by Catherine Maresca
When Sofia Cavalletti was offering courses in the US in the 1980’s she used to say, “The atrium is not a hothouse.” I agree, a hothouse is created to protect plants from a colder climate, not to prepare them to live the where the hothouse is located. We certainly don’t want to limit our children’s relationships with God to the atrium.
An incubator, however, is a protected place to prepare for life in the world, and may serve as an appropriate metaphor for the atrium. The environment of an incubator and an atrium is carefully prepared to provide all that is needed without extraneous or needless additions. Catechists in the atrium are carefully prepared to support the lives of the children in the atrium, just as doctors and nurses are meticulously trained to protect the newborns in their care. And the goal is to move out with strength when the occupant is ready.
Experienced catechists understand the dilemma of being offered lovely gifts for the atrium that are just not appropriate. This can include religious objects that are either too serious or not serious enough, offer of help from unprepared adults, poor translations of the Bible, exclusive (too male, too white, too wealthy) portrayals of God, saints, or people, even visits from the priest that sometimes disrupt work and demand attention. No matter how well intentioned the gifts or visits, it is the catechists work to maintain the prepared environment to allow the children to flourish, just as an incubator is carefully protected. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd takes great care to know the needs of the children it serves and to offer the Gospel in a way that is both appropriate to the children’s characteristics and to God’s unlimited love. We are primarily advocates for the children, not for the bishops, or the well-meaning donors, or even the church where we work.
And what is the environment for which we are preparing these children? Where will they live and nurture their ongoing relationship with God, find community, and touch and be touched by the Holy One? It may be the congregation of their family, it may be the denomination of that congregation, it may be another denomination of Christianity, it may be another faith altogether, creation itself, a mystical practice or a combination of these “worlds.” We cannot know or determine this any more than the nurses in a hospital can determine where the children who leave their care will live.
But we can be sure they will be in the presence of God, and that God will constantly be blessing their lives. Our work in the atrium can help to attune their eyes and ears and heart to God’s love, and to share that love with others. We can nurture their sense of wonder as they marvel at the gifts of creation and of the people around them. As their moral sensitivities awaken, we can help them consider with compassion and critical insight the ethical dilemmas they face. We can introduce them to the language of signs that are part of every faith tradition and creation itself. We can prepare them to work as citizens and congregants to improve our institutions and communities. And we can share the hope that our steady work with God will truly build shalom in the world.
Blessings on all of you as you prepare these incubators of faith this summer.