The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32
One comes to know about The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd from a friend, a parishioner, the Director of Religious Education or Faith Formation, a priest, or a bishop. There are several factors one needs to take into consideration when beginning Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in a parish, school, or even a home setting.
Visit an Atrium
To capture a vision of what The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd offers children, it can be beneficial to connect with a church in the area (if at all possible) that has already established an atrium for children. Our association may be able to help you locate parishes in your area.
Arranging a small group to visit an atrium can be invaluable to understanding this method of catechesis and what it can be like for children. If possible, it can also be helpful to experience one or two of the presentations (lessons) as they are given to the children or even observe an atrium session with children. Either one can make a difference in capturing the vision of CGS. What an impression it makes for the adult to enter the sacred atrium environment that has been so carefully prepared to nurture the young child’s spiritual life compared to hearing about it!
Characteristics of The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd:
#3 The atrium is a community in which children and adults live together a religious experience that facilitates participation in the wider community of the family, the church, and other social spheres.
- The atrium is a place of prayer, in which work and study spontaneously become meditation, contemplation, and prayer.
- The atrium is a place in which the only Teacher is Christ; both children and adults place themselves in a listening stance before his Word and seek to penetrate the mystery of the liturgical celebration.
The 32 Points of Reflection represent the principal aspects of the catechesis as they have emerged after more than fifty years of work with children of different countries, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds.
Building Interest and Inspiring Community
A parish interested in starting The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd will need to have the support of the pastor or the parish council (or vestry) and have the opportunity to enlist the talents from the parish community as well.
At least one person from the parish must be willing to take the Level I formation course in order to get the atrium started, but two or more persons involved in the training together are better.
Catechist formation in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd offers adults an experience of all presentations as given to three to six-year-old children over a three-year atrium cycle. Led by a formation leader recognized by our association, course participants also discuss the theological and pedagogical principles that undergird the children’s presentations. They are guided in writing album pages for each of these presentations and are assisted in how to make many of the materials used for these presentations as well as in how to prepare the atrium.
Introducing CGS to the Parish
Once a visit has been made to a parish with an established atrium, it will be important to introduce The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to parents and the larger community of your parish. One way this could be done is to host a “Seed Planting Workshop” in which a CGS formation leader or experienced CGS catechist is invited to introduce The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Another way could be to offer a book study using one of the texts about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd such as The Religious Potential of the Child by Sofia Cavalletti, Listening to God with Children by Gianna Gobbi or The Good Shepherd and the Child by Sofia Cavalletti, et al. with interested parents and other parishioners. With the encouragement of the parish staff, some may choose to take CGS Level I Formation and become catechists; others may want to assist the catechist in preparing the room that will become the atrium; and there will be others whose skills in carpentry, painting, sewing, calligraphy, or sculpting figures out of clay or resin can be helpful in building the atrium and making materials.
Creating an Atrium
Ideally, the parish provides a room dedicated solely for the atrium. An atrium space can be adapted to almost any size although thought will need to be given to the number of children who can attend at a time, especially if the space is very small.
We seek to help children enjoy a relationship with God and in doing so we ask, “What kind of environment can we create that will respect and cultivate the child’s needs and capacities at this level of their development, especially in terms of their spiritual development?”
So we think of creating a sacred space that is accessible to the child so the child can function independently and enjoy freedom of movement.
The environment is called an atrium. It is not a classroom. As Sofia Cavalletti has written, “It is not a place of religious instruction, but of religious life.” It is a sacred space in which the child is initiated into the life of the Church and needs to be the work of the whole church.
Setting up an atrium in a space that needs to be shared with other ministries and in which the atrium materials need to be set up and taken down before and after each session can be a challenge due to the many atrium materials. However, it can be done with the dedication of a few volunteers. Often atria begin in this manner, but then gradually, as space is located for the atrium, it is beneficial for adults and for the children to have dedicated space.
As the vision for The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd grows with the parish and the children at the different atrium levels, if space is large enough, it may be used for the next level atrium with materials added for the children of the second level to attend a session. This is another way the same atrium space could be multi-purpose. Ideally, it is best to envision one atrium environment established for Level I (for three to six-year-old children), in a few years then establish a second space for the Level II atrium (for six to nine-year-old children) and if the vision continues for all three levels of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, then a third space for the Level III atrium (for nine to twelve year old children).
The Level I atrium environment will consist of several key areas of materials for the children according to the themes introduced to the children. There is an area for Prayer, Introduction to the Life of the Church, Biblical Geography, Messianic Prophecies and Infancy Narratives, the Kingdom Parables, the Paschal Mystery, The Good Shepherd, Baptism, Eucharist, Practical Life, and materials for art expression.
There are about fifty catechetical presentations given to the three to six-year-old children, and each presentation involves materials that serve as an aid for the child’s work and absorption of the proclamations made in the presentations. Materials are attractive and simple.
When catechists attend a formation course and are a member of CGSUSA, they have access to the materials manual which provides the measurements and directions for making the handmade materials.
What does it cost?
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd can be a viable option for children’s faith formation in any parish. The main costs associated with beginning The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd are preparing the atrium, making materials, and sending catechists to formation courses.
With a little ingenuity, the atrium and materials can be prepared very simply and with modest cost. Mainly the costs to begin The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd are associated with 1) obtaining catechist formation for one or two adults and, 2) preparing the atrium environment, purchasing as well as making the materials the children use. Catechist formation can occur by sending one or two adults to a course offered locally or anywhere in the country where a course is being offered if the schedule permits. Budgeting for on-going catechist formation is recommended. Once an atrium has begun in a parish it may be possible for the parish to invite a CGSUSA formation leader to lead catechist formation hosted by the parish.
Partial scholarships for catechist formation are usually available to members of CGSUSA through the Tina Lillig Memorial Fund.
Initially, preparation of the atrium environment will include obtaining bookshelves and a few small tables and chairs. Some of the costs involved in preparing the atrium for the children can be spread out over three years since the Level I atrium content covers a three-year cycle for the children. The material purchases for the second and third years can be postponed as the budget allows. Once the atrium has been built and the materials have been prepared, there are minimal maintenance costs, mainly associated with replacing consumable materials used by the children as well as occasionally repairing or replacing materials.
Over time maintenance of the atrium costs much less than the initial costs of setting up an atrium. Consideration will need to be given to how many atria you will need to have – one for each level of CGS built over a span of time as catechists are trained or having more than one atrium for each of the three levels. Some parishes choose to have multiple sessions utilizing the same atrium each level while others find that with the number of children are serving, they want to have multiple atria at each level or multiple Level I atria and one atrium each for Level II and Level III.
The Toddler Atrium is a prepared environment in which the youngest child’s spiritual life is fed by prayer, work and celebration aided by a catechist. Time is also given with the adults in the life of the child in this prepared environment for the infant or the young child to explore and the parent to grow in observation skills and interactions with his/her child aided by a catechist.
“Our parish community is approximately 5,000 people. We are very interested in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I am inspired to discover this approach for young children. We are trying to move our Church school and Religious Education classes into a more progressive way of teaching and engaging young children and with the blessing of our parish priests, this is our focus for the coming year. I would like more information on how we can access training.”
-an interested parent and parish staff
Your Support Matters
“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.