Zest for Life

April 2018

by Catherine Maresca

Dr. Silvana Montanaro met Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi as a parent when she brought her daughter to their atrium in Rome many years ago. A developmental psychiatrist and Montessorian, she worked with them as a friend and collaborator for the rest of their livesSilvana died peacefully on Good Friday. She holds a special place in both my CGS and CCTheo memories. Silvana had a zest for life that matches a description I found recently in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. 

By zest for life I mean that spiritual disposition, at once intellectual and effective, in which the world and action seem to us, on the whole, luminous—interesting—appetizing…

I’d like to give you a taste of Silvana’s zest with these recollections of our time together.

Zest for Translating

I met Silvana on my first trip to Europe to attend an international gathering of catechists in the Fall of 1993. The trip was a gift of both our young association (plane tickets) and the Rome association, (room and board). This was like visiting the Holy Land of CGS! I was overwhelmed by the adventure and the opportunity, and also the days of listening to Sofia Cavalletti, Gianna Gobbi, Tilde Cocchini (Francesca’s mother), Fr. Mongillo, and Silvana speak of their work and raise questions for our consideration. Among other roles Silvana offered to translate from Italian for a late afternoon discussion. Patricia Coulter and Rebekah Rojcewicz had been sharing the work of translating but by this time in the day they were exhausted and heads were spinning among the rest of us after trying to absorb all that had been said already. Sofia spoke several minutes, Silvana translated one sentence. And then launched into her thoughts, “But I think…” As a professional sign language translator I was both alarmed and amused!

Zest for the Developing Child

Silvana gave a talk on relationship at this international gathering. She explored human relationships, the relationships of each person with the rest of creation, and the Biblical history of God’s relationship with humankind.  As an example of the importance of language to relationship she transfixed the room with this description, “[I] discovered recently new research which shows that fetuses in the seventh month of pregnancy move their mouths exactly at the time their mothers speak. They reproduce, exactly at the same time, this movement, unless they are deaf. This explains something that we haven’t understood. Why, when you go by a child just born and you speak softly, they start opening the mouth, sticking the tongue out and responding. Now we know that these children have already been practicing speech for two months.” 

Silvana was at her best teaching about the young child, her delight and passion for the smallest details of their development was palpable.

Zest for Hospitality

In 1993, Rebekah and I stayed a few extra days in Rome after the meetings, and were alarmed when a taxi strike was announced the day before our early morning departure back to the US. Silvana arranged for a friend to drive us, and then walked to our pensioneat about 5AM to make sure the driver showed up!

In 1995, she met with a group of ten catechists traveling with Carol Dittberner at Sofia’s. She then invited us all back to her apartment for lunch. From her large balcony filled with plants and flowers I had a glimpse of Rome one couldn’t see in the narrow streets of barricaded and undecorated doors. From balcony to balcony innumerable cascades of flowers shone in the bright Roman sun. There Silvana fed us a simple and delicious meal.

It was in this lovely apartment that I found on Silvana’s bulletin board one of my favorite Native American prayers: O Great Spirit, whose name is heard in the wind…Make my hands respect the things you have madeand my ears sharp to hear your voice.

In 2006, my husband Charley and I had traveled to Rome for the celebration of the 100thanniversary of Maria Montessori’s first Casa de Bambini. Silvana invited us to meet her for lunch (along with Carol Dittberner and Amanda Messinger) at a cafeteria across the street, and then brought us up to her apartment for dessert, wine AND limoncello. We could barely stay awake as she waxed eloquent on the process and tradition of making limoncello in Italy.

Zest for the Adolescent

In the summer of 2000 Silvana was lecturing for a Montessori infant/toddler course in San Diego while I was leading a 9-12 course in Pasadena. “Perfect,” I thought, “for these catechist to get a taste of the Italian lecture experience.” We had some of these in the 80’s when Sofia was still traveling to the US to give CGS courses. They were three-hour, breakless, amazing, handwringing note-taking marathons. I asked Silvana to address the years of adolescence, since we often find children entering this plane of development before they leave the 9-12 atrium. She agreed and sat down with us on a Sunday afternoon with one piece of paper in front of her.

She started by offering Maria Montessori’s insight that adolescence is a second birth, and the characteristics of the first birth are repeated in some ways at the beginning of adolescence. Silvana then spent the next two hours teaching us about the first birth, and the years before age three. This included an impassioned denunciation of the pacifier, which impedes the proper development of the mouth for speech, and the articulation of sounds needed for speech. In the third hour, when she wound back to the adolescent I was struck by this sentence: the young adolescent is as much in need of the presence of parents as the toddler!

Only Silvana or her amazing colleagues could offer a lecture like this on a Sunday afternoon and be thanked profusely!

Zest for Professional Growth

One of the painful points of discussion in the growing community of catechists was money. Our circumstances varied from country to country, from church to church, and from family to family. Sofia charged $40 for her year-long course in 1980. By the mid-80’s we were charging much more for a two-or-three-week summer course in the US. Sofia had generously shared her work with minimal compensation for a lifetime, and catechists everywhere were working in churches that paid nothing for the religious education of children and the formation of their catechists. But for CGS to be well established some of us would need to make a professional commitment of study, time and work for which we would need support or compensation. It was a difficult accommodation for Sofia, and painful for some of us Americans to be perceived as being an association concerned about money. I remember Silvana explaining to her very gently and thoughtfully that a professional commitment to CGS was important and this needed to be reflected in the financial life of the association and some of its catechists. It was a great gift to me personally to have this heard, understood and advocated by Silvana.

Zest for Catechists

In 2008 Silvana agreed to come to Hartford as the keynote speaker at Weaving Our Gifts, CCTheo’s conference for catechists. A few minutes before she was to beginshe was in the restroom throwing up – unwell after a rigorous trip the day before. We were ready to postpone her talk, but she straightened up and went on to present a talk she had written earlier that year. “The Foundation of the Human Being” is published here (https://cctheo.org/occasional-papers/foundation-human-being) She ate and prayed with us the entire weekend –we were honored to have her among us.

Silvana’s willingness to feed, befriend, travel, offer wisdom and knowledge, and open her home to catechists was extraordinary. I can only imagine how excited she must be to share her zest for friendship with God, face to face at last. 

Silvana’s bio (https://www.cgsusa.org/weremembersilvanaquattrocchimontanaromd/)

on the CGSUSA page offers her professional accomplishments both as a psychiatrist and as a Montessorian who specialized in the development of the child from birth to age three. Francesca Cocchini, who leads the CGS Consiglio also shares her childhood and professional memories of Silvana in her Easter foglietto (http://www.cgsusa.org/UserFiles/file/Foglietti/Silvana%20Foglietto.pdf)

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