Parents may not realize it, but experts say children have “a way of being in the presence of God that is both unique to the child and to the adult who stops long enough to notice.”
Sofia Cavalletti, a Roman Catholic and a renowned Hebrew scholar, made that observation.
In working with elementary-age children, Cavalletti saw that they were intrigued by gospel stories and responded with deep joy. With that realization, Cavalletti abandoned her previous work and co-founded Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with her friend Gianna Gobbi, a teacher who had trained under Maria Montessori.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was established in 1954. Embracing Montessori principles, it teaches religion in an atrium (a place of life and preparation that is sometimes referred to as a worship-education center). The instructors are known not as teachers, but catechists (guides in religious instruction).
Today, 10 years after arriving locally, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is operating in nine parishes in the Diocese of Orange. The diocesan director of the Office of Faith Formation, Katie Dawson, hopes that it expands significantly.
“Catechesis is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Dawson says. “It’s a very appropriate, developmentally sensitive approach to the story of God the Creator and His solution to sin and death, which is Jesus. Children meet the love of the Father through the good shepherd.”
Cavalletti became intrigued by the question of how children most effectively learn the great story of God, Dawson explains. “Over the years, she told hundreds of children hundreds of stories. She identified the kinds of Bible stories that are appropriate for kids in different age groups.”
Then she and her partner Gobbi began training catechists to tell stories using storyboards and other accessories. All the items in the church sacristy are available in hands-on, childproof duplicates so that children can learn their names and their part in the Mass.
Sister Monica, the catechist for students at Christ Cathedral Academy in Garden Grove, says she has prepared an environment called the atrium, which aids in the development of religious life. “My job is to work with the children once a week when they come to the atrium. They learn how to behave in church, focus on the liturgy, and they know all the items used in the Mass.
“They learn about the sacraments and how the liturgical calendar follows Jesus’s life,” she adds. “The two focuses are liturgy and scripture and they are close to one another.”
Most important, Sister Monica says, the children develop a close relationship with God and learn how to pray.
“They love to attend Mass,” she notes. “For them, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a renewal of their spiritual life and relationship with Jesus.”
For more information on Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, please call the Diocese of Orange Office of Parish Faith Formation at 714-282-3060.