COLORADO SPRINGS. It’s the difference between awareness and comprehension — the difference between going to Mass and understanding Mass. Many Catholics know Jesus, His church and the Mass; other Catholics understand Jesus, His church and the Mass.
An expanding program in the diocese is focused on bringing full awareness and comprehension of our faith into the lives of children.
“As a supplement to our existing religion classes, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program helps children develop a true relationship with Jesus,” said Holly Goodwin, superintendent of Catholic education.
“This program is making such a difference with our children, especially the younger students,” she said. “I see them falling in love with their faith. The respect and reverence they show in church and during Mass is remarkable. These children have a new appreciation of their faith and a better understanding of it.”
Goodwin brought Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) into the diocese about four years ago after she had seen its results in another diocese. It has since expanded to almost all seven Catholic schools in the diocese. The goal is to have all three levels in all the Catholic schools.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has its roots in Rome and dates back to the mid-1950s. It is the result of careful observation of children by Sofia Cavalletti and her Montessori collaborator, Gianna Gobbi.
Cavalletti was a Hebrew and Scripture scholar and was asked to give religious instruction to a child. During her experience with that 7-year-old, she saw in that child a way of being in the presence of God that was both unique to the child and a gift to the adult.
Thirty years later in the mid-1980s, the National Association of the CGS was formed with 54 members in the United States. Today, the organization has more than 2,000 members, 120 formation leaders and 1,250 atria across the country.
A key element of the CGS program is the atrium, a room specially designed for children. This room contains simple materials students use to draw near to God when they gather together. In the early church, the atrium was the place where catechumens were prepared. For children, it’s a place of preparation for involvement in the larger worshipping community.
In the atrium, CGS teachers explain and show to students all parts of the Mass, the Eucharist, the church and its history. “Children learn life skills as well — how to set the altar, how to pour properly, how to fold properly and how to clean,” said Goodwin.
The CGS program has three levels, each covering age-appropriate topics for children. Level one is designed for children ages 3 to 6; level two is for children ages 6 to 9; and level three covers subjects geared for 9- to 12-year-olds.
Melanie LaMack teaches young students in level one of the CGS program at Corpus Christi. In level one, formation courses in the atrium follow a three-year cycle, taking children through the liturgical season using age-appropriate lessons and activities.
A product of Catholic schools, LaMack has been a classroom teacher since 1984. She was trained as a catechist in 2012, and soon started leading students in the CGS program at Divine Redeemer School. She transitioned to Corpus Christ this academic year, and now spends two days a week there.
“During my initial training at the Blessed Sacrament (Catholic Church) in Denver, I observed Annunciation and Cenacle presentations,” said LaMack. “During these presentations, especially seeing the Twelve Apostles around the Last Supper table in the Cenacle, I just got goose bumps. Then it hit me — I knew this was my calling.”
LaMack teaches students about the history of the church and Jesus, the Eucharist and how to prepare and behave properly during Mass. “Students meet and line up in the hall and take deep, cleansing breaths to relax,” she said. “They are taught how to enter the atrium quietly and respectfully.”
When the children enter the atrium, they practice crossing themselves properly, then they gather as a group at the prayer table to begin the daily presentation, which includes working with materials made by volunteers.
“In our atrium, we have fantastic materials children use to learn about church, the Mass and the life of Jesus,” LaMack said. “They know they should ask to work with these materials, not play with these materials. This distinction teaches them respect for the objects of our faith.”
According to LaMack, the main benefit of the CGS program is the evangelization of the children. The program’s main goal is to involve children and adults in a common religious experience, keeping the religious values of childhood predominant. It immerses children in their faith so they understand it more fully.
LaMack and Goodwin have seen the transformation of children in the CGS program. “They understand the Mass, why the priest does certain things, and they have real reverence and respect for church and our faith,” said Goodwin.
“You can see the difference in children,” she said. “One of our young students had been constantly fussy during Mass —he just couldn’t sit still. When he experienced the program and the atrium, his change was amazing. He was able to sit quietly and still, and he just talked with Jesus for five minutes — a real conversation.”
According to Goodwin, the CGS program is an opportunity for children to take what they’re learning in the classroom and experience it in a new way. “It’s not a religion class, but it supports what we teach. It’s a more hands-on experience, presented in a simple and straightforward manner,” she said.
“It uses the Bible as a guide to living, too. Teachers use scripture to answers questions. Children are seeing teachers use the Bible to get answers and guidance — then, the children will use it the same way as they grow,” Goodwin said.
“They respect and listen to the word of God, and they learn to how to live out our faith in today’s complex world.”