Some years ago, after undertaking some study into the work of the Catholic educator, Maria Montessori, I learned an important truth about children between the ages of six and nine years—namely, that they have an extraordinary capacity for making imaginative connections between the variety of data that they have at hand. I decided to test this out in a class of seven-year-old children. I set up a model altar with its essential elements (ciborium, chalice, paten, crucifix and candles). These were placed side by side with dioramas of some key moments in the scriptures (Annunciation, Last Supper, death and Resurrection of Jesus). The children were given about 10 minutes to handle the models and move around the dioramas. Then I asked them what they had discovered, and I was stunned by the results. For 45 minutes, they suggested things I thought I would need to explain to them. The candles were like Jesus, the light of the world; the paten and chalice reminded them of the Last Supper; the crucifix reminded them that Jesus died and rose again…and so forth.
Exactly as Montessori had described in her writings, the children showed me that they were in a “sensitive period” for making connections that would serve them as a foundation for the rest of their lives. In that single moment, I began to perceive what the liturgy was meant to be for all of us—the means of making the scriptures come vividly alive in the here and now. Moreover, it became crystal clear that there is a particular moment when it will have maximum impact—typically between six and nine years of age. Montessori maintained that if the “sensitive period” was missed, the opportunity for learning easily would not come again. Older children and adults would still be able to learn, but the effort would be roughly the equivalent of trying to learn a new language after the age of four.
Later, I discovered that the Church had a word for this process of connecting the liturgy with the scriptures. It was called mystagogy, and it was the principal means by which the early Church had inducted new Christians into the faith. One need only look at St. Ambrose’s De Mysteriis and De Sacramentis or the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem to see the process at work.
Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, calls for a renewal of mystagogy. The document encouraged us to “be personally conformed to the mystery being celebrated, offering one’s life to God in unity with the sacrifice of Christ for the salvation of the whole world” (64). Without this personal participation, there is a risk that the liturgy will fall into a kind of superficial ritualism.
The bishops participating in the 2005 synod on the Eucharist preceding Pope Benedict’s document unanimously agreed that mystagogical catechesis was the preferred catechetical method. Paragraph 64 of Sacramentum Caritatis articulates the essentials of mystagogy thus: 1) mystagogy interprets the liturgical rites in the light of the events of our salvation; 2) mystagogical catechesis must be concerned with presenting the meaning of the signs contained in the rites; and 3) mystagogical catechesis is concerned with bringing out the significance of the rites for the Christian life in all its dimensions.
Some Basic Anthropology
In adopting mystagogy in our catechetical practice with children, there is a significant obstacle. Having been trained in the assumptions of Kantian epistemology, teachers and other professionals can be implicitly misled by a basic assumption: that it is only through continuous discursive activity that a child learns. Kant taught that discursive learning involves distinguishing, comparing, examining, relating, deducting, analysing, abstracting, and demonstrating. Teachers will have no difficulty in recognising the frenetic, data driven, and evidence-based activity associated with contemporary educational practice which makes the students so busy that there is little time for reflection. Such a pedagogy ends up treating human beings as “computers” who need to be properly programmed. I do not want to suggest that there is no value in discursive activity. It has always been the predominant way through which human beings learn, but it is not the only way. All humans—yes, even children—also participate in the simplex intuitis: the more profound knowledge of higher beings, mediated by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit through contemplation.
How often do we simply “know” something that we cannot yet explain? This form of understanding was known even by pagan Greek philosophers, starting from Heraclitus to Aristotle, who insightfully described it as perceiving a whole reality in a similar way to the eye taking in a whole landscape. Both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas considered this capacity to be a “supernatural” element of common human experience. Therefore, without making space for this kind of contemplative activity, the connection between the liturgy and the scriptures will struggle to take root in our lives.
Scripture scholar and co-developer of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Sofia Cavalletti relates the story of a young boy called Massimo who seemed to be drawn to a simple activity of pouring water and wine into a chalice. He returned to it often. When Cavalletti asked him to try something else, he told her that there was something more that he needed to learn. After many more weeks, Massimo told her that he thought he understood now. He poured the wine into the chalice and said “lots of Jesus” and then added a little water with the words “and just a little bit of me… because we must lose ourselves in Jesus.” This story captures what we are trying to do with the liturgical education of children. We do not need them to become liturgical scholars, but we want to give them sufficient time to explore prayerfully the connections between the liturgy and the scriptures. This cannot be achieved through incessant discursive activity; it will come about when they are given time for a “still, small voice” to speak to them and “understand” that the liturgy brings them into contact with their Lord and Savior.
St. Leo the Great in his fifth-century sermon notes that, from the day of the Ascension, the visible presence of Christ on earth passed into the sacraments. In catechetical terms, the most concrete means by which we have access to Christ is the liturgy. Children always learn best by starting with some concrete, sensate reality. Hence, it is best to begin any presentation of the scriptural mysteries via tangible signs of the sacred liturgy.
If children are to see the necessary connections, it helps to link each liturgical moment with at least one episode from the scriptures. (Of course, as they develop and become more familiar with the Bible, they will notice many more connections.) A simple process that can be employed even with the youngest children is to use models of the liturgical vessels, placed beside simple scriptural dioramas. These should be presented more or less at the same time, helping the children to make the links between them. Of course, it must always be made clear that, even though we are using the words and doing the actions of the priest, we are not able to do what priests do. We are only trying to come to a better understanding of what is happening. (This message must be continually repeated; saying it once is not sufficient.)
We owe a great deal to Sofia Cavalletti and her subsequent collaborators in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for our understanding of how to proceed with a mystagogical catechesis. At the most basic level, there are three essential moments from the Mass which help children to begin discovering the link between liturgy and scriptures: 1) the preparation of the chalice; 2) the Epiclesis (and consecration); and 3) the offering to the Father.
Preparation of the Chalice and the Transfiguration
The preparation of the chalice is the moment in which water and wine are poured, along with the words: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.” This action, when performed by young children, is usually accompanied by a deep serenity. The principal mystery being conveyed through this action is the hypostatic union—Christ’s divinity and humanity mystically joined together—which lies at the core of Christian faith. If the divine nature can be united to a human nature, then our human nature can be united to the divine nature (grace).
One Scriptural episode that can be used here is the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8). In this dramatic moment, Peter, James, and John are given a glimpse of the divine and human natures of Jesus made visible before their eyes. Children relate very well to this concrete manifestation of the hypostatic union. There is some readily available artwork that beautifully depicts this moment. For younger children, it will work better to use a three-dimensional diorama to represent each of the characters set against a background of Mount Tabor.
A further demonstration of the way in which the two natures are united will also be helpful for older children. We need to help them gain a correct understanding that the two natures are not some kind of “mixture.” This classic example is effective: if we take a cold knife and try to cut butter, it will not work well. When we heat the knife, it will be far easier. Just like the divine and human natures of Jesus, the heat and the knife both remain what they were, but still operate as one when they are united. This is a good way of opening the reflection on the nature of the mystery.
Epiclesis/Consecration and the Annunciation
The moment when the priest invokes the Holy Spirit (the Epiclesis) is a crucial point in the Eucharistic liturgy. The words “make holy, therefore, these gifts we pray, by sending your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ” clearly explain what is happening: the Holy Spirit is made present by this liturgical action. In the Eucharist, Christ is not made present, however, until the words of consecration are spoken.
This liturgical action is beautifully illustrated in the episode of the Annunciation (again, the use of a diorama is particularly effective for children). When the Angel Gabriel asks Mary to be the mother of God, her response is not an immediate “Yes,” but it is a question: “How shall this be?” Mary is told that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her. She then speaks the words needed to cooperate with the action of God.
Offering to the Father/Death and Resurrection of Christ
The Offering to the Father is another climactic moment in which the priest raises up the body and blood of Christ. There are two essential aspects to bring out here. The double consecration of the bread and wine has indicated the death of Christ. Children easily understand this if they are asked whether anyone can continue to live if all of their blood is removed from the body.
This liturgical moment readily links with the crucifixion of Christ presented by simply recalling that Jesus died by placing a small crucifix on the table with the Last Supper presentation. The other element to emphasise is the upward movement of the paten and chalice. This highlights the resurrection from the dead. As the children come to a better understanding of this reality, they can be offered a further development by drawing attention to the moment when a fragment of the consecrated host is broken off and placed in the chalice—indicating (among other things) both death and resurrection when the two species are reunited. These scriptural and liturgical accounts of the death and resurrection of Christ need to be continually linked.
Tied to the Eucharist
One former adult student of mine (a teacher in a Catholic high school) became so captivated with the process that he set out to create a full mystagogy of the Eucharist for his grade nine students. He found pictures of the moments of the Mass and linked them with episodes from the scriptures—literally tying them together with pieces of string. He called me out to his school one day to demonstrate the activity in progress: it required the full space of a double set of indoor basketball courts to put into effect. His students were completely captivated with this approach and looked forward to it whenever they had the opportunity to participate.
One of the “problems,” the teacher told me, was that whenever he listened to the readings or took in some aspect of the liturgical gestures, he discovered something more and wanted to add to the work he had created. Clearly, he had discovered the truth of Cavalletti’s words: “All that God has ever done for our salvation, all that He is doing now, and all that He will ever do is in some way symbolised in the Eucharist.”
Dr. Gerard O’Shea is a professor of religious education at the University of Notre Dame, Australia, and at Campion College, Sydney. He has been a teacher, Catholic school principal, and a diocesan director of mission and religious education. He and his wife, Anne, have five children and thirteen grandchildren.
Image Source: AB/Wikimedia. The Annunciation, c. 1485, by Piermatteo d’Amelia