Cavalletti: The Religious Potential of the Child

January 22, 2019

The Religious Potential of the Child
Sofia Cavalletti
(CGS, 1992) [1979]
250 p.

For the past five years or so I have taught catechism to children who have ranged in age from about age 3 to age 8. My previous teaching experience having been to undergraduate and graduate students, and in the hard sciences, I have found teaching catechism to be a big change, and challenging in several ways. Naturally, there’s the challenge of presenting material in an age-appropriate way. There’s also the difficulty of choosing just what to teach, and in what order. And, of course, the always daunting matter of planning a craft.

Had you asked me a few months ago, I’d have assessed myself as a middling catechist. But today, having read Sofia Cavalletti’s book on catechesis for young children, I am ready to consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I’ve been doing it all wrong all along.

Cavalletti is a foundress of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd programme, which began in Italy and has since spread around the world. I’ve not known much about it, apart from its existence. This book is all about the underpinnings of that program, which grew out of years of experience of teaching the faith to children aged 3-6.


Her principal goal is not so much to convey knowledge of the faith as to cultivate the child’s relationship with God. The emphasis is affective and personal rather than didactic and objective. Her desire is to encourage in the child a life hidden with Christ, a living spring, a planted seed. For her, the catechist’s role is to prepare the child to meet Christ, and then to withdraw, unworthy servant that he is. A catechist, she says, must know how to be silent.

A young child, she believes, has a capacity for quiet, even contemplative, prayer. Children are at ease with the transcendent; their relationship to God, especially at a young age, is naturally “open and peaceful”. Much of the catechist’s task is to cultivate an environment in which “open and peaceful” prayer can take place. To this end she recommends the creation of a quasi-sacred space, a ritual space (which, following, in this as in other matters, Maria Montessori, she calls an “atrium”). It is “not a place for religious instruction, but for religious life“; it is set aside for “recollection and silence”. Within this space Scripture is read to the children, in a solemn, ritualized manner, and elements of the liturgy, such as seasonal colours and candles, are present. Quiet time for reflection follows the slow reading. The children are given simple toys, related to the readings, to play with quietly. They are invited to draw or paint quietly. They are invited to pray. In her experience, children become pensive and recollected; the child’s “whole being vibrates, becomes tranquil, and rejoices”.

The prayer encouraged by this method is personal and spontaneous. She finds that it is typically expressed in short, essential phrases. “Jesus, you gave us light.” “Thank you because we are your sheep.” “Thank you, Jesus, for giving us our joy.”

This approach to catechesis is not didactic, but it nonetheless teaches, and the most important lesson, especially for children under 6, is, Cavalletti argues, that God loves them:

“No child … has ever been loved to the degree that he wanted and needed. For the child, love is more important than food… In the contact with God the child experiences an unfailing love.”

For this reason her catechetical approach is founded on a few themes that convey the love of God, the most important being the image of Christ the Good Shepherd, who loves his sheep and calls them by name. In her experience, this image of Christ is the most important key to unlocking the young child’s religious sense. In addition, she commends to the catechist the imagery of baptism and light, of Christ as a gift, and the Gospel parables about the Kingdom of God (the pearl of great price, the mustard seed, and so on). These images and parables are to be presented to the child without dumbing them down, and are not to be “explained, but left to unfold themselves within the child’s heart and understanding”. She dwells on these particular images and stories because, in her experience, children respond most fruitfully to them. Her criterion for assessing a child’s response is worth noting:

“If the child, in relation to a specific Biblical passage, only knows how to draw descriptive rather than interpretive illustrations, then it is better to avoid that text; it is obvious that his understanding of it has stayed on a level of superficiality.”


Notice what, by implication, she does not recommend to a catechist of the young. She does not recommend an emphasis on doctrine, after the manner of, say, the Baltimore Catechism. Neither does she recommend beginning at the beginning, with the book of Genesis, nor even with giving the child a barrow of Bible stories; her focus is almost entirely on the New Testament, and especially on the person of Jesus. The method is not historical, but a “method of signs”, leaning heavily on images, metaphors, and religiously rich symbols. She counsels against emphasizing rote prayers like the Our Father and Hail Mary, on the grounds that such prayers risk teaching children that prayer is a separate thing from life; her aim is to teach prayer, not prayers. Neither should the catechist talk much about morality; the focus is on God’s love, not judgment:

“The adult who wants to give children a moral formation should refrain from any promptings of the common kind in the moral order; instead the adult should announce God’s love and help the child to experience and enjoy it in reflection and prayer.”

All of this is specific to the age group under consideration: roughly 3-6. As children age, these counsels change: slightly older children will need moral counsel, and teenagers need heroic exemplars; the time will come for Bible stories and historical understanding; the time will come for set prayers and spiritual disciplines. But all, she argues, will be more healthy and more fruitful if built on a sound foundation of lived awareness of the love of God.

A corollary is the importance of beginning catechesis at an early age. Parish programs that begin at the age of 7 or 8, as is fairly common, are introducing children to God at an age when it is natural for them to think in moral terms, and this risks confusing the face of God for the child, who will tend to see God as a judge rather than a loving shepherd. One wonders if the famous phenomenon of “Catholic guilt” might be corroborating evidence for Cavalletti’s argument.


We have all, I am sure, had the experience of meeting a person who has just read a book on a difficult topic — education, for instance, or metaphysics — and is full of enthusiasm because, for the first time, he sees things clearly. We are reluctant to mention to him that if he were to continue in his reading, with another book, or five, or ten, he might no longer see things so clearly, or, rather, he might see that things are not so clear.

I, plausibly, am that naive enthusiast, for this is the first book about methods of catechesis that I have read. Nonetheless, I can only report that I found this book immensely stimulating and rewarding. I have often pondered how to encourage just this inner, hidden life between God and a child — not only with my students, but with my own children too! — but I have not known what to do. Cavalletti’s book is full of promising ideas that I’d like to try, if I can.


Wonder is not an emotion of superficial people; it strikes root only in the person whose mind is able to settle and rest in things, in the person who is capable of stopping and looking. It is only through a continued and profound observation of reality that we become conscious of its many aspects, of the secrets and mysteries it contains. Openness to reality and openness to wonder proceed at the same pace: as we gradually enter into what is real, our eyes will come to see it as more and more charged with marvels, and wonder will become a habit of our spirit.

We should not alter too often or too rapidly the object of the child’s attention… If the child does not have the time to dwell on anything, then everything will come to seem the same to him and he will lose all interest in things.

8 Responses to “Cavalletti: The Religious Potential of the Child”

  1. Janet Says:

    Are there CGS classes in your area?


  2. cburrell Says:

    We do, at one parish. We’ve actually enrolled a couple of our kids between the time I wrote this and today, but we are having a lot of trouble with the logistics of getting there on time, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to continue.

  3. Janet Says:

    I hope that you can. Sometimes when you try to start something that is spiritually good for your family, you get a lot of interference. Maybe you could work something out with some other parents?

    Anyway, I know you are busy all the time, and this suggestion will probably sound ridiculous, but if you ever get a chance to go through training for CGS, I would recommend it. The phrase “it changed my life” is really overused, but in a sense this was true for me. It does for you what the classes do for the kids, and even if you never teach a class, you will use what you learn at home.


    • cburrell Says:

      Thanks, Janet. I appreciate the encouragement. We could maybe work something out with other parents if we knew any of them. The parish is not our regular one, and there is nobody there whom we know. It just happens that this CGS happens to be on the worst possible day (from a work schedule point of view) and at a time when only people without jobs could reliably be there. We’re trying, but missed it again this week.

      I actually think I would like to take the training, and looked into it, but the nearest training course was even more logistically daunting and in family council was unanimously ruled impossible at the present time!

  4. Troy Says:

    With two exceptions I am a fan of CotGS.

    First is one specific.

    Why is an atrium needed in a church? A church which presumably has an altar, and maybe even a side chapel or two, and yet we need an atrium? The answer is that having a atrium is more suitable to the development of the young child. Perhaps that is so. But then we could apply the same reasoning to any age group, which would result in various worship spaces all designed for different age groups in one church building.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense for clergy to give regular “tours” of the church, explaining each bit and here and there as they go. Have you ever seen a five year in the sacristy as the priest opens the cupboard doors which contain the vessels and vestments? I have. The sense of awe and wonder is about the real.

    Second is more general.

    Depending on the pedagogue, a methodology can be held as dogma. Which it ain’t.

    • cburrell Says:

      Thanks, Troy! Good points. At the atrium where our kids go, which is in some specially prepared rooms in the basement of a parish, the kids do make a visit up to the main church and sacristy upstairs each week. I’m not sure what they do up there, but they do go.

      What you say is quite true, though: our 7yo son has started doing some simple altar serving duties, and he definitely holds the sacristy and all its paraphernalia in awe and high regard.

  5. janet Says:

    But the miniature altar and vestments are just a part of what goes on in the atrium, and it gives the children the opportunity to work with them. And the fact that they have the small things does not preclude their visiting the sacristy.


    • cburrell Says:

      Yes, I agree with you. I even think it would not be quite appropriate for the very little children to actually do their lessons in the church proper, for while they can be attentive and respectful for brief periods, they are prone to lapse.

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