SASKATOON — A group of parents and ministry leaders recently attended a training session for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a program that nurtures young children’s love for Jesus.
Hands-on and grounded in the Montessori understanding of the developmental needs of children, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd recognizes the great spiritual capacity of even the youngest children to form a meaningful relationship with God, as well as to understand, participate and respond to Sripture and liturgy, and express their deep faith.
Two representatives of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Association of Canada, Dr. Deborah Zeni and Carolyne-Marie Petch of Ontario, facilitated the first part of a Level One training course Jan. 25 - 30 in Saskatoon. The Saskatoon course continues in May.
Under the leadership of Rev. Bernard Nectarios Funk and his wife Linda, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) program has been introduced at St. Vincent of Lerins Church, which has established a CGS atrium, a sacred space of prayer especially prepared for children, filled with simple and beautiful materials that help them to get close to God.
Funk began her training in CGS in 2010. The CGS atrium she has established at the west-side Orthodox church for children ages three to six is the first one in the province. The focal point is a model of the sheepfold, with figures of Christ the Good Shepherd and the sheep — which can be set up next to a model of an altar surrounded by the People of God — all used in presenting the parable of the Good Shepherd and the meaning of the eucharist. Centres throughout the atrium permit children to become fully and prayerfully engaged in Scripture and the liturgical year, through hands-on activity and reflective experience.
These CGS materials are not purchased ready made but are developed by the leaders, who themselves undertake a spiritual journey of deepening and expressing faith as part of preparing to offer the program.
“It really is a grassroots program: it requires a community,” said Linda.
In CGS, the catechist is not considered a teacher — “remembering that the only teacher is Christ” but rather as one who journeys and celebrates with the children in respect and humility, grounded in the Word of God, the liturgical year, and the sacramental life of the church, explained organizers.
Founded in Rome by Scripture scholar Sofia Cavaletti with the help of Montessori collaborator Gianna Gobbi some 60 years ago, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was introduced to Canada by Patricia Coulter of Toronto, related Zeni. “Patricia spent two years in Rome with Sofia,” she said, describing the support of clergy in the Archdiocese of Toronto in introducing the program in the 1980s.
Gradually interest grew, with more people asking for the course in Canada, and in 2005 the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Association of Canada was formed as a registered charitable organization.
“The prime reason to have an association, was to be able to offer to adults training in CGS,” said Zeni. “We need an association, because we can’t do it alone. The community works because of the participation of every member.”
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd introduces children to Scripture, invites them into a relationship with Jesus the Good Shepherd, and brings forth a deep, spiritual response, described Zeni, a physician with a family practice in Georgetown, Ont., as well as serving as a catechist in her local parish.
Zeni cited the words of one small child after a liturgical experience modelled during the Saskatoon training session: “She said: ‘the Holy Spirit came into my heart’ — it was truly an encounter with Christ.”
The program’s distinct approach helps children to build deep, lifelong relationships with Christ and his church, Zeni said. “This is holy space and holy time that we offer our. It is gift. It is a gift to every family involved, and it is a gift to witness the transformation of the children, it is a gift to every child, and it is a gift to the church.”
Zeni added: “As someone who does pediatrics, I can see that this is all grounded in their development, with tremendous respect for the child, and for the child’s needs and abilities.”
Participants were enthusiastic about CGS and the training provided at the recent Saskatoon training session. “I’m so glad I came, I’m going to change my direction in so many ways,” said one participant.
Lisette Fontaine of the Trinity pastoral region in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon first heard about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at a presentation to the Time Out For Moms group in Saskatoon, and has been eager to take the training.
“Once there are more atriums established, more people will understand it and get involved,” she predicted.
“You have to understand that this is establishing a relationship with God; the children are establishing a relationship with God,” Fontaine stressed. “It is all-encompassing in how it is working with the child where they are in all of their development: physical, mental, social, emotional, spiritual,” she said. “This is how to keep people in the church.”
If young children experience the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, they will then go into sacramental preparation already understanding the paschal mystery deeply in their hearts, said Fontaine.
She hopes to introduce CGS to the Trinity parishes at St. Denis, Prud’homme and Vonda, convinced that when the program is seen and experienced, parents and ministry leaders will see that it is worth the effort.
“I’d so love to see atriums all over: across our diocese, across our province. I want to see it available to everybody.”
Participant Cynthia Foster also hopes to set up a CGS atrium in her home parish of St. Francis Xavier in Saskatoon. “I would hope that children can come to experience this, and that we will all be guided by the Holy Spirit.”