History of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is the result of a long period of careful observation of children by Sofia Cavalletti and her Montessori collaborator, Gianna Gobbi, in Rome.
To speak about the history of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is to speak about two women living in Rome, Italy who became friends and collaborators and who devoted their life’s work to children.
Sofia Cavalletti was a Catholic laywoman and theologian who received a doctorate in Hebrew and Comparative Semitic Languages from La Sapienza University in Rome and who was a biblical scholar.
The way CGS began was quite by accident, without warning or planning, the way God so often comes into our lives. Sofia liked to say, “We started without knowing we started.”
A mother asked Sofia in 1954 to give some religious instruction to her seven-year-old son and two other boys. At first Sofia refused, saying she knew nothing about children. The mother persisted and Sofia consented. That experience with these children changed her life. She saw in those boys and in numerous other children, in the years that followed, a way of being in the presence of God that is both unique to the child and a gift to the adult who stops long enough to notice. Certainly, her background in Scripture made it possible for her to talk about God with these children in a way that opened and enthused them. Through her studies at the university, she had become accustomed to a rabbinical way of reading Scripture in which everyone is seated with open Bibles as co-listeners to the Word of God.
A mutual friend introduced Sofia to Montessori educator, Gianna Gobbi, who was well acquainted with the young child since she had been with children in the classroom for 15 years. She was also aware of Maria Montessori’s religious work and the use of materials designed for children to help them better understand the Catholic liturgy. The first materials that Gianna brought to Sofia were a small model altar and articles used at Mass. Sofia and Gianna noted the joy the children expressed even at their “awkward efforts.” It was enough of an impetus for them to continue their work and observation of children in a prepared environment called “the atrium” to better learn of the spiritual nature and religious potential. From that day to the present time, Sofia and Gianna remind us constantly to look to the child for that sign of a deeply religious life – joy – and to always ask the question: “What face of God is the child telling us he or she needs to see?”
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has grown and spread to more than 65 countries.
There are six countries who have laid a foundation of catechist formation and atria serving children in churches and schools under the organization of an association to support the work of The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, are also members of the International Council. These member associations are Australia, Colombia, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and the United States. In addition, there are several countries who have formed associations and are in the early stages of developing The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in their country.
In the United States, there are over 1,250 atria (that we’re aware of) in Catholic, Episcopal, and Orthodox settings, as well as in several other Christian churches.
The forming of a national association for the United States began in the summer of 1983 in a series of meetings at a religious order house in Washington, D.C. Sofia Cavalletti had come from Rome to offer a course that included materials for children and discussions on the theme of Eucharist. During several evenings, Sofia and some of the course participants gathered and explored several questions: Do we need an association? If so, what would be its aims? What are the needs we perceive? How do we respond?
Those who were present, from several places in North America, had encountered this catechesis in St. Paul, Chicago, Houston, Washington, D.C., or Rome, Italy. They already shared a vision: a world where the religious life of the child was honored. It was not surprising that the first stated aim of the association was: “To involve adults and children in a religious experience in which the religious values of the child are predominant, keeping in mind that the contemplative nature of the child indicates to the adult a certain way of drawing near to God.”
Proceeding slowly, a street address was chosen and a newsletter was created. The following year a five-member board was elected and discussions were held to choose a name. We were incorporated in the State of Maryland on October 7, 1986, as The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Inc. Our first membership directory listed 54 members.
Today we have three offices: the National Director’s office in Scottsdale, Arizona, the Formation Office in Marietta, Georgia, and the Membership Office in Urbandale, Iowa. There are over 2,500 members and 200 adult formation courses. There are over 170 formation leaders recognized by our association to offer these courses. We now have an elected eight-member board, and a staff of ten: a national director, a formation director, two administrative assistants, an office manager, and coordinators for Membership, Shepherd’s Closet, Spanish-language CGS, and our website.