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Montessori Catechesis?

By Suzanne Lewis

Catechesis is intrinsically bound to every liturgical and sacramental action.

                   —Catechesi Tradendae, no. 23

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        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 importantly, 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 and 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.
      This is the method behind the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a liturgical catechesis first conceived by late 19th- and early 20th-century educator Maria Montessori.
      A devout Catholic with a profound love for the liturgy, Montessori began to develop a new educational method, now called the Montessori approach, in the beginning of the 20th century. Her inspiration for this "new" method was not new at all: Her genius lay in her ability to "translate" the methodology of the liturgy into a means of communicating other kinds of information. Taking her cues from the elements of the liturgy, Montessori created a school environment in which children could have the same variety of physical and sensory experiences in which to learn.
      Montessori saw that the liturgy offered certain forms and embodied a particular pedagogical approach and believed it could be a rich source for catechetical practice. In fact, she felt that her method would find its highest expression and fulfillment in religious education. So she was delighted when, in 1919, she was invited to conduct her experiment in religious education in Barcelona, Spain. She created an environment that she dubbed the "atrium," in which the elements of the liturgy would become accessible to children. The "atrium" was the room where catechumens were prepared in the ancient Church. It was during this period that she developed the model altar with small furnishings that is still used in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

The Method Takes Shape

      The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was inspired by Montessori’s initial research and finally began to take shape in Rome in 1954. Catholic Scripture scholar Sofia Cavalleti and her collaborator, a Montessori educator named Gianna Gobbi, worked together to establish this new method. Building upon Montessori’s methods, they 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 the Sacred Liturgy. 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 Scripture texts are presented 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.

Bringing Home the Gospel

      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.

The Liturgical Seasons

      Perhaps most important of all, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd always follows the liturgical year. The children are presented 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. In this way, they also learn the meaning of each liturgical color. In the atrium 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 prophecies foretelling the birth of Christ. They will also meditate on the Gospel stories of the Annunciation and the Visitation. In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Christmas is never celebrated during Advent! When the Christmas season arrives, there is a special celebration with another procession to change the prayer-table cloth to white. Also, during separate meeting times, the children will meditate on the accounts of the Nativity and the presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple of Jerusalem. Separate dioramas are used for the shepherds and the Magi to reflect the integrity of Scripture.
      During Lent, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd takes on a penitential and anticipatory character. Then, during Easter, the children pray with the opening rite of the Easter Vigil, tracing their thumbs on a model paschal candle as they repeat the solemn words, "Christ yesterday and today . . . " and then from the paschal candle small candles are lit 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 Catholic Church.  12/21/09

I found this article on the website "Holy Spirit Interactive."

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