Zelie Zach of St. Peter Parish in Omaha moves wooden sheep figures into the sheepfold during the Good Shepherd “presentation” (lesson) at Montessori Learning Home, one of several Catechesis of the Good Shepherd “Atriums” at parishes and schools in Omaha. KIMBERLY JANSEN

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Catechesis of the Good Shepherd helps young children learn about Jesus’ love and care

At first glance, a Montessori-based religious formation program called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) houses an unusual collection of items in its classrooms (called “Atriums”). For example, visitors to a CGS atrium may notice a candle, a relief map, a wooden circle with colorful pieces and a bowl of beans.

Although it isn’t immediately clear to an outside observer how these ordinary items foster a child’s relationship with God, Brooke Keller, CGS catechist at St. Stephen the Martyr School in Omaha, said that each of the materials was carefully chosen and deliberately designed for a specific lesson called a “presentation.”

She explained that the candle recalls the Sacrament of Baptism, and the map displays the topography of the Holy Land. The colorful circle represents the Church’s liturgical seasons in purple, green, red and white.

But what about the bowl of beans?

Keller explained that young children enjoy repetitive actions like scooping small items from one bowl to another. This hands-on approach is integral to the Montessori philosophy, she said, noting that it creates an opportunity for children to ponder the mysteries of faith at a deeper level.

“The ‘practical life works’ like pouring water and scooping beans teach the children how to calm themselves, which can then lead to prayer and contemplation,” Keller said.

Jessi Wilkerson, a CGS catechist at Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk, has witnessed this in action. She said children as young as three years old can spend 15-20 minutes in the Atrium just transferring water back and forth with a sponge.

“We’re teaching the children to have control over their bodies,” Wilkerson said. “If they can sit and concentrate on two bowls of water and a sponge for 15 minutes, it really helps them to quiet their mind and soul as well.”

Keller said she often asks the children, “How do we prepare our bodies to hear God’s voice?” She said catechists model slow movements and quiet speech, in addition to leading the children in games that teach “sitting tall” and breathing deeply.

Keller said a teacher friend in Kansas claims she can tell which high school students experienced the Atrium as youngsters based on their ability to quiet themselves as teenagers. Remarkably, developing a readiness and capacity for prayer is a gift that can remain throughout a child’s life, she said. 

Another cornerstone of CGS is immersion in the Scriptures, with a particular emphasis on prophecies and parables. The foundational parable is the Good Shepherd, said Kathy Pflug, coordinator of CGS at St. Thomas More Parish and School in Omaha.

“The idea is to introduce the child to Jesus as the Good Shepherd who protects them, loves them and knows them by name,” Pflug said. “At age three to six, what a child needs is protection and love.”

For the Good Shepherd presentation, Pflug explained that the catechist introduces a wooden sheepfold surrounding small figures of a shepherd and his sheep. While reading the Bible passage, she said the catechist moves the figures so the child can witness the sheep following the Shepherd’s voice.

At the end of any presentation Pflug said the catechist does not tell or ask the child what the parable means. Instead, the catechist says, “I wonder what this means?”

“It may sound the same to an adult ear, but you’re wondering with the children,” Wilkerson said, “rather than putting yourself in a position of ‘I know the answer, and you don’t.’”

Keller agreed.

“The biggest thing I’m learning (as a catechist), is that I’m not listening to God for the children,” she said. “I’m listening to God with the children.”

Keller emphasized that the goal is for the children to discover on their own that they are the sheep who are known, loved and called by name.

“It’s a guiding, rather than a telling,” she said, noting that the title “catechist” instead of “teacher” is intentional in CGS. “Jesus is the teacher in the Atrium. I’m just here to help the children hear his voice. I proclaim God’s word, and then they let it settle in their hearts.”

Sister Chiara Francisco of the Leaven of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters recognized this dynamic while teaching religion at St. Michael’s School in South Sioux City.

“I always felt personally awkward when I was teaching. I thought, ‘I would like to get out of the way and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work,’ and that is exactly what I found with CGS,” said Sister Chiara, who is now assigned to her order’s mission in Ohio.

Following each presentation by the catechist, the children are given access to the materials – in this case the wooden shepherd and sheep. Some children choose to re-enact the parable. Others draw pictures of their experience with the Scripture passage.

Katie Wood, a catechist at Mary our Queen Parish in Omaha, marveled at the variety of children’s responses.

“When the deepest, most essential aspects of our faith are presented … they respond with their whole heart – in song, giggles, surprise and delight, and yes, sometimes in silent awe,” Wood said.

Pflug said spiritual insight can come forth spontaneously. One child heard the presentation of the empty tomb and then exclaimed, “Is that going to happen to us?”

“He just had an idea that we were going to join Jesus,” Pflug said, emphasizing that there hadn’t been any direct teaching about heaven.

Another child went home and arranged his bedroom as an atrium and invited his family to join him for special prayer time, she said.

“They do bring it home, and we hope that does evangelize their parents as well,” Pflug said.

According to the catechists, CGS has impacted their lives too.

“It’s been a real turning point in my own faith,” Wilkerson said, adding that she thinks of her CGS formation almost every time she prays, opens the Scriptures or attends Mass.

“The adults sign up because they want it for their kids, but they don’t realize the gift they’re going to receive,” Keller said, “It’s learning that the Good Shepherd loves you as an adult as well.”