Preschool catechism training planned in Palmyra
Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - Parishes who are interested in offering an effective religious education programs for preschoolers and kindergarteners may be interested in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Training for instructors will be offered this summer at the parish hall of St. Leo Church in Palmyra.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd began in 1954, when a Montessori instructor named Sofia Cavaletti was asked to develop a religious education program for young children. With her coworker Gianni Gobbi, the pair spent a number of years developing an intuitive approach to guiding children to understand Christ and their relationship with Him.
“As opposed to simply learning the facts about the catechism, the facts about the faith, they learn who Jesus really is and discover they are one of the sheep that follows the Good Shepherd,” explained Father Sean Kilcawley, director of the diocesan office of religious education.
Eventually, the program evolved to include older children, too. It is offered in 37 nations in three different levels: Level 1 is for children ages 3 to 6, Level 2 for ages 6 to 9, and Level 3 for ages 9 to 12.
In the Diocese of Lincoln, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd will not replace the existing religious education or CCD programs. However, Level 1 can enable parishes and schools to fill in a gap that currently exists with the younger age group.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is set up with an atrium – a group of spaces, each with its own activities and emphasis. In Level 1, for example, one is dedicated to baptism, another to prayer. There is an altar, an age-appropriate interactive liturgical calendar, and a space for the Good Shepherd, which is a model with sheep and, of course, the Good Shepherd. Tools like maps and exercises like pouring items from one container to another help children internalize and remember what they are learning.
Theresa Johnson, who has been teaching Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Lincoln for 11 years, said the practical life exercises “are lessons in controlled movement. These apply to the atrium since we also have gestures in the church, such as genuflection,” she said.
“Initially one may wonder why pouring rice and beans applies to the religious life of the child. These help the child to focus, to concentrate. These exercises become an aid to the prayer life of the child.”
Using Scriptural parables — “We don’t water it down,” Mrs. Johnson assured. “We read it straight from the Bible.” — the children hear about the Good Shepherd and His love for the sheep. The instructor will read, and then move the two-dimensional characters that depict the parable, and so on.
“The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is about the relationship of the child and God,” Johnson said. “We as catechists nurture that relationship.”
At some point, each child individually realizes whom the Good Shepherd is, and that they are one of His sheep. Then, the child is invited to replace the sheep with human figures. The last figure is a priest who holds the elements of Communion so that the children can identify Christ in the Eucharist.
“They discover it on their own… It comes within them,” Johnson said.
In many ways, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd enables a young child to learn about God’s love for them the same way they learn about gravity, force, the change of seasons and so on. It employs the child’s natural curiosity and need to discover on his or her own.
“When I went out to visit the atrium in Palmyra, I was really impressed with the whole way it is set up,” Father Kilcawley said. “It’s a very effective way to teach religion to those 3- to 6-year-olds.”
Beginning July 16, parishes and Catholic schools interested in starting the program can send representatives to the training session in Palmyra. Johnson will be one of the formation trainers, along with Marilee Quinn of Kansas, who has been working with children in the atrium since 2000.
The eight sessions will complete the first part of formation. A second part will be scheduled for a later time. Attendees are encouraged to make the materials to be used in their atriums, although many of the materials are available for purchase.
Johnson also recommends having a dedicated space. She has been able to effectively set up and take down an atrium in a multi-purpose room since the program’s inception at her parish, but it’s costly in terms of both time and wear-and-tear on the materials.
While there is no requirement in the Diocese of Lincoln to offer catechesis for preschoolers, Bishop James Conley is familiar with the program in action, and approves of more parishes offering the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
“The pastors who I have talked to, who have had it in their parishes for many years now, are all very supportive of the program,” Father Kilcawley added. “I do recommend it for all preschool programs.”
Training in Palmyra will focus on preparing catechists to facilitate Level 1 only. It will be held July 16-19 and July 30-Aug. 2. Tuition for each level is $350, with a down payment of $100 due upon registration. The registration deadline is May 1.