Imagine opening the door to a place prepared just for you. It’s a place to pray and hear God’s word through your hands. Like a small, weekly retreat, this place called the Atrium beckons visitors to quiet contemplation, much like the quiet before Mass. Unlike any place else, though, the Level I Atrium invites only the very youngest parishioners through its doors.
Yes. Quiet and kids. Yes. Kids praying and contemplating. Yes. Using their hands to hear.
The Atrium cannot simply be described as a special Montessori classroom. Though, on the surface, that’s what it is. Within its ordinary classroom walls lie the deep mysteries of our faith. These are represented in hand-made figurines and dioramas; miniature chasubles, altar, and paschal candle; a large sculpted topographical map, and many other manipulatives that the children are encouraged to work with. In Level I, which is the one we’ve created for St. Luke, it also has the eager eyes, ears, and hands of 3- to 6-year-old children.
Where did all of this come from? Over 60 year ago in Italy, a Hebrew Biblical scholar and a Montessori-trained teacher were presented with an unexpected gift. That gift was the opportunity to work with children to understand our Catholic faith. This theological dream team for children combined one woman who understood extensively the nuances of every corner of the Bible and how it’s lived out in our faith. Her teammate knew how to read what children are drawn to and put into their hands exactly what was needed to foster their development. Together they built and sculpted and painted and cut and created and researched and tested various narratives and themes for over 30 years. The outcome was Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
Much like the mustard seed, this formation grew and spread throughout the world. It is so well-received that the Missionaries of Charity, St. Theresa of Calcutta’s order, began using it to form new members. The order sited, “. . . here we find the true spirit of poverty; here we learn true contemplation.” What’s more, during his pontificate, Pope Saint John Paul II visited one of the original Atria and watched the children work. Now, many countries have national offices to support to their Atria. In the US, cgsusa.org offers catechists resources online and hand-picks trainers to run formation classes for new catechists across the country.
In an unprecedented way, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd views the child not as a person who needs instruction, but as a person who already possesses a deep relationship with God that deserves to be cultivated. The Atrium experience, then, seeks to draw out evidence of that relationship by offering space, time, prayer language, and concrete Biblical examples of the great love already written on the child’s heart.
Level I focuses on the unique needs of children ages 3 to 6. Level II provides for the 6-9 year-old child, and Level III serves the 9-12 year-old age bracket. There’s even a new level being piloted for 18-month to 3 year-olds. As a child’s capacity for understanding grows, so does the breadth of presentations given. Each level builds on the next, never abandoning the lessons from the last, but adding to them instead.
It is the child who discovers God’s love and wisdom in the Atrium. Instead of being told the answers, catechists are trained to walk with children in their contemplation. They ask the children appropriate questions to help lead them to the next revelation of Christ’s message to us. Who among us isn’t more invested and excited about something solved for oneself? If you’ve ever created something, worked out the kinks, and brought it to completion, then you know the importance of that kind of accomplishment. The Good Shepherd method allows kids that opportunity.
Long before the children lay eyes on the beauty hidden in that room and in the lessons the Holy Spirit longs to bestow on them, the catechists and their families, friends, and fellow parishioners have spent weeks, months, and even years preparing the space. Just as the bricks and stones of the magnificent churches of old were so lovingly laid, each piece in the Atrium is carefully crafted by hand and placed in just the right spot, at just the right height.
It is in the preparation of the room that catechists speak the understanding they’ve been given of the Gospel message, not in direct instruction with the child. A common saying heard by Sofia Cavalletti, creator of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd method, was, “The doctrine is in the works.”
The moms- or grandpas-turned artisans are called into a deep conversation with The Creator while they take time making each piece. The understanding showered down in those moments floods the soul with humility. Just think of struggling to sculpt a simple static statue of a Biblical character while noting the complexity with which God sculpted humanity. The lessons, like God’s love, are inexhaustible.
With the help of the St. Luke Men’s Club and the Saint Luke Altar Society, we’ve made tremendous headway toward completion of our Level I Atrium at St. Luke, as you can see in the video. But, there will always be more to do. If you’d like to share in this experience with us, please find our SignUp Genius list for the remaining to-do list.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is built on the solid foundation of true faith in the Holy Spirit. Adult catechists spend their time each week in the Atrium inviting children to listen to God’s words read straight from the Bible, and work with the materials that illustrate the doctrinal content of what they just heard. (Hence, the hearing with their hands!) But the catechists cannot be compared to or called teachers. A catechist’s job is to prepare the space and works, invite, and present. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to enlighten the minds in that room and draw them to the materials their hearts need time to ponder.
To be a catechist does not require an extensive theological background or even previous work with children. Instead, it only requires commitment.
Each catechist attends 90 or more hours of training for each level of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. During the sessions, they’re given the same presentations they themselves will later give to the children. Trainers also dive into relevant child development stages and the Biblical background of the doctrinal content of the presentations. Not only does such intensive training allow time for the material to sink in, it arms catechists with a firm grasp of the faith and time-tested ways to pass it on to kids.
If you’d like to become a catechist, email us at [email protected] so we can send you training and scholarship information. If you’d like to offer scholarship money for others to go, we’ll gladly accept!
The Future of CGS at St. Luke
Our small team of catechists has a huge list of hopes and dreams for the continuation and growth of CGS at St. Luke. This year marks our first session offered alongside traditional faith formation classes.
In the long-term, we really hope to have all four levels, offer training at our church, serve the parish and the school communities, and enliven the faith of all those who help us on the way with plenty of chances to craft, build, paint, and contemplate.