Program being used at Holy Spirit, St. Martin of Tours parishes inspired by Montessori teaching
By MARINELLA LENTIS
For The Catholic Week
MONTGOMERY — Young children beginning CCD this fall at Holy Spirit Parish in Montgomery and at St. Martin of Tours in Troy will experience a different way of learning about their faith thanks to the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
Inspired by the Montessori teaching approach, this catechesis was developed in the 1950s by two Italian women who wanted to nurture children’s innate religious sense and their relationship with God.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd consists of presentations of biblical stories starting with the New Testament (typically the infancy narratives) and aspects of the liturgy by a specifically trained catechist, followed by children’s independent use of “materials” — or manipulatives in Montessori jargon—such as three-dimensional objects, diorama, and small reproductions of biblical events, environments or liturgical items that serve to help reflection on the presentations heard and the questions these may generate in children.
This educational approach addresses the whole person and, for this reason, it happens in a carefully prepared environment called the atrium.
This is a room that does not look like a classroom, but is an inviting space where everything is small, made to fit the size of the children, so it can be a sacred place, a place of prayer and worship in preparation for the most sacred place of worship which is the sanctuary. Materials in the atrium are organized so children can freely choose which activity or work they want to pursue after catechists’ presentations.
“Through this catechesis, the growth of the children’s relationship with God is assisted by an adult, but it’s really guided by the Holy Spirit,” stated Charity Firestone, director of faith formation at Holy Spirit Parish and Good Shepherd catechist. “The focus is to let children think about things they are presented, so they can get to know Jesus with their heart through the work of the Holy Spirit.”
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, in fact, wants to help children use wondering questions and form ideas about who God is so they can “fall in love” with Him by themselves.
They are not given answers or information about the faith on which they are drilled. They learn from the only teacher — the Divine Teacher in the atrium. Not only is this approach age appropriate and it doesn’t dumb things down for children. It is also a faith formation tool for adults.
Rebecca Sanders, catechist at St. Martin of Tours in Troy, attended about 100 hours of training in Auburn.
“This catechesis really opens the gift of the Gospel and the gift of Jesus,” she said, “because everything we do points directly to Him.”
Sanders had heard of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Austin, Texas, where she lived before moving to Troy, but not having children of her own at the time, she wasn’t involved or particularly interested in it.
Things changed years later when she was introduced to it by the former DRE at Holy Spirit whom she had recently met. Sanders felt it was the Holy Spirit that guided her along this path and instilled in her the desire to become a catechist.
With the support of her pastor, Fr. Den Irwin, she jumped into it and two weeks later started her training, which she completed in the spring of 2017. In September 2017, a small atrium was opened in one of the classrooms adjacent to the parish hall and the catechesis was offered at St. Martin for the first time. Sanders will lead it again this year. While the space where the atrium is located is limited, she hopes the program will continue to grow.
At Holy Spirit, Firestone began attending the numerous hours of training necessary to become a catechist in March 2017. She is excited to see it come into light this fall. At Holy Spirit the atrium has been created in one of the elementary school’s classrooms with the hope that, in the future, more space will be available as the catechesis continues to grow. Firestone suspects that because this catechesis is much different than what students normally do in school as part of the religious education, some of them may want to participate in it once it starts.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd starts at age three and is organized in three different levels: level 1 is for ages 3-6; level 2 is for ages 6-9; and level 3 is for ages 9-12.
This fall Holy Spirit will start at level one and Firestone is expecting more than 20 children to enroll. A few volunteers recently completed some training so they can assist Firestone in the atrium.
According to Firestone, some of the catechists initially struggled with this approach to teaching the faith because it is so counter-cultural, but they soon were at peace and realized that it was an opportunity for them too to grow in their faith and love for God.
“They just have to let the Holy Spirit work!” she said.
Both Sanders and Firestone believe this catechesis will inspire greater love for Jesus in the children. Sanders has enjoyed seeing the children have moments of quiet at the prayer table and moments of joy upon realizing that they are “the lost sheep.”
They know Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but the younger ones usually discover who the sheep are through pondering the parable and working with the materials.
“That is a big moment for them,” she stated, “and getting to witness that each week is truly a gift.”