The atrium is the meeting ground of two mysteries:
the mystery of God and the mystery of the child
interpersonal relationship is always a mystery; it is more so when it involves a relationship with God; when the relationship
is between God and the child the mystery is greater still. (Sofia Cavalletti, RPOC, p. 30)
Children's Religious Formation
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is an approach to the religious formation
of children that is based on the conviction that God and the Child are in relationship. Our role as adults is to protect and
nurture this bond. In the Catechesis we present age-appropriate themes from the Bible and our liturgy with manipulative materials
the children use to internalize and ponder the great mysteries of our faith.
We try to put the child in touch with those "sources" through which
God reveals and communicates Himself in living form; namely, the Bible and Liturgy, in balanced proportion. (Rebekah
Rojcewicz, RPOC, p.28)
of the Good Shepherd
Developed by Sofia Cavalletti, an Italian Hebrew scripture
scholar, building on the work and methods of Maria Montessori, the Catechesis seeks to give children the guidance and vocabulary
which enable them to become aware of their relationship with God and give expression to it. With the Catechesis we help each
child to continue to fall in love with God while building community among peers.
[The atrium] is a place where the child comes to know the great realities
of...life as a Christian, but also and above all, a place where the child begins to live these realities in meditation and
prayer. There is nothing of the academic classroom about the atrium; it is not a place for religious instruction but
religious life. (Sofia Cavalletti, RPOC, p. 56)
Materials aid the children in understanding Scripture & Liturgy.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd takes its name
from the parable and image of Jesus that seemed to appeal most to young children, no matter what their race, gender, and/or
socio-economic status. The statue above is representative of the one of the earliest known Christian images,
discovered in the catacombs of Rome.*
Each level of the child’s work explores the fundamental
theme of covenant, God’s call and our response, as reflected in the Bible and as lived in liturgy. At Level I the 3-6
year-olds have the capacity to receive and enjoy the most essential elements of our faith: the mysteries of the Kingdom of
God, the announcement of God’s love given for us in the person of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. At Level II the 6-9 year-olds
focus on the image of the True Vine, deepening their relationship with God, family, friends and the larger community as they
prepare for and celebrate communion, broadening their understanding of Mass. At Level III 9-12 year-olds listen to the Old
Testament, following the history of God’s plan for salvation, linking all people together in communion. They begin to
ask, “What is the Reign of God, and what is my place in it?” It is a primary question which lays the foundation
for a lifetime commitment to God.
Children need their own place to work with these essentials and many other key elements of our faith. This
place is called an atrium. Montessori coined this term recalling the part of the Early Christian church building
where catechumens would gather in preparation to join the church. Each atrium is specially designed with child-sized furniture
including a prayer table for gathering, a model altar, as well as materials to deepen their familiarity with more parables
and the Mass itself. After being presented with new material in a small group, children are free to choose work which particularly
speaks to them to foster the growth of their own relationships with God.
The role of the adult in the atrium is secondary. It is the child’s
own inner guide and teacher, the Holy Spirit, which directs the mind and heart. The importance of the catechist is to place
materials within reach and share scripture that fills a particular longing at each stage in a child’s spiritual life.
Biblical geography helps place Jesus
in time and space.
Creating an Atrium:
Part of the Deep Formation Process of a Catechist
The atrium is a calm and peaceful place where time seems to slow down.
Children and catechists listen to God together through silence, scripture, liturgy, song, formal and informal prayer,
ordinary practical life exercises, and movement. In this setting, and given the opportunity, children often reveal
profound things about God that no one has ever told them. The materials and movement are an aid to their reflections
on scripture and liturgy and their rich relationship with God .
Most of the materials
in an atrium are made by hand by the catechists and faith group associated with the atrium. Ideally the unique
character of the community or parish and their worship space will be reflected in the materials and the overall environment.
Making materials by hand and searching for particular items are a deep part of the formation process of the catechists
who train approximately 90 - 120 hours for each level. Sometimes,when a catechist, pastor and/or Director
of Faith Formation first realize that CGS is not a program that can (or should) be ordered from a catalogue and that the training
for just one level may take from 1 to 2 years, it may seem like a daunting (maybe even impossible) task
lies ahead. Yet the overall experience of studying the Catechesis, making materials, learning to interact with children
and understand them in a wholly different way than one was used to, and listening to God with children, often becomes
one of the most powerful, life-changing and formative faith experiences of a catechist''s life. CGS training has often
been likened to the formation process of religious orders. Indeed, to be a CGS catechist is a calling, and listening
to God together with the children, and through the children, becomes a holy and transcendent experience. a CThe Catechesis of the od Shepherd is a "low" work. But it's well worth it. Things
that take time to do and learn often often result in greater depth of understanding.GS catechist is a calling, a
* The Missionaries of Charities, Mother Teresa's order, are
now receiving training in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and are implementing this approach in various cities.
Photos are from an atrium in Alexandria, Virginia http://www.sharonchapel.org/cate03.html and the Annapolis Atrium