From book-based religious education to experiential, hands-on faith formation, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) gives children the nurturing support and environment to grow their relationship with Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit. Father Philip Rodgers, Pastor of the Church of St. Benedict in Mohnton, Pennsylvania, and Valerie Christo, the Director of Religious Education (DRE), adopted this uniquely spiritual program for their parish children. Valerie, who has been DRE at St. Benedict for the past 27 years, talks about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
GS is a Montessori-based approach to faith formation for children, developed by biblical scholar Sofia Cavalletti and her collaborator and co-worker Gianna Gobbi in Italy in 1954. The religious education program is rooted in Scripture and the liturgy of the Church. It is now offered in 37 countries worldwide, including the United States.
How many parishes in the Allentown Diocese have implemented the CGS approach for their children?
I believe St. Benedict is the only parish in the Diocese using this method of catechesis for our young children. CGS is offered in addition to our traditional Parish Religious Education Program (PREP). They are two distinct approaches provided for the religious education of our parish children, and it is the parent’s decision to choose which program best meets their children’s needs.
How long has CGS been used at St. Benedict?
It has been five years. Training the catechists and building the Atrium in a dedicated space require considerable time and effort. Our volunteer catechists began working on the program in 2014 and it was implemented in 2015. It took one year for the catechists to be certified and to build the Atrium for Level I. We completed the Atrium for Level II last summer, and this summer 2020, we will begin the Atrium for Level III. We continue to grow the program.
What is the Atrium?
The Atrium is an almost sacred place where the children are reverent and listen to the Teacher’s voice. In this specially furnished space in which the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd session takes place, the children are encouraged to reflect on the catechist’s presentation and to experiment with the materials, as the Holy Spirit moves their hearts. Each child learns in his or her own time.
What age groups of children does CGS accommodate?
There are three levels for different age groups: Level I – 3 to 6 years old, Level II – 7 to 9 years old, and Level III – 10 to 12 years old. A child can stay in each level for three years and then advance to the next level. We follow the Montessori philosophy of education, placing children of different ages in the same level. Each level is based on a three-year cycle and conforms to the Church’s Liturgical Calendar, Years A, B, and C.
What levels are offered at St. Benedict?
We currently offer Levels I and II at St. Benedict, with a total of 32 children attending. In 2015, we started with six children in Level I. There are now 17 students in Level I and 15 in Level II. Our staff includes three catechists presenting Level I, with the help of other mothers and teen volunteers, and two more catechists are in training for Level 1. Two additional catechists present Level II, also with assistance from other mothers and teen volunteers. Levels I and II meet once a week, and sessions are available Sunday mornings or Thursday evenings. Each session includes ten or less children. We anticipate offering Level III this year, and one volunteer catechist is expected to complete training for certification in Level III.
Since the CGS method is unique to St. Benedict within the Diocese, how did the parish come to adopt the program?
I first heard about the program from the mother of one of my PREP students. She had moved from another state to this area and had been trained and certified as a CGS catechist there. Our conversation about the program initiated my interest. Then Father Phil, our Pastor, sent me to a workshop for the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), of which I am a member, in Pittsburg in the spring of 2014. At the workshop, I elected to attend a session on Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in order to learn more about this religious education approach. It was my first real encounter with the program, and I was excited about it. On my return, we invited that mother who was a trained CGS catechist to provide Father Phil, members of our staff, and me a presentation about the program. We fell in love with it and fully embraced the CGS method, and Father Phil was very supportive of moving forward with this program at St. Benedict.
Are there particular activities and emphasis for each Level?
Level I: The focal point for Level I is the scripture story of the Good Shepherd and his flock. The young children come to the session with simplicity of mind and heart. They listen and learn in a quiet, meditative environment, led by the Holy Spirit. Through the catechist’s presentation and reflective time for hands-on experience with the materials designed for curious minds, they come to know Jesus is the Good Shepherd who loves us, cares for us, and calls us each by name. In this way, we believe, the children build their relationship with Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, in their own time.
During the session, the catechist will read directly from scripture, proclaiming the Word of God. The catechist’s presentation will address scripture, using parables and demonstrating moral themes with specially designed materials. The materials, mini-sized and built for small hands, are aids the children can experience meditatively by seeing, touching, and moving them about, connecting with the Word of God or the liturgy, all guided by the Spirit. In Level I, some of the materials available for the children to ponder include three-dimensional scenes or figures of the Good Shepherd, the sheep, and the sheepfold; the Last Supper with Christ and all the apostles; the City of Jerusalem; the tabernacle, altar, and sacred vessels used in the Mass; and the liturgical colors.
Level II: In this level, the children build on the faith foundation formed in Level I and on their relationship with God, which begins to expand outward to the community. The focus in this level is that direct connection with Jesus as the True Vine. The children come to recognize themselves as the branches. By reflecting quietly on the catechist’s presentation and the image of the vine and branches, the children learn they stay connected to Jesus through obedience to his commandments, prayer, and the sacraments. Preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist is also available in this level.
The children begin to delve into salvation history by examining the timeline posted, at their eye level, on the wall in Atrium 2. Using materials such as maps, geography, a view of the cities of Israel, they begin to see Jesus as a real person who walked on the earth rather than a story book figure. It becomes very real to them that He had feelings, He was happy, He was sad. With reflection and prayer, and through the Holy Spirit, they begin to see Jesus as true God and true man.
Level III: The timeline of salvation history introduced in Level II serves as the transition to a keener focus in Level III. Tracing history from Creation to Redemption to Parousia, the older children hear more about the Judeo-Christian roots of Christianity, with the timeline demonstrating the continuity of God’s plan that evokes a personal response. So even as they realize their insignificance, they recognize each has a role to play in this plan. Through a broader view of Scriptural and liturgical presentations, the children, led by the Spirit, contemplate how to live out their roles in their relationship with God and in the larger Christian community.
Is specialized training required for a CGS catechist?
The training is extensive and requires quite a commitment from our volunteer catechists. They receive 90 plus hours of training for Level I, and they travel to Philadelphia to attend formation courses one Saturday a month from nine to five. It takes one year for the catechists to be certified and to build the Atrium. Similarly, our catechists attend 120 hours of training for Level II and travel to Philadelphia or New Jersey, depending on where the course is offered. In addition, one of our volunteers is training for certification in Level III at the closest facility offering this training in Virginia. Our catechist took a compressed, one-week course last summer, attending Monday through Sunday for eight hours each day, and will complete the formation attending another one-week course this summer in Virginia.
During training, the catechists develop the presentations to be given to the children over the three-year liturgical cycle. They receive assistance in preparation of “album” pages or talking points on each presentation, along with guidance in making the materials used for demonstration and in building the Atrium.
Can materials be purchased or are they all hand-made?
We purchased only the representation of the City of Jerusalem and the Good Shepherd with the sheep and the sheepfold. We also ordered wooden materials that needed to be finished, assembled, and painted such as the Liturgical Calendar, dioramas, and puzzle maps. Everything else has been hand-made based on measurements and directions obtained during the catechists’ training. All the other child-sized materials have been made by the catechists and their husbands, senior citizens of the parish, the Women’s Club, and many others. They cut wood, painted, sewed, and crafted everything needed to furnish the Atrium; it was a beautiful connection among the people of the parish.
For more information on the program, please contact:
Mrs. Valerie Christo, Director of Religious Education
Saint Benedict Church
2020 Chestnut Hill Rd, Mohnton, PA 19540
Phone: (610) 856-5146