Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Review: The Religious Potential of the Child

The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children by Sofia Cavalletti

I owned this book for two or three years before reading it, and only then because the coordinator of our Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program suggested all the catechists read it together as a kind of book club this year. She invited anyone interested from the parish as well, though there ended up being only a few who attended every meeting. I wish I had not waited so long.

In the foreward, Rebekah Rojcewicz writes:
The most important thing that happens in the atrium (or in our lives, for that matter) is that together with the children, we grow in our knowledge of Jesus, the Christ, the Good Shepherd, and in his love for us, and that we grow always more capable of responding to that love. As catechists of the Good Shepherd, we understand that the kind of knowledge Jesus speaks of in John 10:14 is not a limited, academic kind of knowledge but a total kind of knowledge that is rooted in the heart and that encompasses all of our being (including, of course, our heads).
It's good to remind myself of this every time I go into the Atrium with students. My goal is not to teach the children anything. It is to reveal to them anew each week his limitless love for us and to therefore enable them to respond to him. In the process, I should myself experience that love anew each week and endeavor to respond in my own way.

It is difficult sometimes to refrain from seeking the child's response myself. As catechists, we want to see progress. In math or handwriting or reading, progress is usually obvious, something that can be measured over time. In a Catechesis class, however, the development of the relationship between the child and God can be hidden deep within the child's heart. According to Cavalletti, we should not even attempt to delve into that relationship.
The incandescent moment of the meeting with God occurs in secret between the Lord and His creatures, and into this secret the adult may not and should not enter.
As much as we might want to question the child, to determine if he or she has internalized any of the presentations, we must not. Perhaps, we will be gifted with a glimpse of the work of the Spirit.
The catechist who looks for security precludes, we think, the possibility of the greatest joy, the joy of feeling sometimes, in the work that unfolds, the passing of a force we clearly perceive is not our own, an imperceptible breath that lets us know that it is not us but the Spirit who works within hearts.
Despite the statement to let the child and God speak to each other without interference, it was sometimes discouraging to see examples of student work (most of which was for 6-9 year olds, rather than the 3-6 year olds typically found in a Level I class). In the (short) two years I have been teaching Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, there have been only two or three times a child has said something or drawn something that revealed a deep or profound connection to the materials or presentation. Most of the time, I am content merely to be there with them. When I expressed the discouragement while reading the book, Kansas Dad reminded me they had sixty years worth of materials from which to draw for their examples. It's likely not every child responded in easily reportable ways. As catechists, we must be content to be with the children experiencing his love together.

Another goal in the Catechesis classes is to present the mysteries of God's love to children in such a way that each one feels a desire to learn more. This "wonder" will hopefully kindle a lifetime of seeking God and his kingdom.
The nature of wonder is not a force that pushes us passively from behind; it is situated ahead of us and attracts us with irresistible force towards the object of our astonishment; it makes us advance toward it, filled with enchantment.
This book is a wonderful guide to those of us wishing to point our children to Christ without pushing them or overwhelming them with commandments. The idea is to reveal to them the most wondrous truths of the Good Shepherd and the Kingdom of God and invite them to delve deeper and deeper into His Word and His Love throughout their lives, partly by modeling as a parent or catechist that our search is never complete, our desire for knowledge of God cannot be satisfied until we are in Heaven.

All that being said, there were a few instances where I though Sofia overreached in her arguments. For example, she says:
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.
In context, Sofia is explaining the choice to focus on the infancy narratives of the Gospels rather than  Old Testament stories for meditation. (There are also presentations on the Last Supper, the Passion, and the Resurrection.) I have no desire to alter the presentations at all, but I think it's possible a child who hears the story of David or Goliath, for example, is capable of uncovering a deeper theological content as an older child, teenager, or adult.

One point I found particularly troublesome is in the chapter on signs when Sofia is addressing the parables. In the Level I class, we read quite a few parables with the children, many focused on the Kingdom of God. One of the important points in the training (and in the book) is that the catechist is never to explain the parable. We can ask questions and wonder with the children, but we don't give an answer. I am even careful never to indicate to the children that they have arrived at "the correct answer." The most important reason for this vagueness is to cultivate the idea that we have never reached the center or final answer in a parable. There is always more to contemplate, more to learn and love about God and his world.

So far, so good. Then Sofia writes:
Jeremias has demonstrated that the two Gospel passages explaining the parables (Matthew 13:18-23, 36-42) do not date back to the original stratum of the text and therefore they are not the words of Jesus.
My problem with her assertion is not that the passages were added later (they very well might have been), but the implication that because they were added later, they were not the words of Jesus, that he, in fact, would never have explained a parable because that would have destroyed its value. I believe the presence of these verses indicates that Jesus probably explained at least some of the parables some of the time to his disciples. Furthermore, I think it's problematic to dismiss any part of Scripture, even if it seems to have been added a little later. It's not like it was added a few hundred years ago; those verses were there when the cannon was established. Sofia declares that "to explain the parable would mean killing it, destroying its most profound didactic wisdom." She must therefore dismiss the verses of Scripture in which Jesus appears to be explaining a parable. I think it might have been sufficient to exhort catechists to refrain from explaining parables to children, especially in Level 1, without arguing no one should ever explain any parable ever.

The reference for Jeremias is The Parables of Jesus by J. Jeremias, published in 1962 which I think is Parables of Jesus (2nd Edition). Much of the same material seems to be available in a version without the original Greek, Rediscovering the Parables. I checked a copy of the latter out of the library and skimmed the parts that seemed applicable to these verses. It seems like Jeremias claims these verses were added later, at a time when the early church was facing persecution in order to exhort Christians to stand firm in their faith. Ironically, given Sofia's use of his statement, the entire book is an attempt to explain what the parables would have meant in the historical and cultural context of Israel in Jesus' time.

From what I can tell online, I'm the only one to be uncomfortable with Sofia's statement, so perhaps I'm overreacting.

If you are interested, I can also recommend Way of Holy Joy (perhaps my favorite of Cavalletti's books that I've read so far) and The Good Shepherd and the Child, which has recently been revised and updated.

The links to Amazon above are affiliate links. If you click on them, add something to your cart, then make a purchase, I receive a small commission. I believe my copy was purchased directly from the national Catechesis of the Good Shepherd organization. (not an affiliate link)


  1. That is interesting. I would be uncomfortable with the assertion about the parables as well. The Bible is very clear, and we have discussed this in my Theology as well, that Jesus spent copious amounts of time with his disciples privately, explaining the parables and giving them special insights that were not necessarily revealed to his general audience at the time. I mean, look at Mark 4 and the parable of the sower.

    I agree, there are lessons to be learned through the parables that shouldn't necessarily be explained, but even as an adult there are times reading scripture when I am incredibly grateful for a (good) commentary to help me delve deeper into the meaning of the text instead of just trying to extract my own meaning.

    I find personally, with my kids, that the times they show the greatest understanding or insight into something are *NOT* the times I am teaching them/we are reading the Bible/reading a religious book/working on a religious activity etc. There are times Gemma has just blown me away with something she has said or written/drawn. Completely unrelated to anything we have done at the time but something she has clearly picked up through her catechesis at home and school. And I think, especially as a catechist of children not your own (IE in the atrium), it can be hard to really see that progress. And I struggle not to question and interject my own explanations to make sure they "understand" as well.

    I enjoyed your review.

    1. Kansas Dad says it is indeed heretical to reject any part of Scripture, so I suppose it's not overreacting to say she's wrong in this instance. It would be a shame if Catholics (or other Christians) reject the entire book (or everything she's written) just because she's incorrect in this one instance.

      Some of the parents of my students have mentioned differences they see and attribute to Catechesis, which is encouraging. It's a bit like those parenting topics we've discussed. The growth just takes so long it's almost impossible to notice it!


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