For something like fifteen years, I’ve been a student and a devotee of Catherine Doherty and Madonna House. I’ve shared about ‘them’ in sermons, columns, recorded messages on the internet and with friends. Just ask – and I’ll start to share about my visits to Combermere, the formation headquarters of Madonna House, and about my visits to their Winslow, Arizona field house. It’s one of many in the U. S. and in other countries.

What’s special about Winslow? It’s an aging, struggling town along the old U. S. Route 66 highway which wound its way west and was popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. Winslow was a town with many motels, gas stations, eateries and some nightlife. It was during the time of the decay of most Route 66 towns that Catherine Doherty decided to open a field location for Madonna House. Their charism in that town would be to love and care for the locals: many of whom were Hispanics and Native Americans. The local ‘madonnas’ also helped support the Winslow Churches. At one time there were three of them, although there are just two  kept open now.

Certain of the Madonna House women have had on-going training in an education concept call CATECHESIS OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD. Have you heard of it? It’s an approach to the formation of children — religious formation. It serves children ranging from 3 years of age up till about 12. It is highly oriented to and rooted in the Bible, our beautiful liturgies in the Catholic faith, and it uses the educational approaches started by Maria Montessori.

Most would say they’ve heard of Montessori schools or pre-schools. But what has this got to do with Catholic education? And most certainly, what does this have to do with children who are too young to read?

In Winslow – and in many other such classrooms for the young, children enter into a room or series of rooms called the Artrium. What they see and are led to is a number of scaled-down displays, beautiful materials and small replicas of those items taught in Bible stories, at the Mass, or out in the fields where shepherds would be with their sheep.

Children can be gently and lovingly told about and they see sculpted apostles sitting around a Last Supper table. Children can prepare an altar with scaled-down vessels and items used at Mass.

I know this sounds strange. It was Maria Montessori’s work with retarded children where she came to see the need for ‘stimulation‘ for kids. They need to see, touch, manipulate, place, explain and come to age-adjusted understanding. And in a while, the children become the educators of others in their own families.

Maria Montessori was a Catholic, and so she also came to realize the need for this teaching method in the Church. She knew that children learn through their senses and so she involved them with signs, symbols, sensory items such as candles and bells, holy water, even incense.

Children taught in this sensory method — this scaled down methodology of involving them in stories and explanations — they became different. They began to display a dignity around such items in the atrium. But more important, the children began to display dignity and respect in Church. They could answer (in simple terms) what a chalice was for, what the tabernacle is, and why candles are used.

Okay great. But how does this apply to me, especially if I’m home-schooling my children? The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has grown so much that it is now in something like 35 countries. There are courses for parents, catechists, educators, clergy, etc. Education ranges on children in three different age groupings: 3-6, 6-9 and 9-12.

They have a website found at www.cgsusa.org and there are books and videos and DVD’s that will help form a parent or educator on the sacraments, on the Mass and many other areas of Biblical teaching. One DVD to start with is entitled: Where a Child Can Fall In Love With God — Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.” It’s a 10 minute DVD or VHS video that explains and shows what this program is all about.

As a deacon, I see many families who practice one-hour-a-week Catholicism. It’s such a shame. We see children at Mass who have no idea what all of this is; it holds no interest for them. But children that have been immersed in programs like the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd come to Mass happy and focused on what is taking place. Some even try to pick up pieces of what the homily is about so they can discuss it with their parents after Mass.

I’ve barely scratched the surface. Please consider talking to your pastor about a Good Shepherd program in your parish. Look on-line and learn what you can. And if you home-school, you may wish to add a daily or twice a week core religious class for your child or children using Montessori-based education.

I’d be most interested if you get started with this. Let us know what you think. And what it does in terms of educating your children.

Blessings.

Deacon Tom

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