Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi started the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Rome in 1954. Cavalletti had a doctorate in Hebrew and Comparative Semitic Languages with a specialization in Philology and Semitic Culture and History. She was also a specialist in the field of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. Gobbi was an educator who had worked with Maria Montessori in the 1940’s. Together they created the program and watched it spread to every continent.
The first experiments using the method for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd were with middle class children in Rome but it “developed rather rapidly in other centers including agricultural and industrial passing therefore through the filter of children from different cultures. The children's reaction to the themes were always the same” (RPC 23). The program spoke to the children regardless of the language, it was more than what was said; it was the method. Cavalletti believed it was “important to base catechesis on a few essential elements that are able to reveal themselves to the child” and that the most vital is the experience of love pointing to the parable of the Good Shepherd: “the gift of the Good Shepherd’s love, therefore not only fulfills the deepest of our vital needs but realizes what seems to be the fundamental law of life” (RPC 26-27).
Jesus tells us “...I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10 :10-11). The Good Shepherd’s love is the most essential and the Good Shepherd resonates with the children.
The space between the street and inner sanctum of an ancient basilica was called an atrium. It was a place to prepare oneself for church. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd borrows this concept and creates an Atrium “where the child can experience religious life and can come to know the realities which feed this life” (LGC 4). In the Atrium “the only teacher is Christ; both children and the adults place themselves in a listening stance before his Word” (GSC 97).
The Atrium is where the children work with the educational materials and “is a particular environment in which work easily becomes meditation and prayer” (LGC 5). The Atrium is adapted to the child’s life, and is free of obstacles, all the items are sized a for children, nothing is to heavy or delicate, everything is for the child’s use. The Atrium is a space set aside for the children but more than that, because it’s planned in every detailed, it is not merely a place for children, it’s a place just for children.
The most important area in the Atrium is the prayer table. The prayer table is dressed in the colors of the liturgical year and holds a bible, a candle and a figure of the Good Shepherd. It is the prayer space for the children.
Near the end of each session, a child will ring a bell to signal the other children to put away what they are working with and gather at the prayer table for “a few minutes of silence and sung prayers so as to end the session on a note of communal celebrating” (GSC 90).
During our prayer time children will offer prayers or songs. Prayer cards are used to help enrich a child’s prayers language. Prayer cards contain images or a single word or short phrase such as “Alleluia”, and “Glory to God” to expand the child’s prayer language. The children are then given time to sit in silence to allow for spontaneous prayer.
“Prayer time is a not a substitute for church… but the most beautiful and genuine prayers are given birth to at the prayer table more than anywhere else” (RPC 133).
The Atrium also includes a smaller version of a church altar which helps the child come to understand the meaning and purpose of dressing the altar, but it’s at the prayer table that we come together as a community to pray.
THE WORKS (MATERIALS)
The materials or ‘works’ in the Atrium are designed for the child to use independently and “are meant to facilitate meditation and lead to prayer” (LGC 19, 24). The materials are intended to develop and refine the senses (sensorial). They serve to “engage the child’s sensory motor abilities and invite interest” (GSC 26).
Each work has a point of interest that engages the senses. It may be the weight and feel of a smooth weighted silver chalice or smell of a lit candle that draws the child in. Each work focuses on and isolates a particular theological point. The work needs to help the child focus on what is the most essential. For the material to be useful to the child it must be simple, essential and limited in the elements of the doctrinal content which it is made to stress (LGC 25).
All the works in the Atrium will be simple enough for the child to use independently after the initial presentation. To facilitate this, all the pieces for a given lesson are kept together. To draw the child in, every aspect of each item is considered. The attractiveness, the size, color and the harmony with the rest of the room are all considered so it fits seamlessly in the Atrium.
In addition to liturgical works, there are practical life works. A child can’t prepare cruets if they haven’t mastered pouring. If the child can’t fold they can’t fold the fair linen for the altar. A child who can’t tidy and clean can’t leave a work attractive and inviting for the next child. Thus, practical life works are also liturgical, just less obviously so.
THE TRAINED CATECHIST
Each catechist (adult facilitator) takes a year-long training program that includes classroom and practical training as well as visiting other Atriums and Montessori schools. The adult catechist has a special role: they not only proclaim the Good News but they also serve to bring the environment and materials to life (LGC 12). The catechist “directs the activity of the child in a discreet manner. Leaving the child to continue on his own whenever the child is capable of doing so” (LGC 14).
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd relies on the notion that it should be “a religious experience which is shared by adults and children” (LGC 15). “Listening in community is always enriching. It can be extremely stimulating for the adult who places [themself] in a position of listening together with the community of children, for they will easily involve the adult in the wondrous admiration which is characteristic of young children” (RPC 49). Additionally, each catechist makes their own materials to the greatest extent practical for “making the materials by hand is an essential way of entering more deeply into the theme we will present to the children” (LGC 28).
A WALKTHROUGH OF PRESENTING THE WORK
The presentation of a work such as the parable of the Good Shepard is carefully planned. “After gathering the children and inviting them to still their bodies briefly the parable is introduced…the text is read solemnly from the bible with a lit candle which helps to stress the importance of God’s word and God’s presence as we listen” (GSC 40). The materials are presented in a lesson with three parts (more formally three periods). First, the sensory experience of an object is associated with its name. Second, children are led to recognize the object by its name; the child may be asked to point out or name an object, be it the sheep fold or the chalice. The third part focuses on remembering the name of the object (LGC 31).
“The children’s responses might spontaneously come forth at any moment…but it is important to allow space at the end of the presentation…some of the richest prayerful responses of the young child come first in the form silence or sighs or the pleasure of simple proclamation such as ‘I like the Good Shepherd’” (GSC 42). The materials are then put away so that they are left in an inviting way for the next child. The materials are presented to one or two children at a time. Once a work is presented, the child can bring out the materials on their own in the future for their own exploration and meditation.
We’ve attempted here to describe, at the highest level, what Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is. But it is an experience over time of coming closer to God, rather than an event or product. “The child in the encounter with God, delights in the satisfaction of a profound exigence of his person… in helping the child’s religious life far from imposing something that is foreign to him we are responding to the child’s silent request ‘Help me come closer to God by myself’” (RPC 45).
A child may produce a picture or other creation but it’s a spontaneous picture from what they have experienced rather than a drawing they have been asked to produce. Some days, they may not create anything but utter a deep prayer that is not remembered after. Rather than “What did you do?” or “What did you make?” a better question for your child would be “What did you notice today?” They may say “a candle” but that candle represented the light of Christ. So, yeah, they noticed Christ.
If you would like more information or would like to tour the Sharon Chapel Atrium, please contact us.
(See Books in the Resources section below for full details.)
RPC: The Religious Potential of the Child
LGC: Listening to God with Children
GSC: The Good Shepherd and the Child
Children and God from Speaking of Faith (Minnesota Public Radio, December 18, 2003; text and audio)
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in a Parish Setting by Tina Lillig; Liturgy Training Publications, 1998
The Good Shepherd and the Child: A Joyful Journey by Sofia Cavalletti, Patricia Coulter, Gianna Gobbi, and Silvana Quattrocchi Montanaro; Liturgy Training Publications, 1996
Listening to God with Children by Gianna Gobbi, Trans./Ed. Rebekah Rojcewicz; Treehaus Communications, 1998
Living Liturgy: Elementary Reflections by Sofia Cavalletti, Trans. Patricia A. Coulter and Julie Coulter-English; Liturgy Training Publications, 1998
The Religious Potential of the Child by Sofia Cavalletti, Trans. Patricia M. Coulter and Julie M. Coulter; Liturgy Training Publications, 1992