OTTAWA (CCN) — Children participating in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in parishes across Canada have been prepared to enter deeply into the Christmas story.
In child-sized “atriums,” the children are taught “auditorially, kinesthetically, and visually, in a total sensorial environment,” said Ruth Ann McClure, co-ordinator and director of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at St. George’s Parish in Ottawa, one of six parishes using the Montessori-inspired catechesis in the Ottawa archdiocese. “The child will tell you it smells like God.”
The Christmas story is included in five infancy narratives the children are exposed to at various stages in the catechesis, McClure said. These include the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Birth of Jesus Christ and the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.
“We make a set of infancy narratives using little characters made of clay or wood,” she said
Anchored in the church’s liturgical year, the catechesis for 3- 6-year-olds begins with the Bible and a geography lesson, McClure said. They have a “beautiful globe of the world,” and a puzzle map of Israel showing the various regions.
“When the children first come into the atrium in the beginning of the year, we give them practical life lessons so the child can learn to care for the church, for the materials there, themselves and the other kids,” she said.
“The atrium was the place where the Jewish people would prepare to enter the Temple,” said Meghann Baker, a catechist at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Russell, Ont. For the children, the atrium is “a microcosm of the macrocosm of the church.”
“We proclaim the Word to them, then together we ponder, we listen together,” she said, noting the approach is not didactic. “We really have to learn to step out of the way and ask questions and see what the Holy Spirit stirs in these little souls.”
“There’s a movement of the Spirit within them,” Baker said. “It happens and it’s real.”
The preparation for Christmas involves entering deeply into the Advent season.
“In the atrium, we look at the Messianic prophecies — ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,’ and ‘Behold a Virgin shall conceive,’ ” she said. “We talk about how long before Jesus came the Jewish people had been waiting and heard prophets who listened to God with the ears of their heart.”
“During Advent and Christmas, we’re not only remembering when Christ came, we’re not only preparing to receive him now, we’re also waiting for the moment of parousia, when Christ will come again,” Baker said.
“It’s so natural for them,” Baker said. “Some of them have these moments, like ‘Oh, wow, I get it!’ Other times it’s a lot more peaceful than that,” she said. “Sometimes it’s peace, contentment, a quiet sigh. They’ll say things, like ‘My whole body is happy.’ They feel it in their entire being. They feel the profundity of it.”
Baker said every time she is in the atrium with the children she understands what Jesus meant when he said ‘Unless you become like little children you will not enter into the kingdom of God.’
“I watch these little children and the ease with which they receive God’s love, God’s promises and God’s gift and the joy with which they respond to these things,” Baker said. “This is what it means to receive your love and to be happy.”
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd began in Italy in the 1950s when a Scripture scholar was asked to give religious instruction to a boy of seven. Sofia Cavaletti found the experience life-changing so she began developing the program with Gianna Gobbi, an expert in Maria Montessori’s teaching methods. Since then, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has spread to 37 countries. In Canada, its biggest concentration of atriums is in Ontario, but the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Association of Canada lists atriums in the western and prairie provinces as well.
“It’s really growing,” said Dorothy Burns, chair of the Board of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Association of Canada. “Membership has more than doubled since 2014.”
“More and more people are becoming engaged in the work and the number of requests for courses (to train catechists) has doubled as well.”
The catechesis is now offered in French in one location, Burns said, and there is interest now in Montreal. Level one covers ages three to six; level two covers ages seven to 12.
Burns, who is from the Calgary area, said there are catechists in Vancouver, Whitehorse, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, St. Boniface, Saskatoon, Toronto, Ottawa, North Bay, Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie, Hamilton, and London.
Burns estimates about 2,500 children across Canada are in atriums, with about 150 to 200 catechists, who undergo extensive training to be certified.
“I think one of the things that struck me about the work is how one of the immediate responses of children is gratitude,” Burns said. “Usually when you do a presentation, especially on Scripture, you say: ‘Is there anything you would like to say to Jesus?’
“The first time I did this, the first little boy piped up and said, ‘Thank you, Jesus,’ ” Burns said. “They told me this would happen. (The children) have such an appreciation of the gifts of God at this age.”
The Catechesis begins with the assumption the child already has a relationship with God, McClure said.
“We believe a child, when in a prepared environment made especially for them, with materials that fit their hands, will begin to internalize the mysteries of our faith and understand the symbolism and meaning in our liturgies.”