Kate Moriarty, Melbourne Catholic Magazine
I position myself on the catechist's chair: feet together, hands folded in lap. I arrange my face into an expression of attentive serenity. It has been a while since I’ve been in the Atrium. Across the room, another catechist is showing my three-year-old twins the preliminary works: sorting shells, scooping beans, matching stones, drawing a picture. The lead catechist is presenting The City of Jerusalem, an advanced work, to two five-year-olds.
A small hand touches my elbow, ‘Would you light the candles for me?’ I spring to attention then remind myself to slow down. Calmly, with deliberate steps, I walk to the shelf where the matches are kept. Picking up the box, I turn and walk to where the little boy is waiting. I try to ignore the loud pops my knees make as I crouch down to sit on the floor beside him. In front of us is a scaled-down version of an altar, a small table on which he has carefully and clumsily placed cloth, candles, crucifix, paten and chalice, all similarly scaled-down in size.
I meet the boy’s gaze with a smile, ‘Jesus died, but he is risen.’ I strike a match and light the two white birthday candles in their tiny candlestick holders. He looks at the altar, now properly set. I sit beside him as he mumbles some prayers. Then he picks up the snuffer and puts the candles out. I stagger to my feet and return to the catechist’s chair, while the boy makes the work ready for the next person.
I became involved with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd eleven years ago, when my eldest daughter was three. I was amazed by the depth and richness of this ministry, and when I was offered the opportunity to receive formation as a catechist, I signed up right away.
The ministry is divided into three levels. Level One is for ages three to six, and this is the level for which I’ve received formation (a ninety-hour course!). Level Two is for ages six to nine, and Level Three is nine to twelve. Currently, I have one son in Level Three, a son and a daughter in Level Two, and my twins in Level One.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) was developed in 1954 by Hebrew and Scripture scholar Dr Sofia Cavalletti, and Gianna Gobbi, an educator who trained with Maria Montessori. Following Montessori principles of child development, and with a firm grounding in Scripture, theology and liturgical tradition, CGS operates from the understanding that the child is already in relationship with Jesus, we simply need to provide a place to allow this relationship to deepen and flourish.
This place is called the Atrium. This is a peaceful environment where children can encounter Jesus. Here, different ‘works’ are provided and placed invitingly around the room on child-sized shelves and tables. Most of the materials are handmade by the catechists themselves, and often parishioners who are woodworkers, seamstresses or artists will donate their time to contribute to the parish atrium. When I look around the room, I can see hand-painted wooden figures, a custom-made set of miniature chasubles in purple, green, red and white, children’s aprons made in colours that match the painted wooden trays of the work to which they belong, and a papier-mâché relief map of the land of Israel. So many people have contributed to creating this atrium. It is a true work of the community.
Every atrium has three main sections: Scripture, Liturgy and Practical Life.
Scripture works allow the children to meditate on God’s word, often using small figures to act the verse out. At the three to six age level, the focus is on kingdom parables, infancy narratives and paschal narratives, as well as the central parable of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Scripture also encompasses geography works, which seek to impress upon children the understanding that Jesus was a real person in place and time. Here, among other works, is a globe with Israel marked and a wooden puzzle of the regions of Israel.
Liturgy works allow children to develop a deeper understanding of the Mass as well as other sacraments like Baptism. Works here explore nomenclature of liturgical colours and articles of the Mass, vestments, sacramental gestures and the profound mystery of the Eucharist.
Practical Life is part of the philosophy of any Montessori room. Here, children can choose works that allow them to help take care of the atrium. They might water the indoor plants or do some dusting. They may choose to put flowers in a vase or clean a spill. This is also the place to find preliminary works which help children to develop their fine motor skills.
Julie Zaar is the coordinator of CGS at St Pius X Parish and School in West Heidelberg. Kathy Menzies is the coordinator of CGS at St Scholastica’s Parish in Bennettswood. I sat down with both of them recently to discuss all things atrium.
‘We should never ignore the child, especially the young child. They have this amazing capacity for love and an incredible dignity that often gets overlooked and forgotten,’ says Julie, ‘Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is something that deeply respects the inner life of the child. We prepare a place where that inner life can flourish.’
Kathy agrees. ‘It’s important to note that the catechist isn’t the teacher,’ she says. ‘The Teacher is the Holy Spirit, the Inner Teacher. We just prepare the environment and proclaim the Word.’
St Pius X Primary will begin a Montessori stream for their Preps in 2020. This will incorporate all curriculum, including catechesis. Julie is very excited by this new venture. ‘We will be the first Catholic school in Australia to have a Montessori stream,’ she says, ‘It’s fitting because it really was the Catholic religious orders who introduced Montessori to Australia.’
Back on my catechist’s chair, I take observational notes of the children (‘Audrey is really drawn to the work with liturgical colours. Perhaps we can show her some extension works on this?’). I reflect on Kathy’s words: ‘God is speaking in their hearts and wanting to share his love with them, and we are giving them that space to allow that relationship to happen.’
Another child approaches me. Can I help with the Good Shepherd work? I move to the table where the work is set up and sit beside the child. I still have the matches in my pocket—I must remember not to take them home this time. I light the small tea-light candle (‘We light a candle to remind us that God is present in his Word.’) and read Scripture aloud from the handwritten booklet. I tell of the Good Shepherd and the love he has for his sheep. I tell of how he calls his sheep by name and nurtures them. I tell how he lays down his life for his sheep. When I finish reading, the little girl snuffs the candle and solemnly begins moving the wooden sheep and shepherd around the green sheepfold. I’m careful not to ever suggest that we are the Good Shepherd’s sheep. This is an important and profound point of discovery that she will make for herself when she is ready.
Soon, a catechist will ring the bell and we’ll all gather in the prayer corner to sing songs, say prayers and give each other the sign of peace. For now, I move slowly back to my chair. I put my feet together and my hands in my lap. My face is already happy and serene. It feels so good to be back in the atrium.
For more information on CGS, visit www.cgsaust.org.au
. For more information on the St Pius X Primary Montessori stream, contact Julie Zaar 0404 658 701.