'Engaging the senses that God gave us'
Parents and catechists are noting the effects of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program on children.
One child did not want to go to baseball practice because it would mean missing a communal prayer session. Another asked their teacher why they couldn't take part in the program during the summer.
They are among many examples of how the program is capturing the hearts of children in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
"(I)t is about falling in love with Jesus, recognizing his voice and discovering that we are the sheep who he calls by name," said Celine Mitchell, who directs the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program at St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen in Lyndora/Meridian, and is a leading promoter of the program in the diocese.
Rooted in the Bible, the liturgy of the church and the educational principles of Maria Montessori, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd helps children grow in their knowledge of God through a sensory-rich experience.
The program is presented on three levels: children 3 to 6; those 6 to 9; and those 9 to 12.
The children gather in an atrium, a room specially designed to help them prepare for worship with the larger faith community. Catechumens in the early church received their instruction in atriums.
"There is just something special about the room," said Barbara Matera, who directs a model program at St. John Neumann in Franklin Park. "We're engaging the senses that God gave us to come to know him better."
About a dozen parishes sponsor programs in the diocese. Most just offer the first level. St. Fidelis offers the first two levels, while St. John Neumann offers all three.
Mitchell pointed out the Good Shepherd program has a mission of promoting relationship ministry early in the child's life. The thought is that they have to have a relationship with Jesus before they are taught the laws of the church. The opposite is often true, she noted.
The program fosters a foundational belief that even the youngest children are already in a relationship with God. While adults are often trying to find God, she added, children realize that God is looking for us.
The program was founded in Rome in 1954 by Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi. Gobbi was a disciple of Montessori.
They discovered that the parable of the Good Shepherd was effective in bringing children of all ages into a deeper relationship with Jesus. Matera said they love the fact that the shepherd calls them by name. They learn to recognize the shepherd's voice and to truly fall in love with Jesus.
"It's really about discovering God together and allowing the children to fall more deeply in love with the God who is always with them —and in them — from the very beginning," said Jean Marie Farina of St. Bernadette in Monroeville.
Added Doug Moran, a catechist from St. Fidelis: "I'm not a teacher. I let the Holy Spirit speak through me."
The two were among more than a dozen people who attended a recent week-long workshop on the program taught by Mitchell at St. Fidelis.
The atriums are filled with a wealth of materials to give the children a tangible feel for what they are learning.
The Level 1 segment teaches that not only are the truths of the church drawn from the Scriptures, but they are also drawn from the liturgy. The atriums feature models of vestments that the children can examine. There are also smaller-scale replicas of objects they see at Mass — crucifixes, chalices, cruets and tabernacles.
Mitchell and Matera emphasized that when the children are in contact with the objects they are not "playing." They are serious about what they are learning and, in effect, "working."
"They really are tuned in to the exact words they will hear at the Mass," Matera said.
She said the children aren't pretending to be priests, but they are meditating on the history behind the objects.
In noting the model of a tomb that can be found in the atrium, she said that she has noticed children who have experienced a death in their family will often go up to it and move the figures.
"It's a very moving presentation to adults the first time they see it," she said.
There are also topographical maps and other materials that point out the authenticity of Jesus. Among them is a simple globe with a dot marking his birthplace.
"We're not telling you a fairy tale," Matera said of the message to the children. "Here is a real person. This is where he lived."
At the heart of the materials are the wooden figures used in the sheepfold. They depict parables such as the Good Shepherd story.
Matera said Montessori discovered that children were absorbed in learning through touching rather than just hearing and seeing. It is much the same with the rosary, she said. You can say it without the beads, but touching them helps you work into a contemplative state.
Mitchell said the child needs concrete materials while the Holy Spirit leads them to meditate and ponder what the catechist proclaims from Scripture.
The parable of the Good Shepherd, she noted, addresses the deep need of the child to be loved, protected and called by name — the need for a relationship.
"It is a universal need," she said. "Over the six decades of this work all over the world, it has been discovered that the children respond in the same way to this message. They respond with great joy."
Social morality is introduced in Level 2. The final level builds on the foundations set in Level 2, while giving a detailed exploration of sacramental rites and prayers of the Mass.
"It reaches the kids," said Amanda Kramer, a catechist from St. John in Coylesville. "They know it with their hearts. They have ownership of what they're discovering."
The program has an ecumenical base. About half of the some 1,000 atria in the U.S. are in Episcopal environments. There are also a small number among Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Orthodox and other Christian faiths.
Janet Stephenson of Christ Episcopal Church in Ross Township was another attendee at the St. Fidelis workshop. She said the program is a powerful tool in helping children come to know God better, adding, "They feel it. They know it. They have the relationship with God. I don't have to tell them what it's like."
As a formation leader recognized by the national office of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Mitchell has served as an instructor nationally and internationally. She was invited by the archbishop of Riga to instruct catechists in Latvia. She has also instructed Mother Teresa's order — the Missionaries of Charity — on several occasions.
Participants in one of her local workshops came from Virginia, Maryland and New York.
The program she said, has changed her relationship with God. And it has changed her life. She and her husband bought a retreat center in the Butler area and have called it the Good Shepherd House of Prayer.
"I am learning to trust God more, to trust that he has a plan for me and, as I follow him each day, his plan is slowly being revealed," she said. "I don't know what tomorrow will bring, but I know I'm on a great adventure."
Matera has been involved with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for 18 years and oversees perhaps the most comprehensive program in the diocese. The parish program targets all of the religious education students. It even features an atrium for special-needs students.
She likened the growth of a program to a mustard seed. It can begin very small, with few materials, but it will grow. She said just about all of the materials in the atriums were made by people who cared.
"It's very humble space," she said. "Very simple."
It is something that can be done anywhere if there is a desire, she noted.
The program is doctrinally sound and has been approved by the diocese. Diocesan officials are lauding it.
Christopher Chapman, director of the Office for Elementary and Secondary School Catechesis, attended a recent workshop. In noting that it almost made him want to be a child again, he said Jesus tells us that we have to be like children to enter the kingdom.
"It approaches catechesis in a sacramental/liturgical way that is engrossing, enchanting and engaging, not just for the children, but also for those instructing the children," he added. "I would love for this approach to be present in every parish, school and family in the diocese."
Mariana Balberas teaches the first level of the program in Spanish for the Latino community at St. Regis in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood.
"We've seen how this beautiful program can work with children of every background," she said.
Jennifer Friel, a preschool teacher at Butler Catholic, said curiosity and wonder led her to attend a Good Shepherd workshop.
"It has been such an enlightening experience," she said. "So different from what I was taught. I intend to share this new experience with my own children and students at our school."
More information on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is available by calling Mitchell at 724-482-2362, e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or contacting Matera at 412-366-5885.