The Child’s Exam – A controversial issue with many misinterpretations
Since mid-2020, a term has circulated through the Church-linked media which has become the target of real irritation. An internal spiritual ritual that was used in the community of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary in special situations with Fr. Kentenich was brought to light. But it was published without proper consideration of the contexts. A purely formal approach to the so-called "child’s exam" led to arbitrary interpretations that were intended to expose Father Kentenich in public as an unworthy and self- righteous overly dominant father.
14. Januar 2021 - Press Office Schoenstatt International
What is it actually about?
In the community of the Sisters of Mary, an original way of expressing the reality of being children before God was generated. Fr. Kentenich had the pedagogical and spiritual concern that the human being may develop in a holistically healthy way. On the basis of manifold accompaniments, he developed the insight that this can really succeed if the person experiences himself as a child sheltered by God.
Psychologically, this perception is based on the fact that every human being has innate basic needs, such as recognition, protection, and the desire to belong to others, to be important to them, and to be valued by them. In favorable cases these fundamental needs are initially met by parents, and then also by other caregivers and in relationships of one’s own choosing. But the fragility of human relationships leads him eventually to recognize that an ultimate and unwavering protection can only be found in God according to a faith-based understanding of our basic human needs.
The child’s exam became a possibility of spiritually practicing childlikeness before God. It consists of four core questions that at that time could only be raised by Fr. Kentenich, and today only by the superior general or the priest responsible for the community.
Meaning of the four questions:
To whom does the child belong? Answer: To the Father.
- This question and answer express the profound experience, made in love, that I too want to belong to the one I love.
The second question also points to this: What can the father do with the child? Answer: Everything.
- This can also only be said by those who, without fear, know to be accepted in love.
The third question: What is the father for his child? Answer: Everything.
- This question is asked to make sure that it is really God who is loved above all else.
The fourth question: What is the child for the father? Answer: His little nothing and therefore his everything.
- This question and its answer are understandable only when man compares his human condition with the greatness of God. In the face of that greatness, he is, so to speak, “a nothing.” But this does not mean a lack of appreciation of man on the part of God or the assessment that man is nothing in himself. Rather, man’s greatness is accentuated precisely in his smallness (cf. Ps 8: “Who is man that you remember him…?”). Although, measured against God, man can only offer what he is as a creature; yet before God he is very great and much loved: he is “his everything”.
Surrender to God
Tis ritual, which was entirely voluntary on the part of the individuals and was practiced only by some Sisters before and with the founder, is therefore a deepening of the relationship with God. “Father” refers to God as a father, the father of Jesus Christ, and the father of all people. What Schoenstatt’s spirituality implies with “Blank Cheque” and “Inscriptio”, that is, the conscious conformation with the will of God, is personalized in this act to God as a father.
The need for belonging, unconditional trust, and at the same time the experience of one’s own fragility and brokenness are brought to the point in this ritual and trustingly placed in the hands of God. This happens in the belief that God has loving mercy on the very smallness and misery of human beings.
In this very personal act, the presence of the person who, so to speak, formulates the questions in the name of God is necessary. A specific person who raises those questions therefore acts as a representative father. The dialogue can naturally also be carried out in the context of personal prayer. However, the “mediation” by another person who is present can strengthen the personal experience.
Such rituals in “question-answer” mode are familiar to us in Christian celebrations and in the Liturgical Year. For example, at baptism, parents, and godparents, who respond on behalf of the one being baptized, are asked to profess their faith. The child or the adult, if it is an adult baptism, must be incorporated into the community of the faithful as a child of God. This ritual is repeated during the celebration of the First Communion, at Confirmation and, as amended, in the questions that are asked at a priestly ordination or at the sacrament of matrimony. At the Easter vigil Catholic Christians are asked about their faith with the same question-answer format.
It is natural to make a comparison with that passage from the Gospel of John (21:15ff.) which Fr. Kentenich himself used to quote frequently. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. And the three times, with a gradually intensifying tone, Peter confirms his love for the Lord. Jesus then entrusts him to “feed his lambs”. As in this gospel passage, the child’s exam aims to free man to fulfill his vocation, to help him grow to give himself completely to God’s love.
If this “organic” relationship between God as a father and the earthly vicar is not regarded, there can be blatant misinterpretations and misunderstandings of the child’s exam. Thus, a purely formal view of it can interpret this process, for example, as a method of suppression by a manipulative or presumptuous person. Such a false vision was generated, for example, during Fr. Tromp’s visitation. And today again, in publications on the subject, we observe a similar truncated, and misunderstood reaction.
However, one might rightly ask whether such a proceeding is perhaps capable of provoking these misunderstandings just from today’s point of view. Is there not too much danger that individuals who perform such a ritual do not come to terms with its content or form? Couldn’t the questioner himself misjudge the willingness of the respondents and overtax them?
A problem arises here that basically results from the fragility of the relationship between God and man. As an example, the concept of the “father” which is precisely at the center of the child’s exam.
The associations with the term “father” are formed in a person individually on the basis of the childhood experiences. The emerging connotations of that concept originate from the concretely experienced father figure, are determined by it, and are difficult to change.
In the central prayer of the Christian faith par excellence, the Lord’s Prayer, the individual concept of a father that has developed in one’s life is spontaneously transferred to God. If a person has had a loving physical father, he will not find it difficult to find positive access to God as a father. If, on the other hand, he has had a painful father experience or had no father, even the most ambitious religious education concepts will have difficulty convincing this person of God as a loving Father. With regard to the main prayer of Christianity, the question therefore arises whether the Lord’s Prayer should be abolished or reformulated because of the possible misunderstanding. To put it more pointedly, one could even ask: is the priest’s invitation to pray the Lord’s Prayer an institutionalized instrument of power to exhort the congregation to commit to collective infantilism?
This example shows how strongly an appropriately directed perspective is capable of interpreting and making a liturgical act performed in good faith or a life process such as the child’s exam appear as highly suspicious.