Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program engages children in learning a love of God
By Emily Booker
“My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” — John 7:16
There are lots of methods and theories about how to best teach a child, but when it comes to religious education, it’s important to remember the goal is not a perfect test score but a lifelong devotion to God.
In July, about a dozen catechists and teachers attended training at St. Mary School in Oak Ridge for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The training for level two of the catechesis program prepared the catechists to present content and materials geared for grades 1-3.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a program of instruction focused on contemplation and developing a love for God. It presents doctrinal content in an interactive, age-appropriate way for children as young as 3 in a space called the atrium, which creates an environment for learning and prayer.
Some 17 parishes and several foundational schools in the Diocese of Knoxville use Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in their religious education. The diocesan Office of Christian Formation covers the cost of the program and training catechists.
Hope Johnson, an adult formation leader for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, led the intensive week of training in Oak Ridge.
“[Catechesis of the Good Shepherd] uses the Montessori principles of hands-on learning in a prepared environment,” Ms. Johnson said. “The whole environment has been prepared with materials for the children’s use. I give the presentation to the child, and after she has the presentation, she can actually choose these materials from the shelf and work with them for as long as she wishes.”
She explained that children at this age do well in unstructured environments, where they explore at their own pace. They also benefit from tangible materials, being about to move around and use their hands to learn.
Even something as basic as watering the classroom plant instills coordination, concentration, and repetition, skills that can then be built upon as the child grows.
In level one, which is for ages 3 to 6, young children are introduced to the most basic concepts and gestures of the faith.
“The spontaneous prayer of the level-one child before the age of 6 is thanks and praise, so everything they do in the atrium, every time they gather as a group, is a celebration: ‘Thank you, Lord,’” Ms. Johnson said.
“They learn gestures. They learn the sign of the cross. They learn genuflection. They learn bowing. They’re at a sensitive period for language. We give them single words or simple phrases [on cards]. We give them language: ‘Amen,’ ‘alleluia,’ ‘hosanna,’ ‘thanks be to God.’”
By level two, children are ready to go a bit deeper and take on more responsibility.
“Now the children’s prayer can start being intercessory prayer because they’re thinking of others. They can think of things beyond their own experience now,” Ms. Johnson explained.
“[Level two children] don’t want me to give; they want to take leadership. So, we start inviting them to prepare celebrations.”
For example, a class may begin with a communal prayer. One child may pick the prayer, another may place the prayer card on the prayer table, another may light the electronic candle, another may place the Bible on the table; each child contributes to creating the prayerful environment.
“It’s incredible how natural it is for them,” Ms. Johnson said. “You’ll be amazed by the workings in their brains as they start to take leadership of their prayer time.”
Marilyn Derbyshire leads Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at St. John Neumann School in Farragut. She attended the level-two training.
“The first graders, they came [to the atrium] last year, and some of them the year before, as level one. This is their first year in level two, and that’s big for them because they get to come in the new section,” Ms. Derbyshire said.
“Even in level two, we use a lot of the shared materials [also used in level one]; we just use them at a deeper level. They are still using materials from last year, but in a new way.”
During the summer training, catechists familiarized themselves with atrium materials, content presentations, and how to introduce concepts to children and encourage their contemplation. They also studied doctrinal concepts and how to integrate them into the children’s atrium work in age-appropriate ways. Even the smallest action is done intentionally and prayerfully.
“We have a lot of different approaches to catechesis of children, but as soon as I started this position [as director of Christian Formation for the Diocese of Knoxville], I started hearing a whole lot about it,” Deacon Jim Bello said. He stopped by one day to observe the training at St. Mary School. He was impressed by how peaceful and intentional the method was.
“That’s when it hit me that this was something very, very different,” he said.
The atrium is the key to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. It is a room designed specifically to create an environment of silence, calm, and interaction. The lights are kept low and talking is kept soft. The pace is slow; there are no deadlines or tests. The atrium is named after the entrance to a church where, in the early days of the Church, catechumens would enter, because it is here that the Church’s youngest Christians grow in their relationship to Christ.
“There is no teacher in these atriums, these beautiful, little rooms,” Deacon Bello said. “The only teacher n these rooms is Christ. … The goal of the adult, the catechist, is mainly to create an environment and sustain an environment that is conducive for Christ to be heard in the hearts of these children. There’s something astounding about that.
“That environment is so important in those atriums. These kids are really transforming their little Christian lives. The adults are recognizing what gifts these children have and encouraging these children to continue to listen to how God speaks to them. It allows God to take them through salvation history in His Word. It allows the children to know that the sacraments are a visitation from Jesus Himself. So, they’re developing this relationship instead of memorizing things.”
An example of this is how children learn about the Mass and the liturgy. Every atrium has materials where children can lay out a model altar for Mass, with altar cloths, a crucifix, and crevets. They learn why certain prayers and gestures are used, and that is reinforced as they physically use the materials.
Ms. Derbyshire believes the model altar is one of the most popular materials for her students.
“They all love the model altar. They prepare everything and get it set up just like Mass.”
Several of the presentations and gestures reflect what the children witness at Mass and allow them to contemplate and interact with the liturgy.
There are also wooden models of scenes of the life of Christ and his parables, a timeline of Bible history, a map of Israel in the time of Christ, and models of priestly vestments. After receiving a presentation on a material and being taught its meaning, children are free to choose that material during their time in atrium to tangibly interact with it, recall the presentation, and contemplate Christ.
“I tell them we don’t rush in the atrium. We just take our time,” Ms. Derbyshire said. “It just gives them the prayerful atmosphere with the lights and the soft talking. It’s a very peaceful place.”
“The goal is to foster a deeper spirituality, relationship with Christ, and an understanding of His Church, and a profound religiosity that will not only live in their hearts but allow them to bring it into their communities,” Deacon Bello said.
He said that several parishes have shown interest in starting Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, however finding the physical space for an atrium and catechists who can make the time commitment to go through training can be challenging. He is currently looking into how to get a new level-one training session set up in the diocese.
Parishes interested in implementing Catechesis of the Good Shepherd or training can contact Deacon Bello at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For Deacon Bello, a method of catechesis like Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and its focus on contemplation and developing a love of Christ benefits Catholics of any age.
“I think we could all back up and realize that creating an environment where we can hear Christ is important—whether it’s in our own spiritual lives or with our families or the community,” he said. “We don’t give Jesus enough credit: He can teach us. We just have to have an environment where we can observe and listen.”