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Catechesis of the Good Shepherd ‘hands-on’ religious education gets a look in Texas
By Jonah Dycus
May 14th, 2008
The Texas Catholic Herald (www.texascatholicherald.org)
KINGWOOD, Texas (The Texas Catholic Herald) - Centered on the specific goal of bringing children closer to God, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is being introduced to religious educators in the Archdiocese of Galvestion-Houston through formation courses being held at St. Martha Church.The retreat-like focus of the Good Shepherd workshop helps emphasize the experiential approach to the spiritual formation, which concentrates on children 3-12 years in age, according to Annie Spade, formation leader.
“Since it is such a different approach to the child’s spirituality, we also continue to seek that kind of communion with our inner self,” Spade said in explaining the retreat format for the adult participants. “When we are young children, it is very natural for us (to be open-minded). But the older we get, the more we get into our routines and habits. If we weren’t given this opportunity, then a lot of times we would be lost.”
Based on Montessori principles of education, “the catechesis introduces the child to the Bible and liturgy through hands-on materials that allow the child to name and develop their personal relationship with God and the Church,” according to workshop literature. “The catechist and the child are co-learners seeking together the mystery of God and God’s kingdom.”
The formation is co-sponsored by the archdiocesan CCE Office’s Childhood Ministries and St. Martha Church.
Twenty-five catechists representing eight archdiocesan parishes have been enrolled in the formation courses at St. Martha.
Helping kids ‘fall in love with God’
Formal religious education normally starts at the age of six or seven, when a child is becoming very interested in morality and “wanting to know the rules about everything,” Spade said. “We want to open their childhood back up to (the adult catechists) … to fall in love with God, perhaps for the first time in their lives – or more fully than they ever have, so they can appreciate what this work is doing for young children.”
Helping young people “fall in love with God” is at the core of what Dr. Sofia Cavalletti explored when she originally developed Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with Montessorian trainer Gianna Gobbi, cited Spade. Msgr. Chester Borski, the pastor at St. Martha, invited Cavalletti to speak at St. Mary’s Seminary many years ago when he served as rector and has been a big supporter of the catechesis since.
“We often think that is an endearing quality for young children, but it is also an extremely powerful thing. And for many of us as adults, we have never had an opportunity to fall in love with our God,” Spade said. “We were introduced to God at a time in our lives when we were more interested in rules and right and wrong. So we have a judging God as our face of God. But we need that opportunity to fall in love (with God).”
She continued, “It is very important to the spirit of this catechesis, to our foundress Sofia Cavalletti, to foster dialogue. At its essence, all Christianity is about falling in love and being in relationship with God through Jesus. She really feels that the catechesis is an opportunity for other Christian faiths to kind of come home and experience the roots of the original form of Christianity.”
A vital component of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is the educational setting, called the atrium, which allows the children to interact with multiple types of materials and objects with liturgical and Biblical associations. These items can include cloths, chalices, miniature Biblical figures, candles, and altar dressings. Learning through physical interaction with materials and the environment is a staple of Montessori education.
“Montessori uniquely recognizes that we best learn, express and develop our individuality in that whole dynamic of the inner voice,” Spade said. “In the atrium, the child sews with a palette of colors tied into a liturgical season, arranges flowers in a vase or polishes brass candle holders. Whatever that child is inclined to do or is drawn to, this is the child’s personality expressing itself. And that is where (the catechesis) begins.”
Connecting ritual to faith
The “hands-on” nature of the instruction is imperative to the learning process and an aspect deeply ingrained in the Catholic faith, Spade cited. “It is through our senses, through movement … it is all things that go into creating the environment of our liturgy and also an environment for prayer through our gestures and our rituals,” she said. “When I approach the font, dip my hand in the water and make the Sign of the Cross, I am remembering my Baptism. That is the fullest, richest way to engage in that ritual. As Catholics, that is the way we recognize that faith has grown. It is in that very personal encounter with the outer environment and being consciously aware of it.
“We are training children to do that when come into an atrium. You must begin with a child during this phase of life when life habits are being formed, so they become aware of what they are interested in or drawn to,” she added.
Spade said those same principles are applicable to the individuals participating in the formation courses at St. Martha. “When I work with adults, I tell them to think about their favorite hobbies and how it feels for them to be that engaged with something that interests them,” she stated. “That is what we are trying to help the young child do – to make that connection early on so that is part of their personality and they really seek that out. Then they are much more intentional about their faith. It is the ultimate Montessori goal: the true end being the child’s religious development.”
Martha Burns, the formation co-sponsor at St. Martha, said Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is “thoroughly saturated in authentic Scripture, going far beyond a mere exposure to key stories, sayings and parables … It encourages even the youngest children – as well as the catechist – to reflect deeply about the meaning of these passages. God is the author of our textbook.”
Burns appreciates how the catechesis teaches children about the “liturgical actions and equipment of the Church” through hands-on contact with them. “Even the littlest children are led to understand the meaning of liturgical colors and the difference between an altar and an ambo,” she said. “In addition, they become familiar with the prayers and sacred gestures associated with liturgy, enabling them to enter into the mysteries more fully and planting priceless seeds for vocations.
“The Catechesis combines both knowledge of the ‘basics’ of Catholicism and a deep prayerful spirituality. The atrium is a place of silence, meditation and intense concentration nurturing ‘heart knowledge’ as well as ‘head knowledge’”
According to Burns, the catechesis also effectively nurtures the existing bonds between Jesus and the child through song, prayer, Scripture and the atrium. “We all search for a closer relationship with God. The deep faith and spirituality that saturates this program is a powerful reminder that the Holy Spirit is still working and is intimately involved with our holy Catholic Church,” she said. “The catechesis is based on the conviction that God and the child are in relationship. The child has a deep need to experience and a special capacity to enjoy the presence of God.”
Peggy Rittenhouse of St. Martha Church initially became interested in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd because of her fondness for young children. “It appeared to me that this was a very special way to work with children and introduce them, in some small way and yet in an effective way, to Jesus,” she said. “At St. Martha’s, I have also been introduced to the literature surrounding Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as well as national organizations.”
She found one instruction from formation leaders to be particularly special to her: “Both children and adults are in a ‘listening mode’ before the mystery of the liturgical celebration,” Rittenhouse noted.
Stimulating the ‘wonder and awe” in children
Barbara Molaison, a technology teacher at St. Martha School, said she is impressed with how much is conveyed to young people through few simple words. “The emphasis on stimulating the ‘wonder and awe’ of the mysteries of our faith really do tap the children,” she said of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. “The children are free to form their own response without adults getting in the way. The relationship they form is uniquely theirs.”
The teacher views such active participation lending itself to the “developmental characteristics” of the children served. “It fosters in them the freedom to discover God in the manner and to the degree that they are ready to encounter Him. I think what is most powerful is that the children are simply allowed to fall in love with Jesus – the Good Shepherd,” she said. “When that relationship is formed I think everything else flows naturally and will be built on a solid foundation. The Montessori method or approach in this formation is key to the children forming their unique response. This atmosphere allows them to be in control of their own personal response.”
The formation course has helped Malaison acquire a much broader sense of the spirituality of the child and learn that the same “innate spirituality” still exists in adults. “The rites and rituals of our faith still have the power to touch our hearts and shape theirs. As I sit in training, I have truly become aware that this same child who enters the atrium is no different than the child who enters my computer lab at St. Martha Catholic School,” she said. “Everything I am learning in the Good Shepherd Formation serves me quite well as a teacher. It has made me more aware of the need to be a better facilitator. If I had to come up with one specific and dynamic facet of this formation, I think it would center on the importance of preparing the environment for the child and minimizing yourself so that you do not hinder the process.”
Malaison considers the positive and lasting qualities of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to be infinite. “It is a wonderful program and provides the means of forming faith in the young child at a critical juncture in their development. It is a method that is in sync with who they are, where they are and who our loving God is for them,” she said. “It has the capacity to make them life-long learners in their faith. It fosters vocations, a life of service and a deep love of Christ.”
(For more information about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, contact Charleen Katra in the archdiocesan CCE office at (713) 741-8793 or email@example.com.)
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