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.
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Thank you, Tom, for this article. When I first heard about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, I was immediately intrigued with learning more about this new concept. I was going through another formation process, Christ Renews His Parish, and in our group was a Catechist with this program. Our group was adult women, but when we dove in to scripture specific to the Good Samaritan one evening, we were welcomed to the circle as if we were children to mimic what the children would experience in the atrium. The props to explain the scene were used, and as you said, the Catechist gently and lovingly told about what we saw and the scriptures came to life. I knew after that evening that I felt called to be a part of this wonderful program. I’m excited to say that this weekend I’ll begin my journey at becoming a level one catechist. I’m excited to dive in to this formation process and hope to learn from the child, to listen with the child, and to deepen my own enjoyment of God and our faith through the eyes and experiences of the child. After all, aren’t we all to be child-like in our relationship with God?
Sarah – what a lovely and gentle feedback on this beautiful way of reaching the hearts of children. Although I haven’t been to formal training, I’ve often talked with those who do this COGS method. One of the things that moves me is that the young children start becoming the ‘teachers’ of their parents and family members. And so the catechesis is powerful in forming the young ones — and powerful in that they then become teachers of young ones. If you develop any information you’d care to share, please send us some words to share with our listeners. You can email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org Blessings. deacon tom
Thank you for sharing this information. I am beginning my training on Level III in November. I am excited to be able to complete my training. I have been involved with CGS for 8 years and am also blessed to be a Montessori teacher. How I would love to have CGS in our Catholic Schools. How do we spread the word of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd?
Dear Cecelia – thanks for your thoughts and sharing on COGS. I have a ‘sweet’ story to share with you and others who see this topic area. Two ladies who are COGS trained teachers told us this story just a week ago. Some time earlier, they had a class of very little ones and they were teaching them about the Bible — God’s holy words… and they used this method to impress the beauty of Scripture: They said that God’s word was so sweet for us that it was like honey on the tongue. They let each child (some of whom hadn’t tasted honey before) take a small taste of honey. Now when their teachers ask them “Do you remember the special book?” the children say — oh the one with God’s sweet words? They remember that experience and they are attentive to God’s words like, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not worry….” Blessings. deacon tom
The faith formation through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is beautiful. I have been blessed with a faith community that host several growing Good Shepherd atria. Two years ago, I accepted the invitation to become a catechist and very soon I will have completed my Level 1 training. In training, I have seen my faith blossom. I have had 9 years of rich Catholic school education, but nothing reached me more than the simple, direct teachings through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I’ve shared presentations within my own 3-6 year old atrium as well as with my children. Even my non-Catholic husband sees and UNDERSTANDS the messages of the Bible. Whereas we can tell our children about the richness of our faith, there is something that stirs the soul as various aspects of our faith are broken down into its simplest form and handed to us for examination.
I assist in the COGS atrium at our parish in Michaigan with preschoolers thru 1st graders. This is a very simple and straight forward program to teach our children about our faith. Thru the hands on experience, it seems even the youngest children grasp the simple lessons presented to them each week. Probably the most peaceful and calming preschool-1st grade leaning enviornment I’ve ever experienced!