Just a few years ago, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was a relative unknown in the Diocese of Rochester. Few local people had heard of this approach to children’s religious formation, and there was not a single atrium — or classroom dedicated to this method of formation — anywhere within the diocese.
Fast forward to the present, however, and four diocesan parishes currently offer Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, with at least two more planning to join their ranks within the next few months.
“(This approach) is a way to kind of jump-start the faith relationship between children and God at a younger age,” explained Anthony Klosterman, coordinator of faith formation and preschool at St. Patrick Parish in Victor, which opened an atrium and began offering Catechesis of the Good Shepherd last fall.
Most of the participants in this diocese are between the ages of 3 and 6, noted Michelle Kuhner, lead catechist for the program at the Victor parish and the woman responsible for bringing Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to the Diocese of Rochester. She’d been introduced to this method of catechesis, which has been around for more than 50 years, while she lived in Ave Maria, Fla.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd follows the child-centered Montessori educational method that recognizes each child’s need for independence. Each atrium contains a variety of materials that encourage prayer and contemplation, and the children choose which activities they would like to do.
Some of these activities are not overtly religious, such as arranging flowers or pouring water, yet they take on additional significance in the quiet environment of the atrium, according to Jennifer Brannin, one of the catechists at Church of the Holy Spirit in Webster. At the hand-washing area, for example, children carefully scrub and wash one finger at a time, and this exercise helps them build the focus and concentration they need to pray, she said.
“You’re not teaching hand washing. You’re teaching contemplation,” Brannin explained.
Many of the materials found in an atrium encourage a deeper relationship with Jesus in a more obvious way. Each atrium, for example, includes miniature chalices, patens, cruets, candles and other items found at Mass, and the children may ask adults to show them how these items are used and then mimic those movements themselves.
“All the materials are designed so the children can work with the materials, actually touch the materials and use them to help them contemplate their relationship with God,” said Lynn Foley, a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd volunteer at St. Patrick.
At some point during a session, the catechist will sit with each child and read the week’s Scripture story, first from the Bible and then from a small Scripture booklet as the children use handmade figures to act out the story, Brannin said.
“When you just talk to them they’re not going to remember it, but when they get to work with it, they remember it,” Brannin said.
The atrium provides children with a place to explore things they already may be familiar with — Mass and stories of Jesus’ life — in a way they can understand, Kuhner said.
“It meets a very deep need in the child, something the child desires. ‚Ä¶ We’re made with the desire for God, and we prepare an environment that helps to facilitate that relationship the child already has with God,” she added. “Even though it contains all the teachings of the faith, it’s a way that comes from the inside out, and the children just love it.”
It was the joy on the faces of the children involved in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Florida that first motivated Kuhner to go through the training necessary to become a certified catechist with the program. She later moved to Rochester and in 2017 formed an atrium at Sacred Heart Cathedral, where she was working as faith-formation coordinator.
Others in the Rochester Diocese soon expressed an interest in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and over the summer, more than two dozen people attended a 10-day training session at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry with a formation leader from Florida. All of those people now are certified as level one catechists who can work with children between the ages of 3 and 6. This summer, another training session will be conducted in order to certify people as level two catechists, who will work with children between the ages of 6 and 9.
Kate Dominguez participated in last summer’s training and now serves as assistant catechist for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Spencerport. Her experiences thus far have deepened her own faith, she said.
“Instead of trying to shout louder than the culture, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd gets quiet,” she said. “The catechist doesn’t teach. They act as a matchmaker, introducing the child to Jesus — using only the words of the Bible — and then the catechist fades and allows the child time to fall in love with Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the only true teacher in the atrium.”