This year marks the 11th anniversary of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Australia. As well as in Brisbane, there are now several centres being established in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Perth, Tasmania, and in regional centres throughout Queensland.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd began when the late Maria Montessori, in response to the call of Pius X in 1909 for the education of the faithful to enable them to participate more fully in the liturgy, sought to find a way to make the liturgy accessible to children so that they might 'be admitted to the most intimate and sublime act of religious life - communion with Christ' (The Child in the Church, M. Montessori, ed. E.M. Standing).
A child's soul
Maria Montessori's vision drew others to it. Fr Casulleras, a Vincentian from Guatemala, Fr Calsascar, the chaplain to the Children's House in Barcelona, the Sisters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul working in the orphanages in the Balearic Islands, the Abbot of the Benedictine Sanctuary of Our Lady of Montserrat and a colleague of Montessori, Anna Maccheroni, submitted proposals to a Liturgical Congress held in the Basilica of Montserrat.
In 1915 the Montessori Children's House was opened in Barcelona. Dr Montessori wrote at the time of how the Montessori Method was now furnished with a long sought opportunity of penetrating deeper into the life of the child's soul and of thus fulfilling its true educational mission.
Its application had until this time been mainly in areas of general education. Eventually, however, due to the war and other factors, this work was discontinued in Barcelona, though some of the ideas were taken up and used in England.
In 1954 in Rome it was taken up again, quite unexpectedly, by an academic, a scholar of Hebrew and Scripture, Dr Sofia Cavalletti, who was also a member of the Vatican Commission for Jewish/Christian relations. She says now 'we began without knowing we had begun.'
Unfamiliar with working with children, Dr Cavalletti agreed to work with a seven-year-old to help him prepare for First Communion. A number of other children joined them and after a few weeks a friend introduced Dr Cavalletti to a Montessori educator, Professor Gianna Gobbi. Together these two women began to make materials to put before the children.
Going back to the heart of Christian doctrine, they presented themes essential to the Catholic faith: the simplest and richest moments in Scripture, liturgical celebration and the sacraments. Over a twenty-year period, through their observation, the responses of the children helped them to discover those themes which most fed the religious needs of particular age groups. Thus what has come to be known as the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd came into being.
What began in a hidden way, just a short walk from the Vatican, spreading first of all to the United States and Canada, then to Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina, was by 1990 also in Chad, Germany, and Austria. It first came to Australia in 1995 and is now in Ireland, Jamaica, Uganda, Japan, South Africa, New Zealand and Singapore as well.
This work of making a way for our youngest children to discover for themselves their special relationship to God, through the primary image of Jesus the Good Shepherd, takes place in a specially prepared environment known as an atrium. The name was given by Montessori herself, in recalling that space in the Roman basilicas where the catechumens were prepared for full life in the Church. It can best be described as a place which stands between the home, the school and the church, a place in which 'all is a passage to prayer, or prayer itself .'
The perfect time to commence in this Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is at the age of three, when the child's capacity for wonder and for 'falling in love' with God are at an optimum. It is such a delight to see these little ones, faces shining, rapt in a work of their choice, that ushers them into the presence of God and to witness if ever so briefly that encounter when the mystery of God and the mystery of the child come together.
In the atrium are to be found small tables and chairs, rugs and stools, and shelving at the children's height, containing many simple yet beautifully made models and materials which offer an invitation to discover.
Some materials enable children to engage in the practical activities of daily life, which will build their sense of personal dignity and prepare them for success in future activities. Some introduce the person of Jesus and the stories he told. Others introduce children to elements of the liturgy and the celebrations of the liturgical cycle.
If one should visit an atrium while the children are present, one might see individual children at work by themselves, meditating with the use of a set of materials on some aspect of the Scriptures, perhaps something from the life of Jesus such as a Land of Israel relief map, the infancy narratives, the parables, or the Last Supper. While some may be looking at a book, dusting a shelf, polishing a wooden item, or watering the plants in the surrounds, others may be engaging in a liturgical activity such as setting up the model altar, laying out the liturgical colours, meditating on a moment/ gesture from the Mass or working with the vestments.
Art expression is also encouraged. At some time while the children are there, the catechist will gather a small group and introduce them to a new set of materials with accompanying points for meditation. Thus week by week, the repertoire of available materials and meditations continues to grow. Before the children leave the session, the whole group will gather for communal prayer.
In order to prepare to work in an atrium, catechists attend a comprehensive training course for each of three levels, Level 1 for children aged 3-6, Level 2 for children aged 6-9, and Level 3 for children aged 9- 12.
One special feature of this catechesis is the way it draws in parents and family members, often at first to help in some way, but later to discover for themselves what it is that draws and feeds the spirit of the child in such a unique way. An oft heard request is 'when can we have this too!'
Where interest is shown in establishing an atrium, a 'Seed- Planting' evening/weekend can be arranged whereby catechists who are recognised trainers will outline the basics of how to begin and lay the groundwork for a future local training course.
We continue to see some good fruits from this work. At present, children who have come through the atrium from the age of three, and have graduated, continue to attend Mass with their families and participate in parish life and activities. Some parents of the children participating in the Sacramental Program have joined the RCIA program to become Catholics.
The work of the catechesis has at times been used as part of the RCIA program in the parish of Corinda/Graceville in Brisbane. There have been parents who have come back to their faith and are attending Mass regularly because of what their three-year-old child shares of his/ her experience in the atrium.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd web site can be found at www.cgsaust.org.au
All inquiries about the catechesis may be addressed to:
Anne Delsorte, Director, Graceville Atrium, 19 Randolph Street, Graceville, Qld 4075, tel (07) 3379-6267, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or
Mary Hare, President, Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Australia, 18 Michaela Cres, The Gap, Qld 4061, tel (07) 3511-0470, email: email@example.com