Christ the Shepherd. Flickr

A Hand of Offering Now

The Atrium is a children’s “gathering place”dominated by quiet exploration that offers families a way of approaching the reality of Christ present. One parent describes “an education to wonder” that begins with an “active Presence.”

Jacqueline Hamm Aldrette

More than ten years ago, I had the opportunity to go to the CL International Responsibles Meeting in La Thuile, where Fr. Giussani, by then too infirm to travel, spoke to us through a video conference. He talked about John and Andrew and their encounter with Jesus in simple, human terms and with vivid detail. My heart beat fast inside of me when I realized that my experience was exactly the same as theirs–an encounter with Christ in the flesh. The Church is truly a living body and my life is both shaped by and vital to its flourishing.

Years later, when I found myself with my husband beginning to address the question of how to teach our daughters about our faith and the meaning of our belonging to the Church, it was clear to us that we wanted to communicate our own “love for something happening now”–namely, Christ present and encounter-able. We wanted to steer clear of the pitfall of religious education that is separated from life or moralistic. Through common friends and my family, we met Katie Rivas, a mother of four and Montessori assistant teacher, who had been nurturing a dream of opening a place of catechesis for young children using a particular method, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. For years, she had been going through training and making materials to use with her own children; we decided to join forces and risk a beginning.

Just this summer, on August 23, 2011, the woman behind the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Dr. Sofia Cavalletti, died at her home in Rome. Her legacy, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which she developed over 57 years with a seasoned Montessori practitioner, Gianna Gobbi, continues to touch the lives of children in dozens of countries around the world.
For the third year now, 30 children in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, gather together weekly in their Atrium, a special place where they can encounter the love and presence of God in a community of children and adult catechists. Many of these children, including my own, are from families who have been educated by Fr. Giussani through the Movement and are extremely grateful for this treasure.

The Starting Point

The proposal of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd takes as its point of departure the existing relationship of the child with the Infinite God, and the active Presence of God here and now: “This is not a story about what happened then so much as it is a proclamation of God’s enduring love for us now” (Sofia Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with the Young Child, 1992, p. 5.) Serving children in the tender early years of life (3-6 years, and 6-9 years), the goal of the Catechesis is not to train their intellect to absorb as much of the content of our Catholic tradition as possible, but to facilitate their encounter with the loving presence of God in the present–through the given Word, the Liturgy, and reflection on the Sacraments, and particularly through the gift of the Eucharist–and using the tools of sensorial work, active contemplation, and an education to wonder. Cavalletti’s words, “Faith as an encounter with the living God must precede any presentation of Christian moral principles,” remind us of the 2011 CL Easter poster: “What we know or what we have becomes experience if what we know or have is something that is given to us now–there is a hand that offers it to us now....”

The topic most central to the Atrium is the parable of the Good Shepherd which is proclaimed to the children, on an individual basis, followed by an invitation to contemplate the Word of God while also manipulating a statuette and figures of the sheep in a sheepfold. The children are drawn back to this material time and time again and eventually come to understand its meaning.

“We are the Sheep”
In the back of the car driving home from the Atrium one evening, two 6-year-old girls were talking. One said, “You know, the Good Shepherd is Jesus and we are his sheep.” The other responded, “Yeah, I know. But did you realize that He knows my name? I’m trying to see if I can hear Him calling me.” Later on, the children are helped to make the step to see the link with the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass. From my experience, it is impossible for the adult catechists ourselves not to be moved by this reflection on the Good Shepherd. Witnessing a child who, not ashamed of his dependence and desire to be protected, lights up when he realizes that he is loved and carried on the shoulders of the shepherd, breaks through the layers of doubt and presumption that we as adults tend to carry around.

The method of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is centered on a conviction that the human heart, even in the young child, responds to beauty, order, and truth. The Gospel is presented directly to the children, with heavy emphasis on the parables as well as episodes from the life of Jesus. The environment of calm order and physical beauty helps the children to engage with reality from a posture of wonder which is the most natural, and therefore satisfying, position for human nature in front of what has been given. According to Sofia Cavalletti: “Wonder is a very serious thing that, rather than leading us away from reality, can arise only from an attentive observation of reality. Education to wonder is correlative with an education that helps us to go always more deeply into reality... Openness to reality and openness to wonder proceed at the same pace: As we gradually enter into what is real, our eyes will come to see it as more and more charged with marvels, and wonder will become a habit of our spirit.” The primary teaching method in an Atrium consists in a brief presentation from the Bible or the Liturgy and the child’s personal work with the materials. The text is never “explained;” rather, a few, carefully selected meditative questions are posed to invite further contemplation. The richness of the Biblical parable continues to unfold for the child according to his/her own development and aging. As Deborah, a mother of two boys in the Atrium says, “They learn the most essential elements of a particular theme in a slow, deliberate fashion where the undertone is a real joy for the gifts of our faith.”

The Richness of the Past
The Good Shepherd does not remain an abstract caricature for the children, but easily and naturally becomes associated with Jesus Christ “who laid down His life for His sheep.” And Jesus Christ was a historical man who lived in a particular place in a specific time in history. The children get to explore various maps of Judea and Galilee, seeing the locations of the important cities in Jesus’ life. A large clay and wood model of the City of Jerusalem, complete with the wall, various temples, the Cenacle, the hill of Golgotha, the tomb, is available for the children to explore and manipulate.

In the second level of catechesis, for 6-9 year old children, there is a particular focus on history and the reality we live in the True Vine, what it means to “remain” and “bear fruit.” This is because of the new capabilities and needs of children in this developmental phase. They take particular delight in the “big picture” of the history of the Kingdom of God timelines and in the summons they find there to help build the Kingdom through their moral choices and use of their talents. Pondering the moral parables and maxims of Jesus, as well as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, further feeds this need to belong and fully participate in the life of the Vine. Cavelletti understood: “Being part of so great a history confers dignity upon the human creature.” There is an extraordinary level of depth and richness in the historical work of the Atrium, all presented within a unity. As Giussani taught us in The Religious Sense, “The present, then, is that mysterious moment where the richness of the past is conceived and reconceived....”

Each group forms a community in which the children feel comfortable and embraced. The beauty of having groups of children with a mix of ages allows for a very special sense of community to form among them. A four-year-old boy will happily help a two-and-a-half-year-old girl with ironing, just as another child stops to sit and watch his friend prepare the cruets with water and wine. They share their discoveries and accompany each other in work and contemplation. Also, in a very beautiful way, the children experience the liturgical life of the Church, from the preparatory periods of Advent and Lent to the joyful celebrations of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

Something Lived
This work also requires the catechists to be involved, in first person, with his/her own religious experience; the Atrium as a “center of catechesis is a place in which the community of children and their catechists live their religious experience together.” Given this profound respect for the mystery of the child as given and in relationship with the Creator, the role of the adult catechist is unique. I have found that serving as a catechist requires me to be both detached from the “results” or response of the children, respecting the Mystery of the Holy Spirit in the spirit of poverty, as well as intensely engaged in my own relationship with the Mystery so as to be able to convey something real and lived. Cavalletti put it this way: “The catechist’s only security comes from faith: in God and His creature, in God who speaks to His creatures... Poverty is, I believe, the fundamental virtue of the catechist.”
Our Atrium community is still learning as we go how to best serve our children, but considering the growth in myself–in attention and wonder toward all of reality, in interest in and affection for the life of the Church and the Liturgy, and ultimately in serene trust in the Good Shepherd in my life–it is simple to continue along this path, hand in hand with my daughters.