Robert Trolly inspects the tiny vestments showing the colours of the Church’s liturgical seasons, including the purple and rose for Advent. Above, the Nativity set at St. George’s Parish atrium for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Photos by Ruth Ann McClure

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd inspires the young in 37 countries

  • December 24, 2017
OTTAWA – Children participating in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program across Canada are taught to use all their senses in order to enter deeply into the Christmas story.

It is a “total sensorial environment,” said Ruth Ann McClure, coordinator and director of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at St. George’s Parish in Ottawa. “The child will tell you it smells like God.”

The Montessori-inspired catechesis program exposes children aged three to 12 to the Christmas story in five narratives, McClure said. These include the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Birth of Jesus Christ and the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

The program is held in a child-friendly space called an atrium and begins with the Bible and a geography lesson, McClure said. The children use a “beautiful globe of the world” and a puzzle map of Israel to become familiar with the Holy Land. Later on, they use little characters made of clay or wood.

“We proclaim the Word to them, then together we ponder, we listen together,” said Meghann Baker, a catechist from Russell, Ont. “We really have to … see what the Holy Spirit stirs in these little souls.

“There’s a movement of the Spirit within them,” she said. “It happens and it’s real.”

The preparation for Christmas begins by entering deeply into the Advent season.

“We talk about how long before Jesus came the Jewish people had been waiting and heard prophets who listened to God with the ears of their heart,” said Baker.

The children also discuss “when Christ will come again,” Baker said.

“It’s so natural for them,” she said. “Some of them have these moments, like ‘Oh, wow, I get it!’ Other times it’s a lot more peaceful than that,” she said. “Sometimes it’s peace, contentment, a quiet sigh. They’ll say things, like ‘My whole body is happy.’ They feel it in their entire being. They feel the profundity of it.”

Baker said every time she is in the atrium with the children she understands what Jesus meant when He said, “Unless you become like little children you will not enter into the Kingdom of God.”

“I watch these little children and the ease with which they receive God’s love, God’s promises and God’s gift and the joy,” Baker said.

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd began in Italy in the 1950s when a Scripture scholar was asked to give religious instruction to a boy of seven. Since then, the program has spread to 37 countries. In Canada, it involves about 2,500 children, with its biggest concentration in Ontario.

There are about 150 to 200 catechists, who undergo extensive training to be certified.

“It’s really growing,” said Dorothy Burns, chairman of the Board of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Association of Canada. “Membership has more than doubled since 2014.”

She said there are catechists in Vancouver, Whitehorse, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, St. Boniface, Saskatoon, Toronto, Ottawa, North Bay, Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie, Hamilton and London.

Burns said she has been struck by how children respond to the program with gratitude.

“Usually when you do a presentation, especially on Scripture, you say: ‘Is there anything you would like to say to Jesus?’ The first time I did this, the first little boy piped up and said, ‘Thank you, Jesus,’ ” Burns said.

A key component of the program is the specially designed atrium, regarded as a sacred space for nurturing children in the Christian faith. When Baker saw her first atrium she was struck by its beauty, but she was daunted by the complexity of building one herself. Then she discovered the whole parish can become involved.

“You can’t build an atrium by yourself,” she said. “It’s more beautiful, more rich, the more people you can draw into it — people sewing things, painting things, woodworkers and so on.”

The catechesis begins with the assumption that a child already has a relationship with God, McClure said.

“We believe a child, when in a prepared environment made especially for them, with materials that fit their hands, will begin to internalize the mysteries of our faith and understand the symbolism and meaning in our liturgies.”

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