Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
An Introduction for Parents
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a Montessori-based method of catechesis developed by Sofia Cavelletti who worked with Maria Montessori. The primary theme for 3-6 year-olds in the Atrium is Jesus, the Good Shepherd who loves and cares for his sheep. This catechetical method recognizes that young children already have a relationship with God and an innate sense of wonder about God’s creation; it seeks to deepen this relationship. We read words from the Bible rather than Bible stories—so that when children hear them at church, they will be familiar with their sound and meaning.
The Atrium is a special place to spend time with God. All the materials and “works” are designed to encourage focus, reflection, wonder, praise and thanksgiving. Since it is hard to listen to God when we are running, and playing, and talking with friends, we encourage individual work, slow movements, and quiet voices. It isn’t church, but we emphasize that “God is in this place, and so this ground is holy” to quote from an Atrium song. It is not to suppress a child’s exuberance, but to allow space for individual reflection. As you know, it can be hard for children to find the quiet they need to wonder and reflect. We have a little book about finding quiet in a noisy world that we use to introduce the children to the idea of inner quiet.
The role of the catechist is to provide the road signs that help children arrive at a deeper understanding of the scriptures, of Jesus, and of our liturgy. Some lessons are given individually, others to small groups of children. As much as possible children should work with materials on their own after being given a lesson.
Once children have had a lesson and been introduced to a material, they are free to choose that work anytime they are in the Atrium. Many children return to a work again and again, deepening their understanding of and response to God’s word.
In addition to materials that illustrate and concretize scripture lessons (The Good Shepherd, the parables of the Kingdom of God , the Annunciation, the Nativity, etc.) there are works that help children understand the things the priest uses on the altar, the meaning of the gestures the priest uses, works related to Baptism, Eucharist, and the liturgical calendar, and liturgical colors. There are also works on geography which help place Jesus in a real place and time. Once children have had a lesson, they may wish to deepen their experience with a related work – coloring their own map or working with the figures of the Nativity, or tracing a line drawing illustrating the material or scripture passage for example.
As in other Montessori classrooms there are also works related to “practical life.” These include pouring, sorting, folding, transferring, flower-arranging, polishing, hand washing, and table cleaning. These works help children with concentration and focus, and caring for their environment. They also help children develop a capacity for stillness. The works are simple with an eye to mastery and self-correction. If water spills on a tray while pouring, for example, there is a small sponge to take the water up. The catechist or assistant slowly demonstrates each work before the child tries it, using no words while moving, so that the child can focus solely on the movements in the lesson.
Children are shown how to find a work on the shelf, use it, clean or re-organize it, and put it back ready for the next child who wants to use it. Many of these lessons are useful in themselves as well as building blocks for later works. Folding, for example, prepares children to fold the altar cloth, or the vestments. Pouring prepares children for the preparation of the chalice with water and wine as at mass, which comes later in the year. We have glass vases and pitchers to encourage carefulness.
A note about children’s reflections: Most often there isn’t one “right answer” in the Atrium. If we have read the scripture about the good shepherd and used the figures of the shepherd and sheep to illustrate it, we might ask “who do you think the sheep are?” There may be a young child who understands immediately that we are the sheep and that Jesus calls each of us by name to be nourished with the Eucharist, but most come to that understanding after working with the sheep and the sheepfold on their own, maybe many times. Or maybe much later the understanding will come and the child might think “Aha! I know that I am called by the Good Shepherd who loves and cares for me” recalling the shepherd and the sheepfold in the Atrium. The catechist would refrain from saying “you and I are the sheep, right?” It is more important that awareness comes from within the child. The catechist encourages the children to wonder. “I wonder who the sheep are.” Or, “How do you think the shepherd cares for the sheep?”
Our work in the Atrium generally follows the liturgical calendar, which we introduce to the children early on, and again as the liturgical seasons change. Our school year starts in ordinary time, growing time; its color is green, the priest wears green, our prayer table cloth is green. Our church year/liturgical year starts with Advent; its color is purple, and our focus will shift to preparation for Christmas with the geography of the land of Israel, the cities most important to the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Christmas is white, and we move on to the birth of Jesus, the adoration of the shepherds, the wise men and the star. After the first segment of ordinary time in the spring, we move on to another season of preparation, Lent (purple) and then the great celebration of Easter. Our congruence with the church year and study of the articles and gestures of the mass help children who attend find meaning in what they see and hear. Once children have been in the Atrium for some time, it may be helpful to sit up front at mass so that they can see all that happens on the altar—how the light from the candles affirms God’s presence in the Word (at the lectern) and in the bread and wine (on the altar) for example. These are the sorts of signs to which we draw the children’s attention in the Atrium. When children learn the language of symbols and their meanings with which our liturgy is so rich, they may be able to participate in the liturgy in a more meaningful way.
Most mornings our time together will begin with a time for prayer and song at our prayer table. We may gather again at the end of the class time. Praise and thanksgiving come naturally to young children and we may sing songs offering thanks to God for all of the gifts he has given us, including one another…letting the children offer their own verses. Often we will choose songs that relate to the lessons that we are planning on giving that day. Later in the year children will also have their favorites that they want to sing together. The children will learn to set the prayer table. Older children in the Atrium develop their own prayer services, adding to their understanding of liturgy.