A kindergarten student kneels in front of a model altar in one of two rooms called atriums at St. John the Baptist School in New Freedom.
Reverently, she prepares the altar, arranging the linen, the candles, the crucifix, and the chalice and paten.
When the Eucharistic table is readied, she nods to a catechist nearby, who kneels next to the child and lights the candles as they sing “Lord Jesus, Come,” a song that links the bread an dwin with the image of the Good Shepherd.
The model altar is one of numerous detailed and scaled-down versions of items in the atriums at St. John’s, where students as young as three years old are coming to know and love Jesus through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
A hands-on Montessori-based approach to Catholic religious education, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd fosters children’s growth in their relationship to God via Scripture and liturgy.
Designed for children ages 3-12, it was developed in Rome in 1954 by Catholic educators Dr. Sofia Cavaletti and Gianna Gobbi, who discovered the profound religious intuition of younger children and their ability to receive and enjoy the most essential elements of the faith.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd occurs within an atrium, a specially-designed room or portion of a classroom with attractive, colorful and mostly-handmade materials that children utilize as they reflect on lessons that catechists present in each session.
“Ultimately, it is designed for young students to let them fall in love with Jesus,” said Patty Howell, formation catechist for the parish and school. She is a Level I Formation Leader in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
St. John the Baptist has been utilizing the program in its religious education classes for a decade, and in its Catholic school for the past few years. There are two atriums there; the facility was designed with a dedicated space for one of them, noted Susan Mareck, school principal.
“As time went on, we realized that one atrium wasn’t enough, so we dedicated an additional room. The atriums are such blessings to all of our kids and their families,” she said.
The atriums are filled with miniature versions of ambos, Paschal candles and vestments, and engaging pieces children can use to fashion a liturgical calendar, the Creation Story, the City of Jerusalem and the Last Supper.
Yet the atriums are sacred spaces, and the children treat them as such. In the atriums, the children aren’t playing with toys; they are engaging in meaningful work as they converse with God.
The sessions begin with a lesson offered by the catechist – such as a Parable or a teaching about a part of the liturgy.
After the lesson, children are asked, “What work does God want you to do in the atrium today?” said Barbara Fletcher. This question reminds them that they’re not playing with toys, but rather speaking to Jesus, she said.
In the atrium, children also learn reverence, responsibility and fine motor skills, noted Susan White.
“We spend a lot of time developing routines so that they learn how to unroll and fold fabrics, pour water, handle glassware and put items in their proper places,” she noted. “The children take wonderful care of the atriums.”
Each session in the atrium concludes with prayer that brings together the entire class.
“The program teaches the children in the way that Jesus taught – through Parables,” noted formation catechist Pam Freidhoff. She, too, is a Level I Formation Leader in the program.
“We tell the students that when they’re working in the atrium, they should think about Jesus. The idea of their work time is to carry through on the lesson they’ve just heard.”
One of the prominent lessons in the Level I Atrium, for children ages three to six, is the Parable of the Good Shepherd. The story is reaffirmed visually with wooden replicas of a pasture, sheep and a shepherd. As the children replace the sheep with figurines of people and the shepherd with an image of Jesus, they come to discover their relationship with the Good Shepherd.
“Even the youngest students are open to hearing the Parables from the Bible, and it draws their faith out so that they can express themselves through prayer and through their love for Jesus,” Mrs. Howell remarked.
The catechists have seen the fruits of the program.
Diane Losasso, who taught sixth grade for a number of years, observed that “the students who had been in the Good Shepherd program in their early childhood had more of a foundation of love for Jesus, and it deepened in them through the years.”
As part of the program, students undergoing sacramental preparation at St. John the Baptist School and through the parish religious education program gather with their families for contemplative prayer in the church. This allows entire families to enjoy formation together.
“The Good Shepherd Catechesis has helped create unity between the religious education students and the school students,” noted St. Joseph Sister Jane Keller, Director of Religious Education at St. John’s Parish. “It has drawn us all together.”
Bonnie Campbell is a mother of five, all but four of whom have gone through the Good Shepherd Catechesis at St. John’s. This past summer, she took part in the adult formation course that the parish offered to train catechists in the program.
“At daily Mass, my children will apply what they’ve learned. My son points to the priest sand says, ‘He is wearing green, so it is Ordinary Time.’ My daughter was sobbing one day at Mass because she missed the epiclesis during the consecration. My five-year-old will move to a pew toward the front of the church to see the priest at the altar,” Mrs. Campbell shared.
“If I can give that catechesis and love for the Lord to my kids, it’s the best gift I can offer,” she said.
The weeklong Level I formation course drew a dozen participants from several parishes in the Diocese of Harrisburg and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
The participants underwent additional faith formation and were instructed in the praxis of the program. They sat in the atrium and worked slowly and intentionally with the materials, just as a child would.
“When we were going through our formation, a three-year-old girl came in, and even she dropped everything to watch and listen to what was being presented in the course,” said Mrs. Fletcher. “She was enthralled. You can clearly see that children, even this young, have a relationship with Jesus.”
Mrs. Freidhoff agreed.
“Just as children are able to pick up a language at a young age, so too can they fall in love with God,” she said. “It’s not that we can’t fall more deeply in love with him later in life, but if we really get children to connect at an early age, those roots will be more deeply planted.”
(St. John the Baptist Parish invites parents and catechists who want to learn more about the Good Shepherd Catechesis or to observe children working in the atrium, to make a visit. Contact Sister Jane Keller, Director of Religious Education, at email@example.com or 717-235-2156.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness