SASKATOON — The spiritual needs of young children were discussed at a recent workshop hosted by three leaders who offer the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to children ages three to six years in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.
Lisette Fontaine, Cynthia Foster and Jane Korvemaker presented the Saturday afternoon workshop to parents, catechists, parish and ministry leaders Feb. 10 at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Saskatoon, the site of one of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) atriums now operating in the diocese.
An atrium is the sacred space set up as part of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to help young children explore and experience Scripture and liturgy as they deepen their relationship with God in a prayerful, hands-on environment.
A teacher in the Catholic school system with experience in a Montessori school, Foster offers CGS at the St. Francis atrium, aided by her two older children.
Korvemaker, who has a BA in theology and is the mother of three young children, started the CGS atrium at St. Patrick Parish in Saskatoon in 2016.
The mother of five children, Fontaine began using the CSG program in sacramental preparation in 2015 and established the bilingual Trinity atrium in 2016, serving the parish cluster of Prud’homme, St. Denis and Vonda.
During the afternoon workshop, the three leaders provided an overview of CGS, which was created some 60 years ago in Rome by Scripture scholar Sofia Cavelletti and educator Gianna Gobbi, with the developmental needs of children in mind. CGS is grounded in the philosophy of early childhood educator Maria Montessori, with gentle, hands-on and age-appropriate catechesis offered in the atrium designed to nurture a child’s inherent awe and connection to God, explained the three local catechists.
Kovermaker described how children often respond differently than adults, because of their particular developmental stage. Children ages three to six years have a number of sensitivities, such as an attraction to order, a craving for the security and safety of having a fixed point of reference, or a love of repetition, she said.
Children of that age also often have a profound sense of wonder and awe, and a capacity for “listening to God” in stillness and silence, if that is modelled for them, added the catechist.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd uses a number of time-tested Scripture passages that resonate with young children, including the infancy narratives (about the birth of Jesus), the Kingdom of God parables, the Good Shepherd, the Last Supper and the empty tomb, listed Korvemaker.
Practical ideas for nurturing the spiritual life of young children include setting up a small prayer area (“a place where we come to be with God”); changing colours of cloth to reflect the different liturgical seasons; placing items of beauty and significance in the prayer space; slowing down to a child’s pace and focusing on only one thing at a time; and recognizing that prayer can take many forms for children — including silence, working with hands-on material, and drawing.
A simple activity of mixing flour and yeast to create dough and watch it rise was modelled by Korvemaker, who methodically mixed the ingredients and carefully integrated the activity with the Scripture passage about Christ’s parable of the leaven.
“Children can take that mystery,” Kovermaker said. “You don’t have to dumb it down.”
The workshop included testimonials from the catechists, from a parent, and from a pastor.
“The founders of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd write that in the covenant relationship there is a meeting between God, who is love, and the child, who is rich in love, and they form a relationship,” said Foster, describing the joy of being a catechist and helping children to deepen their relationship with God.
Fontaine shared how her search for sacramental preparation materials led her to CGS after she heard about the program in a mothers’ group presentation by Linda Funk, who established the first CGS atrium in Saskatchewan at St. Vincent of Lerins Orthodox Parish in Saskatoon.
In addition to operating an atrium in the Trinity pastoral region, Fontaine continues to use her training and materials in offering sacramental preparation. “The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a gift,” she said. “Children are receptive to God and to God’s unconditional love.”
Fontaine stressed how the program has nurtured her own faith. “I have been able to really ponder what God is trying to tell me in my faith journey. As a catechist, I must also be at the children’s pace. So I have to ponder. I have to experience silence. It has been such a gift to me to have that opportunity.”
Pastor of the Trinity pastoral region Rev. Steve Morrisey, CSsR, is also enthusiastic about the program and the impact it is having on families. “I think it’s fabulous. We have a lot of young children in our parishes,” he said, noting that as a homilist he tries to provide a message that resonates with all ages, including the youngest children. “I think it is a beautiful thing for everybody in the parish to be able to grasp what is going on in church.”
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd affects the whole family, said one mother, describing the program as “an amazing gift” that helps her child know Jesus, internalize the stories of Scripture and understand what is happening at mass.
The workshop also included a tour of the parish CGS atrium, which was created with help from parishioners. In the atrium, children experience Bible stories and work with hands-on materials that bring alive the Scriptures, prayer and liturgy.