An introduction to the concept of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
Text excerpted from the informational brochure available here.
“Help me come closer to God by myself.”
- That God and the child have a unique relationship with one another particularly before the age of six.
- That growth of this relationship should be assisted by the adult, but is directed by the Spirit of God.
- That children need their own place to foster the growth of that relationship.
- That the child’s spiritual growth is best served through tangible but indirect means.
If we want to help the child grow near to God, we should, with patience and courage… seek to go always closer to the vital nucleus of things. This requires study and prayer. The child himself will be our teacher if we know how to observe him. -Sofia Cavalletti
Since 1954, in Rome, Italy, Sofia Cavalletti and her coworker, Gianna Gobbi, pursued the revelation of the young child’s religious potential, marking over sixty years of research and published material at both the preschool and elementary levels. With the “self-teaching” principles of Maria Montessori and the theological moorings of Hebrew scholarship, Scripture studies, and Roman Catholic liturgy and doctrine, Cavalletti and Gobbi, developed an approach which not only appealed to the profound religious intuition of the younger and older children, but which evolved from the children themselves. Today the work (still active in Rome) can also be found in other cities of Italy, and in the countries of Australia, Austria, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Ecuador, England, France, Germany, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Poland, Puerto Rico, Serbia/Bosnia, Slovenia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Uruguay, the United States, and Venezuela.
The National Association for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGSUSA) was formed in 1984 in the United States with its main aim being that of “involving adults and children in a common religious experience in which the religious values of childhood (contemplation and enjoyment of God) are predominant.” Other aims include building community among catechists in supporting their work with children in aiding the growth of the spirit of this method of catechesis, establishing rapport with the wider ecclesial community, and encouraging, documenting, and spreading the research related to the religious life of the child through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. – Catechesis of the Good Shepherd – www.cgsusa.org
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
God and the Child with the Adult
An interpersonal relationship is always a mystery, all the more so when that relationship is between God and the child. we believe that there is a deep bond between God and the child which produces in the child the desire to draw nearer to God. The catechist’s role is to prepare the environment and to give selected presentations from scripture and liturgy that “call forth” the child’s response rather than “pours in” information. The catechist listens with the child and together they ask, “God, who are you? How do you love us? The adult reflects with the child on the questions generated by the presentations with the materials offered to the child to aid the child’s reflection.
A Prepared Environment
The atrium (or prepared environment) is one of the important elements that helps the relationship between God and the child to flourish. After a theme has been presented, the child is free to choose an activity that will make possible the inner dialogue with the “Interior Teacher.”
How does the atrium help to nourish this relationship?
- The atrium can be compared to a retreat house facilitating recollection and silence.
- The atrium is a place for religious life, for community and worship–not a classroom for instruction.
- The atrium is a place of meaningful work through which the child can have a conversation with God.
- The atrium was the place in the early church where the catechumens were prepared. For the child, too, the atrium is a place of preparation for involvement in the larger worship community.
The materials in the atrium are often three-dimensional wood representations of a particular scripture or are items that represent what can be found in Baptism or Eucharist. The are attractively displayed and invite the children to explore and deepen their experience of the presentation at their own pace and rhythm. The most important characteristic of the materials are their close link to the biblical and liturgical sources. The shelves might include maps of Israel, miniature environments representing the elements of the parables or the historical events from the infancy or paschal narratives that have been shown to satisfy the spiritual needs of the child. The model altar and its articles convey the centrality of the Eucharist. The Baptismal font and other liturgical items initiate the child into the liturgical life of the church.
The catechetical material… consists of concrete “signs” of a transcendent reality… [and] is a way of letting the child prolong, along with the catechist, the mediation begun together with the adult. -Sofia Cavalletti
For the Young Child (Ages 3-6)
The 3-6 year old child is particularly capable of receiving and enjoying the most essential elements of our faith–the announcement of God’s love especially experienced through Jesus the Good Shepherd, who died and is risen.
Materials on the life of Jesus Christ and his teachings help to make the mystery of God concrete for the child. The geography materials establish Jesus as a real person in time and space and Israel as the land through which God realized salvation for all. The Infancy Narratives announce the Incarnation of God moving from the Annunciation to Mary, to the Birth of Christ, to the Presentation in the Temple. Models of a map of the city of Jerusalem and the empty tomb engage the child in the Paschal Narratives which the child experiences in a special way through the celebration of the Liturgy of the Light.
Selected parables serve as keys to unlock the mystery of the Kingdom of God and nurture the child’s natural sense of wonder. How beautiful and precious is the kingdom of God! How slowly it grows and yet how magnificent it becomes!
Through the arranging of the chalice, paten, the candles, and crucifix, the child becomes familiar with the articles of the Mass. The child lives this relationship with God in a particular way in the liturgy. The 3-6 year old child enters the mystery of the Eucharist through the most important gestures including the preparation of the chalice, the epiclesis and offering, and the sign of peace. From these gestures the Mass emerges as the Sacrament of the Gift. The child becomes acquainted with the historical character of the liturgy through the events of the Last Supper, Christ’s death, and His resurrection.
The liturgical colors and calendar situate the child in the church year expressing the Paschal Mystery–Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. A prayer table in the atrium reflect the liturgical cycle with appropriate colors for the prayer cloths and selected prayers and scripture verses. Songs, banners, and reading enhance the rituals and celebrations of the season.
For the Older Child (Ages 6-12)
While the heart of the catechesis for the child under six revolves around the Parable of the Good Shepherd, the elementary age child is captured by the images of the True Vine. “I am the vine, you are the branches, whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” The proclamation responds to the deep need of the older child to better know his or her relationship with God, family, friends, and the larger community.
The child at this age seeks guidelines. Moral parables offer a model for comparing their behavior with that of the Pharisee, the Tax Collector, or the Good Samaritan. The Found Sheep, the Found Coin, and the Prodigal Son are examined as the children prepare for the sacrament of reconciliation. The proclamation and meditation of these parables stress God’s love which is constantly forgiving.
The elementary children see the parts of the Mass–the Liturgy of the Word, the Preparation of the Gifts, the Eucharistic Prayer, and the Communion–as one unified prayer made of many smaller prayers. Children prepare for the celebration of First Communion (or Solemn Communion) through a series of communion mediations focusing on the relationship with Jesus. It leads to a three to four day retreat prior to the celebration of First Communion. Preparation of personal missals filled with illustrations and prayers is also part of this preparation which helps to deepen their love and understanding of the Eucharist.
The imagination of the older child and his or her agility with the concept of time are powerful stimuli to explore the past and the future. The first timeline, a ribbon fifty meters long, focuses on the unity and vastness of the History of the Kingdom of God. It illustrates the highpoints in the history of salvation from creation to redemption to parousia. Another presentation focuses on the many gifts we receive from God–rocks, minerals, flowers, fruit, friends, family–culminating in Jesus, a gift which will pervade the whole universe at the completion of history.
With the older child (ages 9-12) a third presentation of the history of salvation focuses on the plan of God in history as a plan of communion, a plan which links all people together through God’s love. The emphasis is on our response to this unfolding generosity of God and the recognition of the responsibilities that come with receiving Gods’ great gifts and seeing oneself as as collaborator with God. “What is the kingdom of God and my place in it? is a cosmic query which lays the foundations for a life commitment in relationship with God.