Life & Soul

What Maria Montessori can teach the Church about catechesis

Maria Montessori

A recent survey of US Catholics concluded that two thirds do not believe in the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist. In a Church not short of bad news, this statistic doesn’t appear to have caused much reaction. Perhaps that’s because to anyone working in a pastoral setting it is hardly a surprise. As a non-Catholic friend of mine remarks, you would be hard-pressed to deduce that it was the Real Presence from the way the Blessed Sacrament is treated in many Catholic churches. 

I have my own theories as to what brought about this frightening loss of faith. They centre on the liturgical treatment of the Blessed Sacrament and the poverty of catechesis over many years. Since the 1990s, catechesis has been dominated by something called the Pastoral Cycle, a pedagogical method which says that teaching has to start from the child’s experience. You consider special celebrations such as birthday parties. So children are taught that Mass is a special meal, the celebration of God’s family, the Church. Sadly, human experience doesn’t prepare us for the Real Presence, so I am unsure how such an approach can differentiate the essence of the Mass from any other horizontally referenced social gathering.  

Maria Montessori is famous for pioneering a scientific pedagogy for teaching children with learning difficulties. She was passionate about child-centred methodology and fostering the child’s natural desire to acquire knowledge. However, it is clear that for her faith is not something originating in experience, in the human consciousness of the divine. It is a response to revelation and the handing on of the experience of those who witnessed the Word. Accordingly she begins her inspiring children’s book on the Mass by quoting the Letter of St John, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen and touched, we declare unto you.”

She then quotes the Scriptural account of Institution and her instruction begins: “Our Lord said the first Mass at the Last Supper. Ever since then his disciples have looked for a large furnished room where they may prepare the altar for him.” She explains that this is the church. “There you’ll find the table covered with white cloths, the altar, and there a man who represents Christ, and who says the same words as Christ.” She then explains how “The faithful who are pure in heart approach devoutly to receive the Sacred Host, the living bread come down from Heaven.” How many times have I encountered Catholic schoolchildren who do not know when the first Mass was celebrated and whose vocabulary is limited to descriptions of “taking the bread” at Mass? 

Montessori acknowledges that to those “who have not penetrated its mysteries” the Mass may look no more than a rite carried out to remember something. But she is equally clear that children are quite capable of grasping the meaning: “There is a deep mystery hidden in the Mass, a supernatural, astounding fact: Jesus, at a certain moment, comes down alive on the altar.” There are no euphemisms. She presents the mystery: “He is invisible but he is truly present because  the bread is changed into his Body and the wine into his Blood. We go to to Mass to find Jesus, to receive him. He is present there,  he lives and will never leave us. This is our comfort, the greatest part of our faith.”  

Ironically many church halls host Montessori nursery schools. Perhaps some of her pedagogy could rub off on the sacramental preparation.