Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
In one corner of the room, a young child quietly takes 12 small wooden figures of the Apostles out of a drawer and slowly puts each in it’s place around the miniature table with Jesus for the Last Supper. Another child, at a learning station, positions small wooden sheep around a statue of a shepherd.
In another corner, a youngster slings miniature versions of the different colored vestments over models while examining the meaning of each. In another area, a child is preparing the miniature sacred altar to celebrate the Eucharist, complete with water and wine for the small chalice.
What might look a lot like playtime is actually the blossoming of knowledge and love of Jesus right before your eyes. The hands-on lessons, which might resemble toys to the unknowing observer, allow the children to relate to Jesus in a new way.
Children enrolled in religious education classes are often observers. We pour the information into the children and send them forth hoping that something “sinks in” on their journey to understanding and establishing a relationship with God. The youth faith formation program at Corpus Christi in Bismarck offers children a different way to foster the growth of that relationship through a program called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
The scenarios described above allow the child to direct his or her own learning process. The catechist’s role is to prepare the environment, and to give selected presentations from scripture and liturgy and stand back and observe the child’s response.
“The children discover, in their own way, that they are the sheep in God’s flock,” explains Mariah Conner, director of preschool and elementary faith formation. “God and child are already in a relationship. Our job as catechists is to build on that and let them realize that Jesus was a real person, in a real city, in a real time and place.”
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is an approach to the religious formation of children 3-12 years of age. It originated in 1954 in Rome by Sophia Cavalletti, and was inspired by the principles of Maria Montessori. The Catechesis is based on the conviction that given the right tools and materials, the children are able to develop and nurture their relationship with God on their terms.
Four years ago when Conner was teaching in the pre-school program at Corpus Christi, the opportunity was presented to travel to Denver to train for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. “I immediately fell in love with the program. As the children discover stories of the Bible, for instance, they pull that knowledge into their world and interpret and sort it out.”
The place of learning is referred to as the atrium. Montessori coined this term recalling the part of the Early Christian church building where catechumens would gather in preparation to join the church. The website for Corpus Christi describes this as a special space as the meeting ground of two mysteries: the mystery of God and the mystery of the child.
The atrium resembles a school classroom with different stations for learning and reflection. Conner explains that each atrium is specially designed with child-sized furniture including a prayer table for gathering, a model altar, as well as materials to deepen their familiarity with the parables and the Mass itself.
After being presented with new material in a small group, children are able to move about the room engaging in hands-on independent learning. The room is quiet for the most part so the children have a chance to absorb the information and engage their minds. Instructors are on hand to assist whenever the children request it.
The program is taught all over the world; and the staff at Corpus Christi Church was the first to be trained and implement the program in the diocese. Typically, the training involves travel, but in order to share the program locally, they are brining trainers to Bismarck beginning May 22. Those interested will participate in five weekends throughout the year to complete level one certification.
Anyone interested in the training sessions or helping out with the program can contact Conner at 701-255-3104 or