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Catechesis of the Good Shepherd



By Nancy O’Neill

Principal, St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic School

When I agreed to write this article I thought that it would be a fairly simple and straightforward assignment.  I have a passion for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS); the philosophy, teaching methods, the format, the goals and the outcomes.  However, as soon as I sat down to write, I realized that it is much easier experienced than explained.

 

Let me take you back to August of 2022 when I was first approached to create an “Atrium” at the school and start using the “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd” as a religion program to introduce Jesus to our littles.  Everyone that spoke to me about this was beyond excited to share their experiences and knowledge of the program.  It was described to me in many different ways; a Montessori method of teaching young children about Jesus, hands on learning about Jesus, meeting the children where they are in their spiritual journey, a program designed specifically to build on and foster the natural wonder and awe of the divine. All of these descriptions intrigued me.  My teaching experience has been primarily in early childhood education.  This sounded right up my alley but I still really had no clear understanding of what it was.  If I was going to have this at St. Mary’s I needed to know more. That’s when I decided to be trained as a catechist for this program.

 

Now that I have completed my training I understand why everyone did not give the same definition or paint the same picture of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.  It is designed to be an encounter with Jesus guided by the Holy Spirit.  It is going to look and be different not only by where it is located but by who is participating.  There is also language that is specific to CGS. I am still learning but in keeping with the training of a Catechist of CGS I will rely heavily on the Holy Spirit to help me explain.

 

Let’s start with what I mentioned above.  What is an Atrium?  The Atrium is the room in which the children encounter Jesus.  When you enter an Atrium you really are entering a child’s world.  It is a very well-planned environment.  Nothing is unnecessary. The furniture, shelving and models are all built for the size of small children.  The model altar, sanctuary and materials tell you this is a sacred space to be entered into not only respectfully but reverently. It is beautiful.  The children’s behavior demonstrates an understanding of this.

 

I have also mentioned the word catechist.  The word catechist is purposely chosen.  Teacher and facilitator are purposely not used.  A catechist walks along the side of the child on their faith journey. She discovers Jesus with the child and is also led by the children in her own faith journey. She may have things prepared but allows the Holy Spirit to guide her and the discussions.

 

The catechist not only provides a well-planned environment, she also has well planned presentations.  Each one is structured in design; gathering(welcoming), introduction, reflection, prayerful response, work of the child, restoration of the work.  The catechist does not give answers but makes “I wonder” statements to allow the Holy Spirit to stir and move within each child.

 

When presentations are done is based on the liturgical year.  The presentations are on the liturgy, scripture or nomenclature (naming of things).  All the lessons point to Jesus and his love for us.  He is the good shepherd that loves us and will always take care of us.  He leads us where we need to go.

 

Notice I did not say lesson.  A lesson implies there is a correct or precise outcome.  The goal is not to have the children memorize information/facts but to experience and build a relationship with Jesus and gain a deeper understanding of our faith and particularly the Mass.

 

So how is CGS related to a Montessori model of teaching?  Maria Montessori was a doctor turned educator.  She studied children’s behavior and recognized their innate spiritual wisdom.  Their natural inclination for the divine leads them to an openness and willingness to experience the divine.  Children are able to see what is Holy in all things. 

 

There are two very important women that I have neglected to mention.  Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi. CGS is the result of their long careful studies of children and how children learn, explore and respond. Sofia had a vast knowledge of scripture and a strong faith. She was an educator. Gianna had done an internship with Maria Montessori.  It was through their collaboration that CGS was created.

 

Sofia Cavalletti noted that being with children is  a way of being in the presence of God that is both unique to the child and a gift to the adult who stops long enough to notice. (https://www.cgsusa.org/discover/cgs-world/history/)

 

I have no doubt that I have already learned and grown more in my faith through my training as a catechist for CGS.  Our first year has been a wonderful experience for both the catechists and the students.  I can’t wait to see what lies ahead as we continue our journey with CGS. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Atriums opened in the fall at St. Mary Star of the School, St. John the Evangelist Parish and Our Lady of Fatima Parish. 

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