Ignorance, says Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, is like a delicate, exotic, fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. She would have recognised a similar ethos in a lot of so-called child-centred learning, and indeed in much of what has been proposed as catechesis recently.
In the encounter with God’s Revelation we have focused excessively on the religious experience of man, as though Revelation and the Tradition of the Church were handmaids to some prelapsarian sense of the divine which is the origin of our encounter with God. While it may be true that in previous ages catechetical instruction could mean the mere imparting of information, the current paucity of content has resulted in the failure to pass on a faith sufficiently coherent as to reveal the true face of Christ and certainly even less able to demonstrate the essential connection between the knowledge of Christ and the concomitant new life of grace through his body the Church. Child-centred catechesis does not have to be devoid of informative content, as Maria Montessori’s wonderful book on the Mass shows, nor is imparting knowledge exclusive of inculcating praxis.
Montessori manages to explain to the children what St John Henry Newman would define as the stages of assent. We do not unite in the Catholic Church, she explains, merely to remember the Messiah who loved us and died for our sins. We are “living a miraculous new life because as we believe we become one with Christ”. “Man can learn the very noblest teaching, but he needs the grace of God if he is to practise it.” To be a Catholic, she explains, is nothing less that to aspire to be able to say with St Paul, “I live now, but not I, but Christ who lives in me.”
She puts before the children the examples of St Tarcisius and St Pancras, “who died defending the Blessed Sacrament”, and says: “Remember, it is not enough just to hear the promises of Our Lord if we are to enter His kingdom, he must really live in our hearts.”
She sketches the history of the Mass in the Catacombs and the domus ecclesiae, explaining how only the fully initiated were admitted to the Rites of Consecration and Communion. I wonder how many children’s liturgies make the children aware of this history or use it to prepare them for their return. The part of the Mass at which they return “begins with the offering up to God of bread and wine to be consecrated, and of the hearts of all the faithful”. She continues “This was a time of silence and devout recollection”, which would imply that she believes children are capable of this.
She is, of course, talking about the Mass of St Pius V when she says: “The faithful can follow the Mass in its mystical meaning and every detail.” She sees ritual as the way to draw children into the sacredness of the mystery being celebrated. “Everything is sacred in the rite of Holy Mass: every movement of the priest, every object he touches, every tone of his voice is determined for him.” She proceeds to explain those things in great detail. Even the bell at the calling you to Mass, she says, should make you think of Abraham, “who when God called was ready to obey even to the sacrifice of his only son”.
Real child-centred learning teaches the child to look up and beyond, and to wonder at the revelation of God’s love which is closer to us even than our own experience.
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