In early 1950s Rome, two women—a biblical scholar and a Montessori-trained educator—began the great catechetical experiment known as Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. In a way, Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi’s partnership is a kind of model for the mission of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, where we strive to nourish the Catholic imagination for the renewal of the Church.
As a scholar of biblical languages steeped in ressourcement theology, Sofia Cavalletti never intended to tend souls in the garden of religious formation. Yet, through her unlikely collaboration with Gianna Gobbi, which spanned over half a century, she developed a method of catechesis rooted in the retrieval of the tradition that takes seriously the exigencies and dignity of children. They shared a commitment to the education of the whole person and an unwavering faith in the mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ, which is unleashed in Scripture and Sacrament. Indeed, the catechetical method Cavalletti and Montessori developed serves as an icon of the kind of sacramental catechesis needed to nourish the imagination and renew the Church in a secular age.
I first encountered Catechesis of the Good Shepherd seven years ago when, searching for a way to get involved in my parish, I began assisting in a Level 1 atrium with children ages three to six. As a CCD dropout, I had no idea what I was in for, yet I discovered that I had stumbled into a place where the youngest among the baptized faithful were not informed about the various stories of the Bible and mechanics of the Liturgy. Rather, they were initiated into the mystery of Christ, formed into that vast and unified narrative of Scripture that is enacted and made present in the liturgy.
This is precisely the kind of catechesis Maria Montessori had in mind when, in a 1927 interview she noted:
The preparation of the child for his full participation in the life of the Church is a much wider thing than the learning by heart of certain intellectual truths. It is a life in itself. The child must learn how to make the Sign of the Cross, how and when to genuflect, how to carry objects such as candles and flowers gracefully. He must be taught how to prepare for the sacraments of penance and of the Holy Eucharist, and how to participate in these sacraments. He must be taught the actions of the Mass, how to take part in processions and, in general, how to participate in the liturgical ceremonies of the Church.
The life of the atrium is not an end in itself; it is oriented to the life of the Church. By taking “a leaf out of the book of the early Church,” Maria Montessori suggests we rediscover and recover the ancient practice of the catechumenal catechesis. For the youngest members of the Body of Christ, the atrium functions as a place where their developing minds and bodies can become acclimated to the rhythm of worship, where they can learn and practice the embodied gestures of praise, where they approach the unfathomable mystery of God in unity of Scripture and Liturgy, which is the foundation of sacramental catechesis.
This unity orients us to reality. Retrieving the wisdom of the Church Fathers, Cavalletti further notes that sacramental theology “permeates all of catechesis and provides organic continuity between proclamation and liturgical celebration”. Attentiveness to the unity of Scripture, Liturgy, and life is an essential antidote to the over-emphasis on historical-critical exegesis on the one hand, and individualistic reductions of interpretation on the other. Indeed, the emphasis on unity and continuity is expressive of a truly ecclesial, evangelizing sacramental catechesis, where Scripture, Liturgy, and life interpenetrate.
But we must also have a way of interpreting this unity. This is why Cavalletti insisted that children be initiated into the language of signs, which is the language of Scripture and Liturgy. Just like learning their mother tongue, this language forms the very interpretive perspective of the child. A retrieval of the method of signs, which is not unique to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, but is embedded in the very structure of Scripture and Liturgy, initiates us into a way of reading the depths of reality, of seeing the hidden and transcendent in the visible and concrete. This is, as Cavalletti points out in Religious Potential of the Child: Volume 2, divine pedagogy, which “serves to enlarge our space so that what is immediately perceivable, that which our human sense can readily verify, no longer functions as a wall in limiting our perspective”. Instead, it enables us “to see through and beyond the immediate, sensory data to other worlds that are no less real or concrete”. This approach to the mystery of God, which is as ancient as the Church herself, allows us to pierce the veil in some sense, to encounter the depths of meaning and the unity of reality. Recovering the method of signs is essential to healing modernity’s fragmented imagination.
Montessori’s genius and the genius of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd—indeed, the genius of the Church—resides in the ancient insight of that, despite all claims to the contrary, participation in the life of Church is not a disembodied, cognitive reality. Christianity is not a moral program or an ethereal idea. It is, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI noted in Deus Caritas Est, “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”. It is a life that flows to and from communion with and in the Person of Christ. We encounter the Mystery of Christ in Word and Sacrament, and it is not enough to simply know a lot facts about Jesus or to simply be acquainted with the mechanics of the liturgy without addressing ourselves, as Benedict XVI observed in Feast of Faith, to “the intrinsic tension of the reality itself”. We must learn to go to the heart of things, to the essential, unfathomable mystery of “the Word of love, crucified and risen, who brings us life and joy”.
In the absence of initiation into the mystery of Christ expressed in its biblical and liturgical keys we find ourselves adrift in a sea of the fragmented facts, emotions, and morals. The human desire to love, our desire for meaning is such that if our imaginations are denied the food of essential realities, if we are denied the key by which to read the Bible and live the Liturgy, we will love lesser things and we will construct meaning from the scraps and fragments that fall from the table of narrative reduction. Our imaginations are so perilously undernourished that we will eat stones if we cannot find bread.
The McGrath Institute for Church Life’s interest in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as a wellspring of renewal, goes back to the early 1990s when the late director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Mark Searle, penned the elegiac introduction to Religious Potential of the Child: Volume 1. He astutely diagnosed the dire state of ministry in the United States and suggested that the systematic approach and pedagogical principles of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd could renew the life of the Church. Contemporary religious education, according to Searle, faces several distinct but interrelated challenges. The first is the over-emphasis on historical-critical exegesis, which has the effect of dissecting Scripture and Liturgy and reducing them to less than the sum of their parts. Secondly, the tendency for religious education to dissolve into a therapeutic exercise designed to make us “our best selves.” Whether she likes it or not, the individual must assume the role of definitive interpreter. She becomes the sole arbiter of the meaning of Scripture, and the Liturgy becomes part of the repertoire of individual self-expression. For Cavalletti this approach to Scripture and Liturgy is profoundly insufficient because it is both fragmented and fragmenting, it is both intrusive and a lacks substance.
Searle suggests that Cavalletti’s work is essential to engage “not only for what it has to say about the catechesis of young children but also for the principles on which catechesis is built, principles that are equally applicable in the parish as a whole” because the entire Christian life is rooted in the gift of Scripture and tradition.
By taking up the principles of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, we at the McGrath Institute for Church Life hope to discern with high school teachers, parish priests, youth ministers, sacramental catechists, and religious educators for all ages, how retrieving the riches of the Church’s ancient method of sacramental catechesis can heal, nourish the imagination, and serve as a source of renewal for the entire Church. We want to think with ecclesial leaders throughout the Church about the way Cavalletti’s work can enliven the domestic Church, heal the perceived division between contemplative prayer and social action, renew marriage formation, and help us re-imagine youth ministry. We want to ponder how the themes, insights, and principles articulated by Cavalletti extend beyond the children’s atrium and live in the Church.
Elijah and the Fiery Chariot, Donald Jackson in collaboration with Aidan Hart, Copyright 2010, The Saint John's Bible, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
 Standing, E.M., Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work., 33.
 Cavalletti, Sophia, The Religious Potential of the Child, Vol 2. 62.
 ibid., 47.
 Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est., §1.
 Benedict XVI, Feast of Faith., 72.
 ibid., 73.
 Searle, Mark, The Religious Potential of the Child, Vol 1., 3.