By: Christy Wilkens
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a Montessori-based approach that invites children ages three to twelve to encounter Christ in the person of the Good Shepherd, using Scripture, beautiful objects, and simple presentations about the chief truths of the faith. Sessions are held in a specially prepared environment called an atrium, arrayed with child-height shelves and child-sized materials. The atrium is a special place set apart, where work becomes prayer and contemplation. (Ora et labora, as the Benedictines would say.)
CGS catechists act as companions in a shared religious experience in which Christ himself is the only teacher. This is hard to explain but simple to understand, once you see it in action.
During a typical day in a Level I atrium (for 3-6 year-olds), one child might be practicing pouring water from one small pitcher to another, cleaning up her own spills with a sponge. Why? So that she will be ready to learn what a cruet is, and how to carefully pour the correct amount of water into one and wine into the other, as the priest or acolyte does before Mass. When she has accomplished this, the catechist highlights how even the objects we use to celebrate Mass glorify God: “The cruets are ready for Mass. Aren’t they beautiful?”
Another child might be working with the Birth of Jesus presentation, placing the tiny hand-sculpted figures into the scene as the catechist reads the complete Scripture passages from Luke. No simplified, cartoon versions of Bible stories; even the youngest children are entrusted with the mystery and profundity of the Word of God as written. The catechist might ask the child to ponder and personalize this mystery: “What would you like to say to Jesus in the manger?”
At the altar, two children might work together to spread the altar cloth evenly, and place the articles of Mass in their proper places, naming each quietly under their breath as they work. Chalice. Paten. Purificator. Tabernacle. (If you’ve never heard a three year old say “tabernacle,” it is exactly as adorable as you imagine.) The first time, the catechist demonstrates the work and offers only the name and barest essential description for each article: “The paten holds the holy bread at Mass.” From that point on, the children work without interruption, until the objects are as familiar to them as their own hands.
And in the signature presentation for the youngest children, they are introduced to the Good Shepherd, standing inside his sheepfold. “The sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.” (John 10:3-4) Gradually, over multiple repetitions, without instruction and almost without effort, the children realize on their own that the Good Shepherd is Christ, that we are his flock, and that he carries us tenderly on his own shoulders… a deeply comforting, readily familiar image for a young child.
As an adult in the atrium, it is transformative to hear our faith stripped down to its barest essentials and offered to the tiniest Christians in concentrated, powerful doses. The goal of CGS is to enable the child to fall deeply in love with Jesus. Spend any time in an atrium yourself, though, and your own faith and love cannot help but be renewed by the uncomplicated truth, goodness, and beauty on offer there.
The atrium is a joyful, peaceful place where the young and the not-so-young encounter Christ together. Come, taste and see.
Is Christ calling you to become a CGS catechist? Interested in registration for your children this fall? Contact Jacky Watkins, St. Louis’ lead CGS catechist, at email@example.com.