Catechesis is about forming a relationship. A relationship begins the very day, the very moment, that God creates that child in his mother’s womb, before the mother is even aware of that child’s existence. Catechesis is not only about reciting the Ten Commandments and the Hail Mary, although we absolutely should teach our children these things. However, what we usually think of as “religious education” is merely the body, which serves the purposes of the soul. The soul of religious education is that relationship of love with God that makes us desire to know more and more of Him.
None of us women in the group on Wednesday had heard that idea before, although all of us immediately saw it is true. We’ve done things like have our toddlers blow kisses to Jesus in the tabernacle, sang our babies “Jesus Loves Me,” and such, long before we ever thought of “Catechesis” in the formal sense. It’s just right. But it’s beautiful to read it in such language as Cavalletti’s, confirming what we’ve already intuitively grasped and expanding upon it, giving us the privilege to see just how deep the love of God and a child can go.
Some of the anecdotes were surprising to us, especially about children from atheistic homes wanting to go to church and be baptized. I think the most surprising part was that the parents went along with it! The book doesn’t say, but we wondered how long those parents stayed atheists. Also the part about how well behaved the children always were during and after Mass. As hard as we try, that is not usually our experience!
We spent time discussing just how total children are. They throw themselves wholeheartedly into each and every little thing they do. And so trusting. What adult would allow someone to throw them up in the air four times their height? Not only allow it, but to think it great fun? A big concept of these chapters is the essentiality of the child, meaning they go straight to the heart of things with no pretense, no self-consciousness, not holding anything back. We think this quality of little children is what Jesus meant when he said, “Unless you become like little children…” Little children want what Cavalletti calls the “vital nucleus,” the most essential, complete truth. This is like planting a seed. All of the plant is there, complete and present in the tiny seed, but of course it must grow and develop. Another analogy I found helpful was that of St. Paul’s comparison of spiritual milk vs. meat (1 Corinthians 3:2). When a baby is breastfed, the mother’s milk is the only food he gets. However, it is perfect and complete in every way, easy to digest, meeting his every nutritional need. So too should our presentation of the Gospel be to small children.
I also shared a picture that my son Anthony drew in the Atrium. It illustrates the concepts in these chapters of children having a mysterious knowledge of God. Here is his explanation: "It’s a picture of God. He is very very happy in Heaven. It is always light there. It's a city in Heaven but I just drew God and the sun." I asked him about the three people, and he said, "That's just God. That one is Jesus. (The green figure in the middle.)"
We all felt a sense of peace from reading these two chapters about our vocations as parents. By helping our children to come closer to God by themselves, we are merely facilitating a perfectly natural and joyful process. “Raising our children up for heaven” is big responsibility that certainly will involve a great deal of sacrifice and struggle, but it is the very nature of children and of God to establish a relationship of love between them. We do not have to force it to happen, and really, we should never try because love cannot be forced anyway. Obedience, perhaps, but never love. Really our responsibility is to bring them to Jesus by bringing them to the Mass, reading the Scriptures with them, and then getting out of God’s way.
As mothers often do, we veered away from the book proper a little bit into practical applications of these ideas. We talked about sitting up front at Mass so the children could see and participate in what was happening. About encouraging spontaneous prayer by asking our children, “Would you like to pray for anyone tonight?” or, “What would you like to say to Jesus?” Sometimes when we’ve done this we’ve been surprised by their responses, like four-year-old Thomas saying he was thankful for “Jesus and Mary.”
We all thought it was a good idea to write down these little moments of grace, so we could remember them ourselves and also to share with them when they are older. On the other hand, we don’t want to make a fuss over these things, lest we damage the beautiful natural spontaneity and un-self-consciousness of childhood. The last thing we want is them trying to please us, to be clever or show off how "good" they are. We should just appear to take no notice, because in truth these things are perfectly natural and not the result of any extraordinary goodness of our child. And then exult over them with our husbands after the children are safely asleep!