Thursday, November 29, 2007

Liturgical Catechesis: The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

Catechesis is intrinsically bound to every liturgical and sacramental action.
- Catechesi Tradendae 23
We know that what Catechesi Tradendae says about the Liturgy and catechesis is true, but how do we put this truth into practice? The Liturgy offers us certain forms and embodies a particular pedagogical approach. It can be a rich source for our catechetical practice, just as it is in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a liturgical and biblical catechesis first conceived by the educator Maria Montessori and refined and developed by Sofia Cavalletti, Gianna Gobbi, and their collaborators.
Maria Montessori began to develop a new educational method, now called the Montessori approach, in the beginning of the twentieth century. Her inspiration for this “new” method was not new at all. She was a devout Christian, with a profound love for the Liturgy. Her genius lay in her ability to “translate” the methodology of the Liturgy into a means of communicating other kinds of information. In a Montessori classroom, as during a rite of the Church, time slows down. Just as a rite unfolds in steps, one following the other in an order that never changes, in the Montessori method, emphasis is placed on the deliberate and careful steps needed to complete any task. Cultivating silence is as essential to the Montessori approach as it is to the Liturgy. But most important, children in a Montessori environment learn through the use of all their senses; just as the Liturgy engages one’s whole body in prayer gestures, scents from candles, incense, wine, and perfumed oils, the tactile experience of water, oil, the press of a priest’s thumb or hand, the taste of bread and wine, and the whole rich variety of sights and sounds to delight the eye and ear, Maria Montessori created a school environment in which children could have the same variety of physical and sensorial experiences in which to learn.
When Dr. Montessori was invited to conduct her experiment in religious education, in Barcelona, Spain, in 1919, she was delighted. She felt that her method would find its highest expression and fulfillment in religious education. She created an environment, which she called the “atrium,” after the name given to the room where catechumens were prepared in the ancient Church, in which the elements of the liturgy would become accessible to children. It was during this period that she developed a model altar with small furnishings, a material still used in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was inspired by Dr. Montessori’s initial research and began to take shape in Rome, Italy, in 1954. Sofia Cavalleti, a scripture scholar and her collaborator, a Montessori educator named Gianna Gobbi, through studying Dr. Montessori’s methods, prepared an environment in which children could use their bodies, along with all their senses, to meditate on the sacraments and holy scripture.
The “atrium” of the catechesis of the Good Shepherd provides the children with models of all the elements they will find used in their local churches. They may ring and listen to bells, kneel on cushions or kneelers before a holy image, ask a catechist to light candles for them, use their voices to sing to God, handle small brass objects and even polish them, tend to plants, smell and touch unconsecrated chrism, and pour water over their fists in a model baptismal font. In addition to all of these liturgical elements, the children are also invited to imitate and practice prayer gestures, such as the Sign of the Cross, the gesture of invocation over the waters of Baptism, and the priest’s gesture of Epiclesis over the Bread and Wine, all of which are demonstrated and repeated in the most solemn and careful manner, so that “learning” becomes a form of praying with all of these sacred gestures and objects.
In addition to the liturgy and the sacraments, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd includes a scriptural component. The model for how we present scripture texts takes its inspiration from the Liturgy of the Word. From the age of three, children in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd develop a love for and delight in processions. Processions mark the high points of the liturgical year and prepare the ear, as well as the body, to listen with particular intensity. In the atrium, the Bible occupies a privileged place, often covered with a beautiful cover, resting on a book stand, and set upon a table decorated with the appropriate liturgical color for the season. A catechist will light a candle before reading from the Gospel, and when reading the passage, will use all the solemnity and care of a lector. Then, when the children are invited to reflect on the passage, the catechist introduces a physical material that helps the child to continue the whole-body experience of internalizing the Gospel message. For example, the catechist will show the children mustard seeds from the Holy Land when presenting the parable of the mustard seed, and the children will be invited to touch them and hold one on a fingertip; or when contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, the catechist uses a diorama and figures, much like a Christmas nativity scene, to give this precious moment in sacred history three dimensions.
Perhaps most important of all, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd always follows the liturgical year. After presenting the children with four small chasubles in the liturgical colors, so that they will understand that the priest wears a very special vestment to celebrate the Eucharist and so that they know the meaning of each liturgical color, there is always a celebration with a solemn procession to change the color of the prayer table cloth from green to violet at the beginning of Advent. During Advent, the children will meditate on the Messianic prophesies foretelling the birth of Christ and on the Gospels of the Annunciation and the Visitation. In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, we never celebrate Christmas during Advent! When Christmas Season arrives, we celebrate with another procession to change the prayer table cloth to white; moreover, during separate meeting times, we will meditate together on the accounts of the Nativity taken from Luke and Matthew, using separate dioramas for the shepherds and the Magi to reflect the integrity of Scripture, and also on the presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple of Jerusalem. During Lent, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd takes on a penitential and anticipatory character. Then during Easter we pray with the opening rite of the Easter Vigil, tracing our own thumbs on our model paschal candle as we repeat the solemn words, “Christ yesterday and today…” and then from it, lighting small candles for each of the children.
Prayer is the heart and soul and whole substance of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. From the moment the children walk through the door of the atrium, they know that they have come to “listen to God.” Every element in the atrium points to Christ. Through prayer gestures, sensorial experiences, and solemn processions, the children are educated to, for and even with the Liturgy of the Church.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."