COLORADO SPRINGS. To fall in love with Jesus and to know, beyond any doubt, that Jesus loves you, is an amazing and awesome gift. That is one aim of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, not so much a program as a methodology that recognizes and respects the deep religious capacity of children. Another major aim of it is to prepare children to participate within the life of the Church.
Introduced into a few diocesan Catholic schools in 2012, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) has earned accolades and much enthusiasm.
Two years ago Holy Apostles also began offering the first parish-based Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in the diocese.
Thanks to the pioneering work of Maria Montessori in children’s education, a new understanding of the unique needs of the child at various ages was developed. In the 1950s in Italy, a colleague of Montessori, Gianna Gobbi, and scripture scholar Sophia Cavalletti, together worked on applying Montessori’s educational methods to religious instruction for young children. They had a deep respect for the child’s innate capacity to wonder as well as their purity of heart and desire and need to know God. The resulting methodology was called “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd” (CGS), and this faith formation methodology has grown to include more than 30 countries.
An atrium is a specially prepared room where children are gradually introduced to biblical and liturgical themes and allowed to work with a variety of materials that model real items, for example child-sized priest’s vestments, and altar, cruets, etc. The atmosphere of the atrium is quiet, meditative and reverent, as a model for the sanctuary of a church.
Within the atrium children are introduced to the Good Shepherd, which is a pivotal theme throughout CGS levels, the mustard seed, the Pearl of great price, as well as the liturgical calendar and feasts. After hearing an oral presentation on a particular theme by the trained catechist, the children quietly work with the related materials, either alone or in small groups, to foster their meditation and help them process the theme that was presented.
There are three levels of CGS, each corresponding to the child’s age. Level I is for ages 3-6, Level II covers ages 6-9 and Level III is for those ages 9-12. Training to become a catechist is intense, requiring 90 hours of coursework and costing up to $600 per level, so it is a major investment both of time and money.
Holly Goodwin, Superintendent of Schools, encountered CGS when she was working in the Wichita diocese, where every Catholic school offered Level I and II. What impressed Goodwin about CGS was the way it truly “helps the kids to fall in love with Jesus.”
Having seen many fruits of CGS from her time in Wichita, Goodwin encouraged teachers in the Colorado Springs diocesan schools to attend training for CGS, and offered to cover tuition.
Melanie LaMack was one of the first diocesan teachers to receive Level I training in 2012. After training she created an atrium at Divine Redeemer. She offered CGS for children in preschool through second grade, while continuing to teach second grade, which was challenging.
LaMack felt called to focus primarily on CGS, is now trained in all three levels. She has set up atriums and works at both Corpus Christi and St. Peter’s schools.
“While they receive all this knowledge, it is more about the personal relationship. You do a lot of wondering and awe [with the children]. A catechist might ask “Do you think Jesus [in the Parable of the Good Shepherd] is talking about the sheep in the field, I wonder?” LaMack emphasized catechists are trained to ask children open-ended questions, and “to let them savor, ponder, and discover” for themselves.
LaMack appreciates that the teachers for each class accompany their students to the atrium. “What I love is that then they continue their day, and they reinforce, in all of their subjects, every part [of CGS]. They can enrich it, grow it, further ponder it, in their classroom . . . so it just permeates the classes in other ways.”
For the past few years, homeschooled children have been able to participate in CGS, originally offered by Jennifer Peters, a trained catechist who had moved to Colorado Springs from California. Tonya Graves got permission to use the atrium at Holy Apostles for 10 homeschooled children. Following that, they used the atrium at Corpus Christi for a period of time.
Eventually Graves, Christine Cardenas and a few of other homeschooling moms also received Level I and II catechist training when Goodwin brought a trainer to Colorado Springs. Graves and Cardenas will soon receive training for Level III.
Graves was allowed a larger room at Holy Apostles to create an atrium for parishioners, whether children are homeschooled or go to public school, with sessions at several times and days of the week.
Unlike the school atriums, Holy Apostles’ atrium sessions are two hours in length. This allows children ample time to work with materials associated with presentations they have received.
Both LaMack and Graves have said they’d love to present the teaching even to adults.
“The formation of it is phenomenal . . . a lot of adults don’t even know the things we’re teaching in the atrium . . . even if you are well catechized,” said Graves, a former missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. She said she learned things from taking the CGS training.
Level I establishes foundational groundwork, according to Graves, even for older children and adults.
“The first three years are so pivotal — they learn that Jesus loves them so much . . . And for them to fall in love with our Lord, and the Good Shepherd . . . He lays down his life for them! . . . They come to that place to realize that they are the sheep; he is the shepherd. And no matter what, he will come and get them. No matter what! If you lose that time, for 3-6 year olds, it’s not as deeply rooted inside their souls.”
According to Cardenas, “Each presentation and experience is tailored to their developmental stage and also their needs at that moment. It truly is a personal experience for each child — avoiding the cookie cutter mentality.”
Deborah Washington, an adult helper in the atrium at Holy Apostles this year, noted, “I was already familiar with this group of children, and after watching them go through Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I’ve seen an overwhelming difference in their reverence, knowledge and love for scripture, Mass and liturgical teaching of their Catholic Faith!”
Jonelle Galuska has three children who attend public school and were all able to participate in Holy Apostles CGS this year after school.
Will, age 11, commented that “CGS is where you do activities to help you understand the Bible stories’ deeper meaning. I could describe it as a ‘hands on Bible.’” His brother, nine-year- old John, said, “I like learning about God in fun ways. Like our last session we learned about Fruits of the Spirit which helped me understand sins and virtue.” Six year old MaryBeth, added, “I love being able to play with toys that help me understand the Bible stories. My favorite is the Good Shepherd work.”
Angelia Mora, whose two young sons attended CGS at Holy Apostles this past year, shared that they “had the opportunity to use all five senses to grow ever closer to our Lord and Savior. I have no doubt the experiences and memories will be long lasting in their growth in their faith journey.”
Brian Ward, who is now 23 years old, agrees. In a 2014 article about CGS (http://www.nwcatholic.org/news/local/catechesis-good-shepherd), he shared about his 10 years participating in CGS as a youngster in an atrium in Washington state:
“I had the opportunity to revisit the atrium where I grew up. What an indescribable joy and peace! It sent chills down my spine. I felt like I was walking on hallowed ground, and rightfully so. This surely was not the first place where God spoke to me, but it was the first place where I listened . . . I consider it a great gift from God to be able to return to the atrium inside my heart, to use my inside voice with God, to tippy-toe into the next stage of life like a child, and to look up to God in silent tranquility and awe no matter where I am.”
Although CGS earns high marks from parents, catechists and children, its rigorous and costly training requirements for catechists, and the need for additional atrium space currently prevent it from being offered to more children. However the enthusiasm among participating families and word of mouth is growing the demand and in time perhaps more parishes will see the benefit of investing in this evangelizing faith formation methodology.
(Editor’s note: The Northwest Catholic contributed to this story.)
(Linda Oppelt is administrative assistant for The Colorado Catholic Herald and a member of Holy Apostles Parish.)