessity of the parent. Catechesis outside the home is not enough, the parent must be the primary educator, especially in matters of living the faith, modeling that life of faith for the child. The second, the necessity of the catechist doesn’t seem as obvious to me since I’m coming at this with the assumption that I, the parent, will also be the catechist. 

We think formulae may be a useful means in the education to prayer’ nevertheless, it is not without dangers. In our estimation, formulae should not be given until we are sure the child has that interior agility we mentioned, through which prayer is a genuine and spontaneous expression. An untimely use of fomulae can stifle the child’s personal expression and send his spirit into the worst of sleeps.

Does she mean the child should never be exposed to formulae in any setting, or merely that they are not the proper subject of the catechesis at this stage?  In the home formulaic prayers, such as the rosary, may well be a part of family devotions which unite the domestic church as a body and I cannot see that it is at all desirable that a family exclude the younger members from its corporate prayer life. In fact I think it is a positive good that the youngest children play as active a part as they are able in the prayer life of the family, that they be contributing members of the prayer community to the extent that they are able. And because of the way that young children naturally learn, if a family is in the habit of praying together,  they will know many of the prayers by heart simply by nature of their repetition. It’s hard to tell from what Cavaletti says here what she would think of that.

We give these very short passages so that the child can listen to them, begin to make them his own, and transcribe them if he wishes to and knows how to write. We do not spoil it be making the children memorize; this will happen naturally through the spontaneous repetition of a passage that is particularly striking.

Are the children assumed to be blank slates coming in to the catechesis? Are they not hearing and learning any prayers at home? How can one prevent young children from absorbing many of the common “formula” prayers unless they don’t exist in his world outside of the catechesis experience? Bella already knows most of the Hail Mary, just from listening to us pray it. Or am I just over-reading this and should not assume that her failure to address the role of family formation doesn’t imply an absence of the same?

It is our custom to present prayer formulae in connection with a point of kerygma as one form among many possible responses to what God has given us to know.

There should be a wide selection of formulae for their use; the opportunity to choose helps the child’s inner adhesion to what is being said.

I suppose this clarifies somewhat. It isn’t so much no formulae being taught at all as them being presented in a limited way and the child deciding on his own when to make use of them.

The Language of Prayer

“providing children with single words with which he may build his own prayer.”

“every human activity…has in some way its own vocabulary, which does not enclose the individual action in a separate compartment but helps to express its unity.”

she proposes prophetic names in Isaiah, also “Son of God”, “The Almighty,” “The Holy One,” etc.

“a similar work of “nomenclature” may be done with children under three years of age, that is, during the period when the child builds his own vocabulary and is avid to learn new words.”

Not clear how this latter would be done.

The Environment

prayer space with images, preferably three-dimensional, changed in relation to themes and liturgical year

prayer cloth of liturgical color, should be changed by children in solemn way

children care for space bring flowers, light candles, etc

The prayer are is not a substitute for chapel or church, but it is a very important place for the education to prayer because it is here—more than in a chapel or church—that the child is completely comfortable and his expression will be easier and more spontaneous.

I’m a little dubious about that “more comfortable.” I suspect some children would be quite at ease in a church and not at all hindered in spontaneous expression, especially if allowed to linger at some time outside of Mass when they will not disturb other worshipers. Of course, I can see that such times might not be readily available to children and so it is desirable to have space set aside where they may pray without interruption.

The whole prayer space thing is alien to my experience and I feel a little suspicious of it. On the one hand, I can understand the idea of a space set apart, a space that encourages prayer and reflection. On the other hand, it also seems kind of artificial and maybe a little cheesy.

Fixed Hours of Prayer

we think that a constant religious recall during the child’s day (for example, before eating, before going to bed) may be a useful support in case prayer should be forgotten or overlooked. Nonetheless, we should not give the child the impression that one is to pray only at certain times.


two kinds of celebration one that closely follows Liturgy, another extemporaneous.

in liturgucal

we should be as faithful as possible to the liturgical structure, in such a way that these clebrations are not only an occasion for the children to pray, but also an occasion for their initiation into the living participation in the Liturgy.

The children have in this way points of reference that will help them orient themselves when they come to participate in the liturgy with the adult community.


in the cases where there is no structure, we need not create it. We should try to make the celebration adhere as closely as possible to what we want to celebrate, and try to make it an authentic expression of the feeling of that moment.

not be restricted to younger children but lived by both old and younger children together

catechist launches idea and offers hints “leaving the children the task of seeking out the form that corresponds to their feelings.”


“an essential element in the education to prayer is silence.”

not only during time when one is praying

a real education to silence, which is not just the more or less imposed cessation of noise but the silence that becomes something the child searches for and loves, the silence in which the child feels totally at home.

it is an interior silence, one that responds to the child’s unspoken request to help to be recollected. therefore it should not be asked of the children when we sense they are not disposed toward it; silence is not an aid for the teacher to bring the class to order; it is a help to the meditiative spirit of the child.

Here she briefly returns to the problem of controls from ch 4:

There is no possibility [or desirability] for an academic kind of control… prayer can offer us a way of examining our work, in the sense that if the children’s prayer is impoverished and empty it means the proclamation was not well given on our part. perhaps the content was poor and did not relate to the exigencies of the children’s age; maybe it was not proclaimed with a sufficiently religious spirit. Therefore the problem of controls, if we may speak of them at all, concerns our way of doing catechesis, and what should be refined is not the children’s prayer but our own work.


A final thought: The catechesis as it has been developed assumes a tightly controlled environment, the Atrium into which the catechist judiciously introduces the elements one at a time in a predetermined sequence. What Cavaletti describes in the book seems to me an environment essentially foreign to the domestic church. In the home such circumspection I think is neither achievable nor desirable. It seems to me thus far that there are many elements which might be adaptable from the CGS method but that some for of adaptation is definitely necessary in order to use CGS in an environment other than the atrium. Sounds like a lot of work.


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

Chapter 6


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