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Learning the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

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When my parish asked me to attend a week-long training for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I was reluctant, thinking it would be a watered-down faith formation program. Boy, was I wrong! Here’s what I learned.

by Becky Arganbright

Editor’s note: See the end of this article for links to more resources about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, including an introductory video.

I spent last week in training to be a Good Shepherd catechist—an endeavor that, I have to admit, I took on rather reluctantly.

CONFESSINGMy parish priest had asked if I would consider being a catechist this year, since the parish is in need of more catechists. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, because I thought it was a watered-down way of teaching preschool children. But boy, was I wrong!

I love children, but the idea of working with three- to six-year-old kids didn’t appeal to me when it came to catechizing. I mean, how far can you really go catechizing a little child? I wanted to go deep, have discussions. I wanted to have the benefit and reward of watching a child grow in religious knowledge. For all these reasons, being stuck watching little kids play with religious toys made me want to tell our parish priest that this program just wasn’t the right fit for me. I just wasn’t excited about it; and wasn’t enthusiasm part of discerning God’s will???

But every time I was about to e-mail my parish priest, I just couldn’t do it. Something inside of me was telling me to wait. Not so much, “Wait, you’re gonna love this,” but just wait.

Let me tell you, it’s no small sacrifice to commit to the training; every person who showed up sacrificed something. For me, it was going without seeing my kids for four days. That may not sound like a big deal to those who have jobs, but those who are stay-at-home mothers might know what I’m talking about. The training takes 90 hours.

I found myself chafing at the idea of committing so much time. Ninety hours to learn about setting up some toys for the kids so I could stand aside and watch them play? Ninety hours just to sing a few songs and say a prayer here and there? This was the impression of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd that I had gotten from the time my daughter had attended. But that quiet Voice within me kept telling me to wait and see.

I am so excited that I was wrong about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Here’s what I learned.

What I had thought I saw when I visited my daughter’s classroom was children walking around randomly tinkering with this or that. What I was actually seeing (but didn’t realize it) was children at work, not play. There is some truth that they are playing, but a better way of describing their play is that they are reenacting what they have learned through play.

The learning environment is called an atrium, not a classroom. Within the atrium, there are learning materials split up into categories or stations. Unlike preschool, children are not allowed to play (or work) with these stations until they have been taught how to properly use the materials, which are designed very intentionally to teach the children about our faith.

The children are not taught as they would be in a typical classroom, either. They are guided by the catechist; however, they are left to ponder. Wondering leads to contemplation, and contemplation leads to awe and reverence.

This is not done by teaching, but by guiding. The children come up with their own awe; it is between them and God. The catechist is merely a tool to help guide the children in their wonderment.

I was wondering how that was accomplished. Does the catechist just simply say, “Hey, did you know that Mary said ‘yes’ to God when He asked her to be the Mother of Jesus?” And then leave it at that? If so, I always thought that would be confusing to the child and would leave them with more questions than answers. Shouldn’t we finish the lesson for them?

But as the catechist talks about the lesson she wants to share with the child, she alternates factual questions and pondering questions. Factual questions to insert some actual facts and “wondering questions” to help the children ponder the facts. Then they are left to “ponder and pray” on their own—a time between the child and God.

It is a little hard to believe, but once the children have been presented the material (what it is for, how it is to be used, etc.), they do the work themselves. They are invited to go to whatever station they would like to work on. And because they revisit the same station over and over, they are understanding deeper and deeper the lesson behind the story, through play and contemplation.

The environment is set up for quiet contemplation; there are no overhead bright fluorescent lights, only lamps. Children are not allowed to be loud; everyone whispers. Everyone I know has been surprised by how much children actually like silence.

There are processions as they set up the prayer table for a new liturgical season; there are songs and times for group discussion.

Before my training, I had perceived the catechists as standing off in the corner, seemingly aloof to the children. What I had misunderstood was that they were actually respecting the children’s work. When the children are deep in their play (assuming they are using the materials correctly and as shown, and usually they are), it is also to be assumed that they are in contemplation with God, and they are not to be disturbed.

Here is a wonderful quote from Sofia Cavalletti, founder of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: “Leave your pride and anger at the door.”

We are not teachers, but merely a tool to guide the children. Therefore, leave your pride at the door before you enter the atrium and let the Holy Spirit teach the children.

Things will not always go the way you think they should; sometimes the children will want to talk about rocket ships and super heroes rather than God. Or maybe they will be loud when you want them to be quiet. Leave your anger at the door and remember that it takes time for things to bear fruit.

The wonderful thing about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is that they have brought everything about our faith—the big, difficult things that are hard for little ones to understand—into child-sized proportions. The materials are child-sized, and they are allowed to touch it. Everything becomes tangible. Everything becomes real.

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd does not focus on “pouring truths into” the child, but on rather “drawing it out.” Because it is already there…it just needs to be discovered.

I had a hard time keeping my emotions at bay during my training (which isn’t done yet). I had a hard time not getting emotional and making a fool out of myself, because I felt like I finally found the answer to help Anna and Henry. I have not been able to reach Anna and Henry. I have not been able to help them make the connection that God loves them so much. I have taught them much, yes. But I have not been able to form a relationship for them. Needless to say, I e-mailed our faith formation director as soon as I got home and signed both children up for the Good Shepherd program this fall.

Through the child’s natural ability to wonder and be in awe (something that is being stifled through so many electronics), they discover Jesus for themselves. Again, being guided by the catechists. But not being drilled on facts.

One thing that sealed the deal for me is what St. Pope John Paul II said while visiting an atrium one day. As he walked up and down the atrium, silently observing the children at work, he said: “This is the most beautiful Gospel I have ever heard.”

That pretty much sums it up right there.

Learn more

The National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd USA
Find a local atrium, or learn more about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd; the link takes you to a list of 52 characteristics of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd books and resources
From Liturgy Training Publications.

 

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