By Emily Shull
We’re beginning a new program during our Wednesday CEP or Religious Education classes. You’ll probably hear it referred to as CGS. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) is a Montessori-style program. Most lessons are taught not using books or written work, but using three-dimensional objects. The most well known is the Good Shepherd and sheep in their sheepfold. Ours will be on display in the Gathering Space after the Masses this weekend. Most materials focus on Bible stories or elements of the Sacraments. If you come up to our classroom (the Merton room), you’ll see a small altar table and ambo/lectern and all the objects we use to celebrate the Mass, but in simpler form. Our program this year is for kids in the PreK & K classes, or ages 3 to 6. In Montessori education, mixed-age classes are common.
The motto of the 3- to 6-year-old child in CGS is “help me to do it on my own.” Although it’s simplistic, that’s what we all want from the Church — help me to find God and to know God myself. Montessori education is child-led. Teachers in this method are co-learners.
Gianna Gobbi, who created CGS with Sophia Cavalletti, wrote a book to introduce the program called Listening to God with Children. The teacher is not the expert. The Bible or the Mass are the sources. Christ is the teacher. Imagine a small circle of children and adults all looking at their fingers on which sits one single mustard seed. They have just read the short parable. The adult will give open-ended questions for discussion like, “How can God’s Kingdom be something so small?” or “Isn’t it amazing that all of us were once as small as this tiny seed. Why would God make me of out of something so small? How did it happen?”
The CGS classroom is called the atrium because in the early days of the Church, this is where those who had not been baptized would meet to learn together about Jesus and His Church. It’s a special place. It is an environment that teaches as much as the adults do. It is a holy place like the Church but not as beautiful; it is important but not as important. In the atrium we move slowly, quietly, and intentionally. It sounds crazy when you think of small kids, but the space and the materials teach them to slow down and concentrate. This pace allows us to contemplate God.
The atrium is also a place where children make choices within limits. Many materials are presented to the children, but they work with the materials that draw their attention. In our religious life, there are many things we learn, but we are also invited to discover God though our own prayer. The atrium allows children to find their own path to God and develop their own images and language for God while they are also introduced to the most essential parts of our Catholic tradition.
Why CGS? We believe in our CEP teachers and the work they do, but we also recognize that our world is changing. The research tells us that most people who leave the Church begin to disaffiliate or stop thinking of themselves as Catholic in middle school. The numbers leaving the Church are growing, and doing the same things in the same way will not stop that trend. We are called to a “New Evangelization,” or enlivening and empowering those who are members of the Church to own their faith rather than remain lukewarm. The CGS program encourages children to reach for God from the very beginning.
CGS began in Italy more than 50 years ago and is used today in more than 30 countries. Those who practice CGS in their parishes recommend beginning with the youngest children and having those children begin to implement the program to older children as they grow. We will probably use elements of our CGS program for the older grades, but the materials are costly and time consuming to prepare because they are very intentionally created in order to speak to the child developmentally and spiritually.
You can read more at cgsusa.org, which is where much of this information can be found. We are also looking for donations of time, skills, and beautiful things for our atrium. We are especially in need of woodworkers and those who sew and do calligraphy. You can find a list on our website of skills and items we’re looking for under CEP or by contacting [email protected].