If understanding abstract concepts such as God the father, Jesus the son and Christ’s birth, death and resurrection is challenging for adults, then clearly it can be difficult for young children. So teaching children about God, including introducing them to the Catholic faith, is intimidating for even the most conscientious parents.
The good news is that Catholic parents can introduce even their youngest children about God and their faith, according to the Diocese of Orange’s early childhood educators.
Today’s Catholic schoolteachers increasingly are adopting a program called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a learning system developed in Rome by religious scholar Sofia Cavalletti and her Montessori collaborator, Gianna Gobbi. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd teaches young, preschool children in 37 different countries about the tenets of the Catholic faith and reaches children as young as 2 years old.
“Little children really have the capacity for love, and the best period in their lives to teach the love of Christ is before the age of three,” said Denise Senzig, early childhood director at the Mission Basilica School. “We miss out when we wait until some of the sacraments are introduced in second grade.”
The Good Shepherd program incorporates Bible study, hands-on sacred objects like rosaries, and lessons that encourage young children to learn their faith. Classes are held in a special classroom called an atrium that features a sacred space for children to pray.
“We teach children about the Mass using the proper language and items such as chalices,” explained Patti Abeyta, preschool director of Christ Cathedral Academy. “Three- to five-year-olds can sit still and absorb the names and purpose of the items. Hands-on learning promotes dialog at school and with their families.”
At home, parents should have crucifixes on the walls, rosaries available for prayer, and religious books to read, some of which should be reserved especially for quiet reading during Mass.
“With young children, religious instruction starts in the home with the awareness that they are surrounded by things to remind them that God is there,” Abeyta said. “We tell them that God made the world so we’re not going to throw trash in our neighborhood; we’re going to speak kindly to our friends, who were made by Him; we’re going to do the right things because that’s what He wants.”
The concepts of God, the Holy Trinity, and Jesus can be instilled as young children help the family prepare for Jesus’ birth at Christmas, for his suffering during Lent and His resurrection during Lent and at Easter.
“It’s never too early to surround the child with faith experiences, said Sally Todd, the Diocese of Orange’s associate superintendent of schools. “We can take them to Mass and introduce who God our heavenly Father is. Even small children can kneel down by their beds to pray before sleep, say prayers before meals, and read Bible stories with their parents.”
Their understanding of spiritual complexities develops over time, Todd noted. “A child may not grasp something immediately, but repeating the concepts helps their understanding evolve.”
Children have a natural spirituality, Senzig said. “They know God and yearn for a relationship with Him. It’s not a concept that’s above them at such a young age – it’s very natural.”