By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published November 7, 2013
SMYRNA—Parish catechetical leaders and priests participated in a study day for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Oct. 29 at the Chancery.
The program, “Early Encounters with Jesus: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, an Approach to Religious Formation,” featured national speakers and breakout sessions on the religious formation methods.
The Office of Formation and Discipleship and the Committee of Continuing Priest Education co-hosted the workshop. Amy Daniels, director of the Office of Formation and Discipleship, called the event a “seed planting.”
Speakers included Mary Mirrione, director of the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd United States; Rebekah Rojcewicz, the U.S. representative on the CGS International Council, and Ann Garrido, who is the director of the Masters of Arts in Pastoral Ministry in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Garrido is also associate professor of homiletics at The Aquinas Institute.
Rojcewicz talked about the history of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and its origins in Rome.
Sofia Cavalletti, a Hebrew and Scripture scholar, and her collaborator, Gianna Gobbi, developed the approach to religious formation after observing and working with children for years. The method is based on the educational principles of Maria Montessori.
Rojcewicz said Cavalletti had no experience with children and was reluctant when a mother asked her to give her son religious instruction. “She was a scholar,” said Rojcewicz. Cavalletti finally consented and simply spent time with the boy reading the Bible with no preconceived idea of how the process should go. He responded with joy.
Jesus did not tell his followers to give little ones all the right information, said Rojcewicz. His words were “Welcome them in your midst,” she said. “They are the greatest in the kingdom.”
The CGS style of religious study has children as the centerpiece. Rojcewicz said that children crave serious, holy and quiet moments.
Simple materials help children absorb the faith
In Rome’s churches, the atrium space or covered portico was where catechumens traditionally received preparation for the sacraments.
This atrium is the name for the space used in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
“She created the first atrium,” said Rojcewicz about the creation of a special room by Cavalletti.
Children ages 3 to 12 gather in the atrium with simple materials to help them absorb the most essential proclamations of the Christian faith.
The designers of this approach found that no matter where the location—from the poorest locales in Africa to wealthy suburbs—the responses were the same from the children. Rojcewicz said the young people want the best food or nourishment. “They don’t want fluff,” she said about all the extras.
Why did Jesus teach in parable form? Rojcewicz said it’s because he wanted the hearers of the story to “go on a journey of progressive discovery.”
At the 50th anniversary of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome, 12 former catechumens attended, ranging in age from 26 to 57. All said the church’s atrium was the place where they came to understand their own “relationship” with Jesus.
The Missionaries of Charity, the religious congregation of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, selected Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for its religious formation program worldwide. According to Rojcewicz, it was the approach’s contemplative nature that drew the congregation to select it.
After the children are presented materials, they are then provided time to create artwork.
The art is an important component, answering the question, “How do they see God?”
Rojcewicz showed examples through the years of art created by the children during atrium time.
One showed a shepherd clothed in yellow surrounded by sheep of the same color. Many of the sheep had names. The towering shepherd’s expression is one of pure delight, and art psychologists say yellow is the color of joy. The young artist drew this picture after hearing the story of the Good Shepherd from John, Chapter 10.
Many years ago, one child drew a character remarkably similar in appearance to a Power Ranger. The character is very tall and looking down upon the people saying, “I love you all.” Light and mustard seeds stream from the arms of the figure.
‘Let the way of the child lead us’
Ann Garrido has worked with other catechists from all over the United States, helping them to access advanced scriptural and liturgical study that can serve their own spirituality and their work with children. Garrido is also a catechist in the Level III Atrium (for ages 9 to 12) in her parish, as well as a member of the formation committee for CGSUSA.
Garrido compared the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to the faith-based program, L’Arche, where people with disabilities live in communities and share a common life with those who assist them. In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd the children and adults share in a common religious experience.
The idea of CGS is to “let the way of the child lead us,” she said.
Garrido shared that she found grace as a catechist in her own parish by way of a young girl named Grace. For Grace, everything was new and wonderful, but she seemed old and wise at the same time, explained Garrido.
When the children heard the story of the empty tomb at Easter, young Grace had a simple explanation tying Jesus’ resurrection back to the parable of the Good Shepherd. “He loves his sheep so much, he can’t stand to be away from them,” said Grace.
Garrido said it was Grace herself and not the teacher who shared the “essentiality” or cut the idea right down to the matter. The gift Grace gave as a child she is now receiving by serving as a Good Shepherd catechist.
Garrido told parish leaders and clergy that atrium time could be held after school, on weekday mornings for younger children, or on Sunday morning leading up to Mass.
A two-hour time slot, starting with a song is appropriate. “This is not a place for frantic,” said Garrido.
The adults share the materials and read from Scripture. Afterwards is when most of the “magic” happens as the children begin to draw, or spend time with the materials in thought.
Garrido led one of the sessions on the parable of the Good Shepherd.She then presented the corresponding materials to the audience as she would to a group of children. The materials included a herd of wooden sheep, the Shepherd, and a cobbled sheepfold enclosure.
Once the materials are introduced, the children can spend time playing with them, or creating art.
The 3-year-olds often say the sheep are ordinary and don’t have names; as the children get older they give the sheep names of others, and eventually their own names.
“We don’t tell them the answer,” explained Garrido. “It has to be when they get it.”
Most children recognize the Good Shepherd as protective, first likening the shepherd to a parent’s role, and ultimately Jesus.
This approach to catechesis uses a spiral method of presenting the most important information first. One example is when children learn about the Eucharistic presence, and God’s covenant: “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
A miniature and handcrafted altar is covered with cloth, the Good Shepherd figure is placed on the altar, and the sheep surround it. But the sheep are replaced with people and one special sheep becomes the priest. The bread and wine are placed on the altar, which become the body and blood of Christ.
Even though the figure of the shepherd leaves the altar, Christ is still there in the Eucharist.
For the older children this presentation becomes expanded with the children learning that the celebration of the Mass is for all globally, as well as for the people of all times.
‘A community is formed in building the atrium’
Father Michael Silloway came to the study day to learn more about the approach. Seminarians and pastors, while knowledgeable about theology, don’t necessarily know about the best approach to educate others, said Father Silloway. “What an opportunity,” he said.
Father Silloway is chaplain at St. Pius X High School and learned about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd from a friend.
Vickie Voll, who attends Mass at the University Catholic Center of Emory University, said both she and her children have learned much from Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. “It makes them more connected to the priest,” said Voll. “I’m really happy that it’s catching on.”
Mirrione, national director, said the process of bringing the formation to a parish should be “slow and simple.”
“Gilbert, Arizona, was cotton and cows,” said Mirrione of her own community. As the town grew into a suburb with more and more families coming to the parish, their atrium grew too.
Mirrione said it takes 90 hours of training to be a catechist for those ages 3 to 6. All speakers agreed that when starting anything new at the parish level, “a broad base of support is needed,” including training for at least one leader involved in every development stage.
Bishop David Talley participated in the event, and first became involved in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd while pastor of St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn.
Bishop Talley agreed that implementing the approach to catechism happens in God’s time.
“If you were touched today, do not doubt who touched you,” said Bishop Talley. “Just don’t doubt the call.”
Karen Maxwell, director of formation for the national association, lives in the Atlanta area. Maxwell encouraged catechetical leaders to have the support of their parish priest, as well as parents, grandparents and church staff.
“Their support is very, very important to this,” she noted.
Family members and parishioners don’t have to be catechists to be involved. They can help build items for the atrium, paint, or even craft wooden materials.
“A community is formed in building the atrium,” she said.
Amy Daniels said that Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory has approved CGS for use in the archdiocese including for sacramental preparation.
“Archbishop Gregory is more than supportive,” said Daniels. She encouraged parish leaders not to rush the process.
Established CGS atria in the archdiocese are located at St. Jude the Apostle Church in Sandy Springs, Holy Cross in Atlanta, St. Thomas Aquinas in Alpharetta, St. Brigid in Johns Creek, Our Lady of the Assumption in Atlanta, St. Peter Chanel in Roswell, and St. John Neumann in Lilburn.
According to Daniels, there are four additional parishes that have a catechist in formation in preparation for offering CGS next fall. The archdiocese has supported their efforts through scholarship funds for the catechists’ formation program.