In the frosty January of 1821, Elizabeth Ann Seton lay on her small bed, praying and dying. She had been ill and confined to her room for most of December, and between prayers for those who tended her and her ultimate sigh—“Jesus!”—she offered her Sisters of Charity a final fervorino: “Be children of the Church, be children of the Church.”
With this phrase she exhorted her Sisters to be capable of great love just as young children can be. She also evoked Jesus’ words to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3).
To become like a child is to depend on something greater than one’s self, and Mother Seton encouraged the Sisters of her community to depend on God and the Church. In 16 years as a Roman Catholic convert, she had been obedient to the Church even when it was not easy; as she saw it, her obedience was an expression of love for Jesus that was preparing her for the kingdom of heaven.
We can understand Elizabeth’s meaning, yet as adults we struggle forward, conflating maturity with independence and trying to cast off child-like trust and wonder. With this preference for autonomy, how can an adult who hopes for the kingdom of heaven become like a child?
Two disciples of Christ, Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi, lived this question in a very real way in the mid-20th Century in Rome. Dr. Sofia Cavalletti was a Hebrew Scripture scholar teaching at La Sapienza University, and Gianna Gobbi, having worked closely with the visionary educator Dr. Maria Montessori, now directed a Montessori school. Together, over many years, Sofia and Gianna developed a catechetical method for young children called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS).
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd began when a friend asked Sofia to prepare her son for the sacrament of First Holy Communion, and Sofia declined. She was a single unmarried woman, a scholar fluent in multiple languages, and she was used to talking with adults—what did she know of children? After the friend asked her again, Sofia assented, and her son, Paolo, and several of his friends, somewhat begrudgingly came to Sofia’s home for their first lesson. This was his mother’s plan, not his, and Paolo let Sofia know as much.
Sofia’s own uncertainty and Paolo’s disinterest may have given her pause, but she set to work exegeting Genesis with this small group of young people. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void…” To her astonishment and Paolo’s, reading scripture and wondering at it together was riveting. Paolo and his friends couldn’t wait to return the next week and the next.
As their scripture studies continued, Sofia invited her acquaintance Gianna Gobbi to join. As a Montessorian, Gianna believed that educators must observe and become familiar with the children they serve. She believed that children have absorbent minds, meaning that childhood is a sensitive time for acquiring skills through kinesthetic activity. And from years of working with toddlers, she also knew children’s natural propensity for loving relationships.
When Gianna came to Sofia’s home for their lesson, she brought to their group her orientation toward educating young people, and she also brought little wooden models of altars and miniature fabric vestments such as Catholic priests wear. These models were meant to aid the group’s meditation on Church liturgy.
Many years later Sofia would write in The Religious Potential of the Child, “The Liturgy has always spoken through ‘signs.’” Here, in their lessons, Gianna offered an altar and vestments to generate reflection about how the Catholic Church speaks through signs and what those signs mean. Although we don’t know what conversation ensued between Paolo and his friends, Sofia and Gianna’s method was always to welcome the simplest observations and questions: Are all altars shaped like tables? Why does a priest wear a vestment this color? How luxurious the fabric is! What does it mean that the embroidery is so beautiful?
In Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, inviting “wondering questions” is precisely the educational method. CGS still resembles those early lessons in Sofia’s home by bringing together an intergenerational group of laypersons to wonder at scripture together.
CGS occurs in an appointed room called the Atrium, which could be in a church, a fellowship hall, or a home, and this is where small groups of children gather first to hear their catechist read a portion of the Old or New Testament and then to work with hand-made materials that help deepen their private reflection. Sofia called this first part “a solemn reading of scripture” and cautioned catechists against adding commentary. To listen to one voice solemnly read scripture is the opportunity for “the catechist and child both [to be] ‘listeners’ to an unfathomable Word that unfolds itself as always new before their astonished eyes.”
Wonder, Sofia points out, is the beginning of philosophical thinking and spiritual meditation. And this kind of engaged response cannot be forced. Only something that moves the human spirit engages a child’s or adult’s sense of wonder.
For about fifty years, Sofia and Gianna listened to scripture in the Atrium with children ages 3-12, and their great realization was that children were teaching them, the catechists, about living in relationship with God. With children in various phases of intellectual and physical growth and with children of many cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, Sofia and Gianna experienced the newness of Jesus’ parables and wondered at liturgical signs. To adapt St. Irenaeus’s phrase, they found that “the glory of God is the child fully alive.”
Sofia and Gianna discovered it was not only children who respond to God as the Good Shepherd who knows each one of us by name. God was asking them, two well-educated women with highly-esteemed careers, to become childlike.
It’s overly simplistic to say that by serving children, Sofia and Gianna became spiritual children, yet by serving the youngest among them, these two friends found ways to teach us about the human soul’s desire for relationship with God. They tended to their work with great enthusiasm and became “children of the Church” through the simplest and most mystical of ways—by wondering at Jesus’ Incarnation.
Sofia and Gianna’s togetherness seems to have been critical to the maturation of each woman’s faith. To write how one of them became a child as she sought the kingdom of heaven seems to necessitate writing of the other. Sofia’s books make CGS intelligible to us, yet it’s clear that CGS grew out of what Sofia and Gianna lived in communion with children and with each other. Their friendship is reminiscent of those within childhood in which undertaking a great enterprise is completely absorbing and ends up forging an unbreakable bond between friends.
Friendship of this sort was also significant for Elizabeth Ann Seton, who called her beloved women friends her “soul’s sisters.” She delighted in deeply knowing innumerable friends intellectually and spiritually: She loved Antonio and Amabilia Filicchi in Italy who taught her about Catholicism; she loved her life-long correspondent Julianna Sitgreaves Scott who didn’t share her religious convictions; and she loved her Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s whose mutual love for God connected them.
St. Elizabeth Ann allowed herself to be closely knit to others in the great enterprise of mothering her five children, teaching a school full of young women, and serving as Mother to her spiritual daughters in the community she founded. Her faith deepened and matured throughout her life because she loved, and her capacity for relationship, like that of Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi, is a sign within the Church that invites wonder at God’s grace: How could they have loved like this?
ELISABETH KRAMP writes from Southern California. Her chapbook “Quickening” was published by Franciscan University Press, and she currently teaches writing at John Paul the Great Catholic University. Elisabeth is a Level 1 catechist in CGS and her first experience as lead catechist was in the Atrium at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Bothell, WA.
Image: Gianna Gobbi and Sofia Cavalletti.
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