‘Let the children come to me’

| Susan Klemond | September 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

Forming the youngest Catholics through Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

Teacher Carolyn Kohlhaas, center, shows a chalice to fifth-graders Sarah Turner, left, and Maia Irwin at the gestures altar in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Teacher Carolyn Kohlhaas, center, shows a chalice to fifth-graders Sarah Turner, left, and Maia Irwin at the gestures altar in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

During her earliest school years, Madeline Alinder frequently spent time in a room equipped with the elements of a miniature Mass, including an altar not much taller than a priest’s knees, a tiny chalice and child-sized vestments.

Now, because of the understanding of the Eucharist she gained in that little sanctuary located in a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd “atrium,” the high school junior doesn’t just show up for Sunday Mass, but actively participates.

“You can read about Mass parts and everything that happens in Mass, but actually, to be hands-on and understand that the Holy Spirit comes down, you remember that every time you’re in Mass,” said Alinder, 16, a parishioner of St. Patrick in Oak Grove. “You know what’s happening.”

Alinder, a student at Blaine High School, learned not only about the Eucharist, but also about Christ, Scripture and other aspects of the faith in her Catechesis of the Good Shepherd classes at The Way of the Shepherd, a Catholic Montessori school in Blaine, which she attended from preschool through fifth grade.

In parishes and schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, children ages 3 through sixth grade are learning the faith and how to pray in a Catechesis atrium — a room specially arranged for them with child-sized furnishings and materials. Along with their catechist’s presentations, the quiet atrium helps children discover God on their own and, gradually, other Church teachings, including moral law and salvation history.

In a Catechesis class during their school day or at evening classes after school, children learn and pray differently from how they would with textbooks, catechists and teachers say. Parents learn with their children while non-Catholic families and special education teachers appreciate how the program teaches faith at each child’s level.

The archdiocese isn’t involved in implementing Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in schools and parishes, but it respects the fruits of the program, said Jason Slattery, archdiocesan director of the Office for the Mission of Catholic Education. “It can be a favorable choice for families and children as a means of Catholic formation.”

Displays with art and symbols are spread throughout the atrium for students to explore. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Displays with art and symbols are spread throughout the atrium for students to explore. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Italian roots, international reach

There is no archdiocesan record of local Catechesis programs, but at least eight local Catholic parishes and schools have programs, and four more are considering starting them.

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is an international method using Montessori principles that was developed in Rome in 1954 by two Italian educators. The Montessori approach emphasizes independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical and social development.

The National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is part of an international council that holds standards for catechist formation and atrium preparation, said Mary Mirrione, the Scottsdale, Arizona-based association’s national director. More than 2,000 atria operate in U.S. parishes, homes and schools, she said.

In a typical program, classes of about 12 students meet in one of three age-appropriate atria. The level one atrium focuses on the Gospel and Christ to help children establish a personal relationship with God before learning the moral law, said Christina Stokman, Good Shepherd program director at St. Joseph in West St. Paul, which offers three catechesis levels in evening and school programs.

Since many children in the first atrium can’t yet read, they experience Christ there in other ways, said Coreen Wagenbach, children’s ministry director at St. Peter in North St. Paul, which started its program two years ago.

When Jenna Williamson’s now-6-year-old son Charlie started in the Catechesis two years ago at St. Peter in North St. Paul, she said he wasn’t used to the quiet, but now he enjoys it. “I think there’s that peaceful, contemplative, repetitive work that he really likes,” she said.

The Catechesis helps children develop thinking skills, said Benjamin Brekke, who trained as a catechist this summer and teaches at St. Croix Catholic School in Stillwater. “It’s a lot about questioning and letting them think for themselves, and not just giving them the answers,” he said.

The Catechesis in Catholic schools helps build Catholic identity as children understand their place in the faith story and unite that with what they learn in school, said Brekke, a parishioner of St. Mark in St. Paul, which also has an atrium.

Fifth-grader Catherine Schue works to match names of saints with their figures/symbols. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Fifth-grader Catherine Schue works to match names of saints with their figures/symbols. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

‘Completely God’s work’

Children on the autism spectrum and the developmentally disabled also have benefited from the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Mirrione said.

The developmentally disabled adults that Vincent Lubbers and Cindy Boyer teach at St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center love the atrium and learn well in it, they said. They received level-two training this summer. St. Alphonsus used the Catechesis in special education last year, Lubbers said.

Parents who haven’t been catechized well don’t always understand what their children are learning, Wagenbach said. They also need help in making the lessons more concrete for their children, she said.

Mirrione said the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has materials on its website, http://www.cgsusa.org, to help parents, along with a parent guidebook.

Williamson said she trained as a catechist this year so she could better talk to her children about what they were learning. A convert to Catholicism, she also sought a better understanding of Catholic faith basics and Scripture.

While the Catechesis is essentially Catholic, it is open to Christians of other denominations, Mirrione said. Anglican, Episcopal, Orthodox, Methodist and others have used it because it offers a way of serving God and children.

Parishes and schools sometimes find it difficult to dedicate a room as an atrium, but Mirrione said portable components can make sharing the space possible. St. Peter has a portable atrium, along with two permanent ones, Wagenbach said.

When children are encouraged to grow in their relationship with the Lord through the Catechesis, the fruit is evident, said Teri Jackson, a parishioner of Transfiguration in Oakdale and catechist who has taught at several schools.

“You see the joy, awe and wonder that happens in these kids just through the Holy Spirit and through the work,” she said. “So many things happen that are not of us. It’s just completely God’s work.”

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