‘Listening to God with Children’

Hayley snuffs out her candle after spending some quiet time at the prayer table in a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. (Photo – Lynn Smith)

By Meggan Michelle Young

Across the world and in many of our local parishes, young children are reflecting on Sacred Scripture, learning the rich meaning of each part of the Mass, and growing deeply in relationship with God through prayer, through a program called “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.”

The Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of children in the retreat-like environment of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. After pondering the truths of the Catholic Faith, the children often express the joy flowing from their souls, filled with God’s grace.

The foundations of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd began nearly one hundred years ago with the work of Dr. Maria Montessori. While many have heard of Montessori’s incredibly effective method of education, few realize that the method is rooted in her deeply spiritual Catholic worldview and respect for the human person.

She was the first woman to become a medical doctor in Italy, and earned doctorates in philosophy and anthropology. She used the skills from these fields to observe children, then gave them materials they could freely choose to foster their independence, concentration, and academic progress.

Maria Montessori believed that a child’s education reaches fulfillment in catechesis. She outlined her vision for religious formation for children in her book, The Child and the Church. These ideas were later developed by biblical scholar Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi, and outlined in Cavelleti’s book “The Religious Potential of the Child”, and Gobbi’s “Listening to God with Children.”

The Good Shepherd environment or “atrium” is a room carefully designed to help children listen to the Holy Spirit while working with materials suited to their developmental needs. Knowing that each child is created for a deep relationship with God, the catechist proclaims Christ through Scripture and Liturgy.

For example, the centerpiece of the atrium for young children is a wooden sheepfold with painted figures of Jesus the Good Shepherd and his sheep. The catechist invites the children to move the figures while listening to the parable as it is read from the Bible. The catechist then asks questions to help the children ponder the personal and total care of the Good Shepherd and who his sheep might be. Later a child can choose to move the materials in independent reflection, eventually discovering with great joy that he or she is a sheep of the Good Shepherd.

“Jesus said to become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and I can see why,” says Jo Thornley Cox, CGS Coordinator at St. Therese Parish, North. “They come to Scripture and Liturgy with a sense of wonder. Do they try to wrap their heads around a mystery, figure it out, solve it? No. Little children wraps their hearts around it, embrace it, revel in it. The joy and love of our faith is most apparent to them, and thus to me.” Thornley Cox is a trained CGS Catechist and a Formation Leader for training new catechists.

The level one atrium for children ages three to six is full of many other materials the children can freely choose to use as they learn and pray. These include a miniature altar and vessels of the Mass, tiny mustard seeds for pondering the mysterious growth of the Kingdom of God, a miniature model of the City of Jerusalem for reflection on the passion of Christ, and much more.

A glance inside a level two atrium for ages six to nine will reveal the elements needed for deeper reflection on Scripture and Liturgy as well as timelines of the history of the Kingdom of God and materials for exploration of the moral parables.

The children in a level three atrium for ages nine to twelve delve even more deeply into their Catholic Faith, engaging in small group Scripture reflection and pondering their call to participate in the Kingdom of God.

According to the website of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd National Office, in the United States there are over 1,250 atria. The novitiates of the Missionaries of Charities, Saint Mother Teresa’s order, are now receiving training in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as part of their formation process and are implementing this approach in various cities.

In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd environment, the catechist serves both God and the child by fostering their relationship. In humility and trust in the Holy Spirit, the catechist facilitates an environment where the child can be with God in work, study, and contemplation. God does His work in the child, building a relationship of love that will last for eternity.

The following is a list of atria currently offered in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

St. Andrew the Apostle: ages 3-9 – Contact Lucinda Buckner, 816-454-7377, lbuckner@sataps.com

St. Therese, North/Good Shepherd Atrium: ages 3-12 – Contact Jo Thornley Cox, 816-522-3002, cgs@sttheresenorth.org

St. Thomas More: ages 3-6 – Contact Kitty Kennally, 816-942-0246, kmkgrams@aol.com

Holy Spirit: ages 3-12 – Contact Shelli Lange, 816-645-5019, shelli.lange@icloud.com

Our Lady of the Presentation: ages 3-6 – Contact Jo Engert, 816-251-1135, jengert@olps.org

Divine Mercy Atrium, Platte City: ages 3-6 – Contact Katie Martinez, 309-532-3993, katie.a.mrtnz@gmail.com

For more information about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, or to learn how to start an atrium in your parish, visit cgsusa.org or cgsksmo.org or contact Lynn Smith, Corresponding Secretary for the SonFlower Region, at cgsksmo@gmail.com.


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October 31, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph