How a Unique Catechetical Program Offers a Profound—and Profoundly Liturgical—Method of Imparting the Faith
One day at Mass, I couldn’t help but overhear a brief exchange that took place in a nearby pew between a six-year-old child and his mother. At Mass this day, the lector was proclaiming St. Paul’s description of the end of time (1 Cor. 15:28): “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.” Once the lector had finished the reading, the child whispered excitedly to his mother, “The Parousia!”
For those of us not so well catechized as this six year old, parousia is a Greek word indicating the arrival of an important official. In the New Testament and among the Church Fathers, this word refers to the second coming of Jesus, which all of time looks towards, and at which time all things will be fulfilled in Christ. That so young a child was paying attention to the readings at all is amazing in itself; that he recognized that the words of St. Paul referred to the second coming of Christ is staggering; that he knew the Greek word that refers to this ultimate event is beyond belief.
How did a six year old come to have knowledge that is largely considered the exclusive province of theologians and liturgists? He, like many other children, is the beneficiary of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Those familiar with this form of catechesis would not have been surprised had this same six year old been able to tell them the liturgical season by the color of the celebrant’s chasuble, or name the ambo from which the Gospel was proclaimed, or assert that the altar candles represent Christ as the Light of the World.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was developed by a pair of Italian Catholic women—Sofia Cavalletti (at right, d.2011), a Hebrew scholar, and Gianna Gobbi (d.2002), an educator trained in the methods of another Italian Catholic education reformer, Maria Montessori.
Wonder of Wonder
But the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (hereafter, “the Catechesis”) is not merely another teaching program—it’s a full-immersion learning experience of the faith. A visitor to a parish or school using the Catechesis might walk into an Atrium, the name given to the room carefully prepared by a catechist, and immediately know that this Catechesis is unique. I first entered an Atrium some years ago while visiting a Catholic classical liberal arts school in Philadelphia. I was struck by the many models of liturgical items distributed around the room—a baptismal font, an ambo, a model altar with a tiny chalice and paten, each item labeled. Shelves were filled with inviting models and figurines—a circular area enclosed by a wooden fence with cutouts of sheep and a small statue of a shepherd, a Cenacle room with a Last Supper table and figurines of the Twelve Apostles with Our Lord, an Annunciation room with Our Lady and Gabriel, a topographical map of Israel, a model of the walled city of Jerusalem. I would not have minded playing with some of these liturgical models myself, or at least lingering long enough to take in all the details of each piece. (I was later corrected by my catechist, who told me, “The materials are not for play, but for work!”)
I could see immediately why the growing movement of classical Catholic schools has embraced the Catechesis. In a short 1947 essay on education, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” English writer, Dorothy Sayers, argues that education should follow the natural rhythms of childhood learning, which Sayers connects with the Medieval idea of the Trivium—the study of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Young children have an amazing ability to absorb the details of whatever captures their attention; they love learning to identify and name what is new to their experience. Sayers believes that educators should feed this natural aptitude by allowing young students to imbibe the fundamental vocabulary and facts of the different areas of learning. I had never seen a program which embodied this philosophy better than the Catechesis.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was developed by a pair of Italian Catholic women —Sofia Cavalletti, a Hebrew scholar, and Gianna Gobbi, an educator trained in the methods of another Italian Catholic education reformer, Maria Montessori. Cavalletti and Gobbi saw that young children are apt to see everything they encounter as a gift for them, something intense and new, which leads them to naturally rejoice in things long overlooked by adults. Cavalletti first experienced this wonder-filled kind of learning when in 1954 she unexpectedly was asked to teach religion to a seven-year-old child. At first resistant to working with a child, she quickly came to realize that children are naturally metaphysical—they readily see the significance that lies beyond the senses. In particular, they have a unique way of being in the presence of God that is a gift to the adult who stops long enough to notice. In this sense, children are particularly attuned to liturgy, whose central actions present gifts to us through sensible signs. As a result of this early classroom experience, rather than simply imparting knowledge of religion, Cavalletti decided that real catechesis should consist in fostering the living relationship between the child and Christ, the one Teacher. As the Catechesis website puts it:
“The child, particularly the religious life of the child, is central to the interest and commitment of the catechist of the Good Shepherd. The catechist observes and studies the vital needs of the child and the manifestations of those vital needs according to the developmental stage of the child…. The catechist attends to the conditions which are necessary for this life to be experienced and to flourish.”
Ageless and Age-Appropriate
By carefully attending to the experience of the growing number of children brought to them for catechesis, Cavalletti and Gobbi discovered what was most powerfully formative for children at different stages of their development. Very young children (ages 3-5) respond to Our Lord’s description of himself as the Good Shepherd as told by John; they also respond to the Infancy narratives from Luke’s Gospel and to the Last Supper stories. Older children (ages 6-12) are ready to recognize typology in the stories of Creation, Noah, Abraham, and Exodus. In either case, Good Shepherd catechists always present these stories in the very words of Scripture, not versions altered to bring them down to what is supposedly a child’s level of understanding.
But these catechists also use “The Materials” (as the liturgical models arranged in the Atrium are called) to help the children to fully imagine and reflect upon the words of Scripture and Liturgy. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd refers to this interplay of words and models as the Kerygma, the proclamation of the Word of God that the work is meant to represent.
As noted, the Catechesis is offered for children from 3 to 12 years of age, unfolding in three age-appropriate levels. In keeping with the principles of Montessori education, children are free to work with any of the materials that have been presented to them. In their work, the children recreate the stories they have heard, or develop them in ways that show how they are interiorizing what they have learned about Christ, his love and mercy, and their need for him. Children are expected to work with rather than play with the materials; a child pretending the Good Shepherd is a Marvel action figure will be re-directed to another work, and perhaps have the Good Shepherd materials presented again on another day.
Children are expected to work with rather than play with the materials; a child pretending the Good Shepherd is a Marvel action figure will be re-directed to another work, and perhaps have the Good Shepherd materials presented again on another day.
Still, the freedom given to the children makes this catechesis markedly different from other catechetical formats. Like a farmer with his seed, a catechist must have faith in the interior sources of learning and the patience to wait for its development. As an object lesson in such faith in the Catechesis process, one catechist became anxious over a child who spent months of his weekly time in her Atrium working only with the Annunciation materials. She presented several other works to him, but only the Annunciation attracted him. One day, having presented the Epiclesis, the moment at Mass when the priest calls down the Holy Spirit on the gifts of bread and wine, the catechist was disappointed that the child immediately returned to the Annunciation work. Then, to her amazement, she saw the child hold its hands over the figurine of Our Lady, recalling the words of the angel, “The power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow you.” She ceased being concerned.
With the same patience and faith in the process, catechists will also note that the Catechesis bears fruit outside the Atrium as well. The program takes as a principle that the religious life of children is especially fostered by liturgy and Scripture: “The themes presented in the atrium are those to which the children have responded with depth and joy,” the Catechesis website notes. “These themes are taken from the Bible and the liturgy (prayers and sacraments) as the fundamental sources for creating and sustaining Christian life at every developmental stage and, in particular, for illuminating and nourishing the child in his/her most vital religious needs.”
Prelates like Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, and Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, NE, have cried out against the ceaseless noise that today fills souls with distractions. Full liturgical participation struggles to develop in a heart that knows no silence. But their cries fall on the deaf ears of those who have never experienced silence. When I was young, I would often stay at my grandparents’ small farm in southwest Michigan. I would sit in the quiet farmhouse and hear nothing but the ticking of the clock on the dining room mantle, or the long, slow approach and retreat of a car as it traveled past on the country highway. As a twelve year old used to constant television and radio, I found it very boring; yet it struck deep roots in my soul, and I have come to value silence more and more as an adult.
For the Catechized young, interior and exterior quiet is considered “normal.” This does not mean that it is usual for children, but that it is the proper state within which catechesis should take place. The catechist strives to make the Atrium a place of prayer and reflection, realizing that, in order for children to be receptive to Christ, they have to become recollected and attentive. This is not easy; quietness ebbs and flows. Educators such as Sayers, Montessori, and John Senior (founder of the Integrated Humanities Program at University of Kansas, of which Bishop Conley was a student) affirm that attentiveness is relatively natural for children. Unfortunately, today’s incessant noise, fast-moving images, and general busy-ness can drown out even a young child’s natural interest in the world.
Children generally take several months to acclimate themselves to the Atrium’s atmosphere of recollected, attentive, prayerful quiet. As a child arrives at the Atrium, the catechist crouches down, shakes his hand, greets him by name, then whispers, “Do you have a work that you would like to do today?” Quiet voices, grace, and courtesy are fostered. Recollection is so essential as a preparation, that some of the works (such as using scissors to cut along lines or carefully transferring beans by a spoon from one place to another) have no immediate liturgical or catechetical connection. But as the children engage quietly in these absorbing activities, the chaos of the world drains away, and they become open to hear Christ, the Teacher within. In fact, the quiet activity of an Atrium mimics a monastic environment, where monks maintain and even develop a recollected state while digging gardens, copying manuscripts, or making beer.
The liturgical orientation of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is evident in the first work presented to new children: the Prayer Table, covered with a cloth colored according to the liturgical season, on which a Bible rests on a stand, along with a holy card, a picture suggesting a Scripture reading, and perhaps a statue. Around this table, the children learn to pray in the words of Scripture, receiving a foretaste of Lectio Divina. As liturgical seasons change, the cloth is changed, often accompanied by a solemn procession and hymns. A model altar contains a paten, chalice and two candles. Not surprisingly, the candles are a particular favorite; as the catechist lights them, she says, “Christ has died and is risen.”
Level I students follow the life of Our Lord. As Advent approaches, the catechist prepares for the Infancy Narratives by presenting geographical works, first locating Israel on a globe, then presenting the topography of Israel, including the locations of Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. These works allow the children to imagine, for instance, what Matthew (2:12) meant when he said: “And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi left for their own country by another way.” The Good Shepherd heralds the beginning of Lent, which the catechist uses to introduce the Eucharistic presence of Our Lord, who feeds us as his sheep from an altar in the midst of the congregation, where he remains present under the appearances of bread and wine. The Cenacle, the room of the Last Supper, is presented as Passiontide approaches; the young learn about the special meal called Passover and the new words that Jesus used during his celebration of it. Baptism is the focus of the Easter Season. Likewise, Catechesis for Level II & III students, who are old enough to have developed a sense of time, uses salvation history as the connecting thread, as witnessed by two of Sofia Cavalletti’s books: History of the Kingdom of God – From the Creation to the Parousia and Liturgy and the Building of the Kingdom.
But children aren’t the only beneficiaries of the liturgical emphasis in the Catechesis. It is also a deeply formative experience for the catechists, who learn to integrate theological knowledge and living prayer. They have to grow in humility, minimizing themselves while fostering a relationship between Our Lord and his children. Each catechist (the majority are women) pours herself into her Atrium, preparing the environment and personally building and repairing her materials, which is for her both an act of love for the children and an opportunity for prayerful meditation on the themes she will present. After presenting each work with its corresponding word-and-model Kerygma, the catechist explains very little. Instead, she asks questions to encourage students to attend to and respond to the words of Scripture, prayers, or liturgical texts. Catechists are blessed as they witness the miracle of the Lord working in the souls of the children.
After visiting a classical liberal arts school within his pastoral region, Bishop Robert Barron declared, “We have dramatically underestimated what students are capable of doing.” At more than 1,250 Atria currently operating in the United States alone, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is demonstrating, to the delight of parents, teachers, and pastors, exactly how much we have underestimated children—and how much they are truly capable of accomplishing in learning the faith.
Learn more about the Catechesis by visiting their website (www.cgsusa.org), where you will find “32 Points of Reflection” on what makes Catechesis of the Good Shepherd distinctive. Their introductory suggestions include reading Gianna Gobbi’s Listening to God with Children, and Sofia Cavalletti’s The Religious Potential of the Child.