Summer Symposia Recap: Forming the Person as Icon

In late June, the Center for Liturgy of the McGrath Institute for Church Life facilitated a summer symposium designed to creatively explore the senses of Scripture. Drawing from Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi's Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy sought to nurture and develop the sacramental imagination of the symposium participants and, consequently, the faith communities to which these individuals would return and catechize.

While the symposium offered intellectual formation pertaining to the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses of the Scriptures, the structure of the week allowed participants to experience these senses. According to the principles of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, it is this paradoxical structure of the human person's physical and spiritual natures that allows the child to experience, and, more importantly, participate in, the story of sacred history. Here it is helpful to turn to Cavalletti’s own writing:

[Sacred history] seems to unite elements derived from two different worlds. . . . Indeed, the expression “sacred history” could appear to be a contradiction in terms. But it is precisely this apparent contradiction that constitutes the nature of sacred history. We will see that this entanglement of human and divine elements does not represent a contradiction any more than does the concept of the human being, a reality composed of both body and spirit. Just as the person is made up of both spirit and body—if we were to divide the two elements, we would have a cadaver—so sacred history is the indivisible combination of two factors: the work of God and the work of humanity.[1]

The divine plan of sacred history is the unique reality of total meaning for the human person that at once transcends all other histories even while operating in a hidden, mysterious fashion as the impetus of all history; it is history’s golden thread “that weaves the various events into one design,”[2] and is to be realized through, with, and in humankind. This design is the entry of the Word into sacred history so as to uniquely transform the story, that is, to make it Good News according to his life, death, and Resurrection (Dei Verbum §4).

The experiential reflections on the method of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd contained within the two volumes of Cavalletti’s The Religious Potential of the Child apply to both child and adult. According to Cavalletti, the child is capable of receiving with ease that which the adult must continually strive to receive anew; it is the most elementary of human receptions—the reception of the Word who enters into sacred history so as to make it Good News.

According to Cavalletti, the child is capable of receiving with ease that which the adult must continually strive to receive anew

The receivers of the kerygma are the child and the adult; they are simultaneously announcers and listeners. The proclamation is indeed necessary to the child, who is coming to know new things for the first time. However, it is also necessary for the adult, who needs to penetrate always more deeply into those things that often remain on the surface, to continually enliven that which risks losing the vivacity of its first encounter in his life.[3]

It may well be that the poverty of spirit exemplified by the child is closer to the most essential expression of the human person-in-relationship than that of the adult. In the Synoptic Gospel's account, Jesus proclaims it necessary to become like “little children” so to enter the kingdom of God (Mt 18:3–4; Mk 10:15; Lk 18:17). However, while children access more easily the ever-newness of the Gospel, the way is never closed off to adults. Cavalletti and the method of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd teach us that it is openness to God’s Word–this receptive longing for the significant ways in which God comes to meet us–that is rooted in the very structure of every child and every adult and is the way to the Father.

The symposium sought to make available this most important enlivening by means of various types of workshops—analogous to the ‘works’ that children choose to do in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd—paired to the intellectual instruction regarding a given sense of the Scriptures. Participants were first given a language and pedagogy for one level of understanding the senses of the Scriptures, but this understanding became all-together deepened by the experiential learning pertaining to each sense.

Participants explored the literal sense via instruction in calligraphy—an ancient method of feeling and expressing the Word of God materialized by the work of human hands. As participants connected pen to paper, they reflected on what it means to write in terms of discipline, patience, and the humility that comes with re-learning—or learning anew—how to form a simple letter or phrase. Participants then turned to an encounter with the history of this practice by examining a collection of medieval liturgical texts including psalters and breviaries.

Throughout the symposium, participants were given the opportunity to encounter a Book of the St. John’s Bible; standing in front of the massive volume, seeing the wonderfully crafted words and images allowed for an experience of the literal sense in a very imaginative and formative way.

After learning about the allegorical sense and the method of typological interpretation, participants took to the Basilica of the Sacred heart to simply be with the ordered architecture of the space and the 19th-century stained glass windows encompassing their onlookers. They perceived the story of salvation history depicted in these images; they were invited to pray with them, sketch an image or two that caught their eye, or write a short poem or verse inspired by these images. Ultimately, these images point not to themselves as sacred art, but to the Lord as salvific artist.

Soon after, participants returned to the morning’s classroom space which had been reimagined, rearranged according to a sequence of icons presenting the Feasts of Christ; as people moved about the space so to read each icon, questions arose about the curious typological symbols embedded in these images. These symbols open up rich theological connections, while at the same time pointing the viewer to an openness to the deeper spiritual mystery towards which the icon leads her.

Participants learned that the moral sense instructs towards a way of being—a way of journeying with the Way, Jesus Christ—and they found in their workshop on sacred music a way to perceive how the beauty and the rhythm of Scripture forms each person according to, as St. Irenaeus writes, Christ the New Song. Singing psalms, expressing themselves according to an ordered method, hearing the harmony of a multitude of musical parts coming together to speak truth was in itself an instruction in how the Scriptures call us to order ourselves anew.

And the anagogical sense, that of anticipating and moving towards what is to come, as proclaimed in Scripture, was experienced ultimately in the closing moments of the symposium as participants collaboratively discerned how they might carry this formation back to their individual ministries and faith communities. The question from the outset of the symposium was fully engaged in the particular: How can the deepest needs of the modern person be met by means of an imaginative, sacramental catechesis?

How can the deepest needs of the modern person be met by means of an imaginative, sacramental catechesis?

In the mornings and evenings of the symposium, participants gathered to pray together, grounding their work in person of Jesus Christ. The parables of Jesus, so central to Sofia Cavalletti’s instruction in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, functioned as moments of entry for the community to share their insights and intentions with Christ, the Good Shepherd, and with one another. Ultimately, this encounter with Jesus Christ, the Word who transforms human history by being made man, is the crux of any and all catechesis. As St. John Paul II states in Catechesi Tradendae:
The primary and essential object of catechesis is . . . 'the mystery of Christ.' Catechizing is a way to lead a person to study this mystery in all its dimensions. . . . It is therefore to reveal in the Person of Christ the whole of God's eternal design reaching fulfillment in that Person. It is to seek to understand the meaning of Christ's actions and words and of the signs worked by him, for they simultaneously hide and reveal his mystery. Accordingly, the definitive aim of catechesis is to put people not only in touch but in communion, in intimacy, with Jesus Christ: only he can lead us to the love of the Father in the Spirit and make us share in the life of the Holy Trinity.[4]

This encounter is longed for by the human person; it is the very substance of each and every child and adult. The work of this symposium has shown that the formation of the sacramental imagination is a substantial icon of the structure of the human person–the means by which we participate in sacred history.

All photos courtesy Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

[1] Sofia Cavalletti, History of the Kingdom of God, Part 1: From Creation to Parousia, trans. Rebekah Rojcewicz (Chicago: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Publications, 2012), 4.

[2] Sofia Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child 6 to 12 Years Old: A Description of an Experience, trans. A. Perry and R. Rojcewicz (Chicago: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Publications, 2002), 16, 22.

[3] Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children, 49.

[4] John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, §5.


Christopher Gruslin

Christopher S. Gruslin, M.Div., is a theology teacher in Massachusetts. He cajoles his eighth graders and sophomores towards lives of faith and virtue while they instruct him in the spiritual discipline of humility.

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