Moving Forward with Precision in the Path of Gianna Gobbi

October 2019

by Catherine Maresca

The vision of the teacher should be at once 

precise like that of the scientist, 

and spiritual like that of the saint. 

The preparation for science and the preparation for sanctity 

should form a new soul, 

for the attitude of the teacher should be at once

 positive, scientific and spiritual.

Positive and scientific, because she has an exact task to perform, 

and it is necessary that she should put herself into immediate relation 

with the truth by means of rigorous observation…

Spiritual, because it is to [humankind] 

that her powers of observation are to be applied, 

and because the characteristics of the creature 

who is to be her particular subject of observation are spiritual.

-Dr. Maria Montessori, ‘The Advanced Montessori Method – I’, Clio Press Ltd, 107

Dr. Maria Montessori was Gianna Gobbi’s teacher and colleague well before meeting Sofia Cavalletti.  Montessori modeled for Gianna how to embody the precision of the scientist and the spirituality of a saint described above. In this year of honoring the 100th anniversary of Gianna’s birth, how can we respect the scientific aspect of her work?

Montessori’s attention to the measurements, colors, weight, and beauty of her materials, as well as her understanding of their purposes – both direct and indirect, are also reflected in the materials of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. This is the thanks in large part to the gifts, the precision, and the discipline of Gianna Gobbi. 

Montessori herself began to develop materials for Christian formation, and they include the Infancy Narrative dioramas and figures, the liturgical calendar, and works on the Eucharist. While the Infancy Narrative materials and the liturgical calendar are almost identical today to the original materials of Montessori, we see in other materials the refining influence of Sofia’s theology and Gianna’s essentiality and attention to detail.

Sometimes when I, or Sofia, or whoever, added a little something, Gianna would always say “No, that’s enough.” And I remember that Montessorian rule to “isolate the difficulty.” It was a natural thing for Gianna. So, if anyone dared to say “Oh, we could add this too,” she would quickly respond “No! This is another analysis/project/exercise” (Francesca Coccini interview Rome 2013).

Francesca now one of the four leaders of the Consiglio that gathers representatives from associations around the world in Rome.* Part of their work is to refine, update, and make other decisions about materials currently in use, even as they preserve with the greatest integrity possible the work of Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi.

As a formation leader, I sometimes see new catechists receive a material and begin to imagine how they can recreate it using their own particular supplies and skills. But before changes happen the catechist needs a sense of the importance of the details. Does it matter if the color is green or blue? How important is this size and weight? Should the model altar be child-sized or less than child-sized? Knowing the details and the history of the materials, and the meaning they hold, helps us. Where are we free to accommodate another culture, or recent justice concerns around gender and race, and where must we duplicate the original material as strictly as possible?

Here are some ideas that might guide us with the changes that lie ahead.

There is a wealth of history to the materials that has been communicated as anecdotes, or based on changes observed over a series of visits to Rome that needs to be collected. Can these be collected and added to the materials manuals as part of the history of each material? Is there a way that aging catechists who visited Rome or studied there write their observations of materials including dates, changes noted, traveling or permanent set of materials, origin of non-Cavalletti materials, etc.

Related to this can we also agree to note editors, dates, and rationale for all recommended changes? Was the change one person’s note, the fruit of a collaboration, or based on research? Changes obvious to one person may seem problematic to another. Explaining the purpose of changes would help us to think them through for our own use. Explanations for simple corrections would be helpful as well as for more substantive changes. 

We have a model of discipline practiced by Montessori and Gobbi of observation, precision, humility, collaboration and patience. How can this be duplicated in a worldwide work? A few catechists making decisions in isolation may need to give way to a more formal and collaborative process, especially as those among us who studied at Via degli Orsini retire or pass away.

We could distinguish between the types of changes that may be needed: 

  • Theological: for example, Sofia stopped her original practice of combining the synagogue and the Cenacle into one building to avoid communicating a “theology of substitution” regarding Jewish faith and practice. Catechists of non-Catholic denominations also make theological changes for their own churches. Sofia’s theology is so essential; how can we keep that essentiality even as we adapt her work for children in many denominations?
  • Cultural:  As culturally distinct communities embrace CGS each has its own sense of beauty. Most of our figures from Rome that represent people simultaneously reflect a Greek or Italian sense of beauty. Can we separate the qualities of the materials necessary for the child (i.e. weight, size, number) so adapting them for different cultures can be done with integrity? 
  • Social:  Changes have been coming into society and then into our churches that should also be reflected in out materials. Shall we use the inclusive language presently practiced in most areas of (American) society in our booklets and materials. Shall images of families include the great diversity of ways children experience family today? Shall societies of racially and geographically diverse people be reflected in our materials? Shall our greater sense of globality be reflected in the Plan of God? 
  • Practical: How can we help people to freely make the practical accommodations of their materials to available space, budget, and supplies. If the Unity strip is 15” long and the atrium’s longest wall is 12” is it acceptable to reduce the length of the Unity Strip by 3’? 5’? 7’? How short is too short? If the paper sold in New York is a different size than that of Rome can the catechists use the New York paper efficiently or should they be cut to the size of Rome’s materials? Can storage be done with baskets in Africa, boxes in Europe, and letter trays in America? 

Observing the fruit of any changes is also important. Can a proposed change be provisional for a certain period of time, during which a process of trial and feedback is implemented? The criterion for the acceptance of a material or change to a material is that the children repeat the work, that they have a certain sense of joy (satisfaction) when working, and that, in time, their conversation, prayer, or art reflects the child’s interpretation of the original text or liturgical sign.

Cavalletti’s work is documented in her books and the written booklets of CGS materials. Gobbi’s work is embedded in the details and discipline of the materials on atrium shelves around the world. We honor Gianna’s work as we approach the materials for the atrium with her same scientific and saintly spirit. 

She always told me, “The greatest gift is working with children, because we always learn from the children” (Anna Paola de Lorenzo, both a child and later a catechist in Gianna’s atrium, Rome 2013).*This sentence is a correction of the original essay. Leadership of the Consiglio is shared by the Giunta: Rebekah Rojcewica (USA), Tere Loyo (Mexico), Nora Bonilla (Colombia) and Francesca Cocchini (Italy). Here is more about the leadership of the Consiglio from Rebekah Rojcewicz:

In 2010, some 8 months before Sofia’s death, she asked Tere, Nora and I (plus Francesca) to come to Rome.  There she wanted it formalized that the four of us would form a body distinctfrom the Consiglio (not subject to elections or association selection), in effect replacing the former “executive committee” consisting of Sofia, Gianna, Silvana, and Adelaide Balmas. In Italian we were referred to as the Giunta. Among we four it was clarified at the start that we would not have a “president”.

Rebekah Rojcewicz

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