A faith you can touch

Sandi Gardner, a catechist at St. Thomas More Parish in Troy, shows a map and model of the Holy Land in the parish’s “atrium,” part of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program, which allows children to encounter the Gospel through sensory experiences and environments.
Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Eastpointe — Small vestments, small altar, small chalice and small patens; all meant to teach about one big faith.

“Atriums” are springing up across the Archdiocese of Detroit, teaching Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, an interactive, Montessori-style approach to catechism.

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd focuses less on textbooks and formal lessons, and more on sensory experiences to teach core tenets of the faith. Atriums are rooms specifically designed to do just that, decked out with child-sized altars, vestments, chalices and prayer stations, all meant to create a calm, prayerful space.

“When someone walks into an atrium, they immediately see the simplicity of key materials,” said Sandy O’Shaughnessy, catechist at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth. “Immediately they see the Good Shepherd, and they learn how Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the protector, the defender, the one who brings in the sheep.”

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd relies on objects and Scripture to teach children, with the catechists insisting they aren’t the ones teaching, but relying on God to speak through the objects in the room.

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was developed back in the 1950s in Rome by Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobi as a Catholic religious education program in the Montessori style, creating an environment where children learn how to have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Todd Schmitz, left, and Benny Schmitz play with the candles and small chalices set up in the atrium at St. Basil the Great Parish in Eastpointe, one of 18 sites that offer Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“The whole diocese is about creating an encounter, and in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, it’s about making the encounter where children are nurtured in a relationship with Jesus,” O’Shaughnessy said. “The children coming in already have a relationship with Jesus, and the atrium is about nurturing that relationship.”

The key is putting the faith in a context where children can relate, said Sr. Angela Hibbard, IHM, catechist at Gesu Parish in Detroit.

Gesu was the first parish in the archdiocese to teach Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, when Sr. Nancy Ayotte, IHM, taught using a closet in the school building’s basement as an atrium.

“The littlest ones are not verbal, they don’t have the language skills of older students,” Sr. Hibbard said. “For children, the key is they need to be protected, so they need a good shepherd. The children come to the atrium and have a presentation and conversation about the objects in the room focused on a subject. It’s a form of play, but it’s learning.”

Sr. Hibbard said Scripture is the only reading in the atrium, relying on the liturgical readings, parables and moments in salvation history as lessons using miniature scenes from the Bible and model maps of the Holy Land.

The small models and motions the catechists make with their hands to explain the movement of the Holy Spirit help the children connect the lessons learned in the atrium with the motions of the priest during Mass.

“Anything in the Gospel story with the Holy Spirit implied, the catechist brings his or her hands down, connecting it to what the priest does in consecrating the host and wine,” Sr. Hibbard said. “When we talk about the meaning of sin, we talk about vines and branches. How the vine is a community of branches, and that sin is like breaking from the branch.”

A tiny model of the Last Supper is part of the Montessori-style catechesis program at St. Thomas More Parish in Troy.

There are 18 atriums in the Archdiocese of Detroit, according to the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, but catechists predict that number will increase as more people learn about the model.

St. Thomas More Parish in Troy is starting its first Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program Oct. 1, after catechists Sandi Gardner and Josylin Mateus brought it over from crosstown St. Anastasia Parish.

“The philosophy is children already have a relationship with Jesus, and it’s our mission to nurture that relationship,” Gardner said. “Children will come in, start in the practical-life area and work on their motor skills, like pouring water into a chalice.”

Gardner first learned about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in 2012 and observed how it worked at Gesu Parish.

“When I saw the atrium at Gesu, I was enthralled with the material, the concepts, the peacefulness,” Gardner said. “I’ve been a catechist for some 40 years, and this is by far the best method for teaching our faith to our children.”
Mary Fortunate at St. Veronica and St. Basil parishes in Eastpointe has taught Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for four years. She reports parents are amazed by how much their children learn about the Mass.

“One thing I love about teaching (this form of catechism), is each lesson the child might fall in love with Jesus,” Fortunate said. “The format presents a lesson, and the rest of the time the kids are free to work with the material and learn.

Sr. Angela Hibbard, IHM, catechist and pastoral associate at Gesu Parish in Detroit, helps teach Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at the parish, which includes scaled-down models of biblical scenes as well as altars, chalices, candles and vestments designed to help children learn about the faith.

“If you’re a catechist, I invite you to come and see, look at an atrium nearby you,” Fortunate said. “Look and talk to the parents, and you’ll be amazed what children can learn. It makes you a better catechist.”

Catechetical Sunday this year is Sept. 17, with the theme “Living as Missionary Disciples.” For resources, visit www.usccb.org.


Atrium locator

To find a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium near you, visit www.cgsusa.org/atrium.aspx.