Cathechesis of the Good Shepherd

Catechesis is an ancient word that means "teaching or instructing."
It is a word that was used by early Christians to name the preparation and teaching of those who were wanting to learn more about what Christians believe. A catechist is a teacher.

Establishing an interpersonal relationship
between your child and God

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is an international religious education program developed for over 55 years by Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi and based on the educational principles of Maria Montessori. The program involves the oral presentation of scriptural stories and parables to children that are accompanied by tangible materials -- figures, settings and objects -- which illustrate the presentations and are designed for the children to use to deepen their own learning.

The story of the Good Shepherd is at the heart of the catechesis program because it is a story Ms. Cavalletti early on discovered that children respond to on a deep level. The good shepherd parable, used by Jesus to describe himself, is of a God who knows the sheep and calls them by name, who leads them and goes ahead of them and who is followed by the sheep because they know God's voice. The good shepherd, Jesus tells us, knows and is known by his followers, protects them and cares for them. The scriptural passages shared with the children introduce the children to words and images of a God who loves and cares for them. The children are then able to work with the materials provided (illustrated in the image above) to explore who the shepherd is and how the shepherd relates to the sheep.

The heart of the teaching philosophy of The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program is that the role of the adults, the catechists, is to present scripture and other materials to the children and then allow the child, in solitude and silence, to work with the materials on her or his own. This method of self-directed learning must be taught to the children because they are so used to being told what to do and given direct answers or teachings about what to believe. The goal of this program is for the child to wonder and explore, on her own terms, in his own ways, who she or he is, who God is, and who we are in relationship to God.

The Materials and Work of the Children in the Atrium

Atrium is the word used to describe the room or rooms where children gather for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The word "atrium" is an ancient word. It refers to the central heart or hearth of a building. In human anatomy, the word atrium refers to each of two upper chambers of the heart through which blood flows. Introducing children to God's constant and unconditional love is the center, the hearth, and the "lifeblood" of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program.

The materials in the atrium include objects that have to do with both everyday activities and scriptural stories and parables that convey the love of God. None of the materials in the atrium are called "toys," and the time that children spend with the materials is called "work," not "play." It is a principle of Montessori-based learning that what we call "play" is the work of childhood -- using objects, observation and experience to learn about the world and life as well as about matters of the spirit.

The materials that help children learn life skills are called practical life materials. These materials, made of glass, fabric, wood and metal, include such things as pitchers for pouring, cloth mats and napkins for folding and rolling, fresh flowers and pretty vases for cutting and arranging flowers, and other things. The practical life work that young children in the atrium practice includes pouring, sponging, folding, cutting, plant care, safely moving chairs, taking out and putting away their work, and treating all of the objects in the atrium with care.

The spiritual life materials in the atrium include Bibles, altar tables, child-sized representations of Biblical characters and objects, pictures and words that relate to scripture stories, crosses, child-sized materials for understanding baptism and Eucharist, and other things. Each set of materials about Biblical stories includes a booklet containing scripture passages, figures and objects to illustrate the passages, and tracing and other materials that allow the child to spend time working with and considering the meaning of the stories.

The story of the Good Shepherd, the central story of the catechesis program, includes a sheepfold and wooden figures of sheep and a shepherd. These materials allow the child, working with a catechist who reads the scripture story aloud, to act out the story of the good shepherd who loves and cares for his flock, calls his sheep by name, leads them out and brings them safely home, and cares for each of them with love.

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program has as its goal that the children who experience it begin to think and wonder about God and to seek and know God's presence and love. Through opportunities for free expression, they are able, when they desire, to express their own images and ideas.

Breona, a four-year-old, asked one of the catechists to watch her paint with water colors. As the catechist sat beside her and watched, Breona paint a large circle and then a figure inside it with a body and a face. Breona asked the catechist, "Do you know yet what I'm painting?" The catechist said, "No, not yet. I'm waiting for you to tell me about it." Breona, as she painted strokes like rays around the circle, stopped to look at the catechist and smile. "I'm painting God in the sun."

Sofia Cavalletti, who developed the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd curriculum in Rome over many years, wrote and spoke in many contexts about the intuitive knowledge of God she experienced in the children with whom she worked. Breona's artwork reveals this kind of knowing -- bringing together in her free art her image of God (as a smiling person) and the life-giving light of the sun. This was a connection Breona made in her own mind and understanding.