The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
“If we want to help the child grow near to God, we should, with patience and courage . . . seek to always go closer to the vital nucleus of things. This requires study and prayer. The child himself will be our teacher if we know how to observe him.” – Sofia Cavaletti
What is the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd?
In 1954, Sofia Cavaletti, a Hebrew and Scripture scholar, and Gianna Gobbi, a Montessori teacher, began to catechize a 7-year-old child, instructing him the Christian faith. Using Dr. Maria Montessori’s methods of observation and careful preparation of the environment, Cavaletti and Gobbi prepared materials and teachings based on the Bible, the Roman Catholic liturgy and teaching, and Church Tradition. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) sprang from Cavaletti and Gobbi’s understanding of the child as a complete and unique person, capable of experiencing intense joy and a close relationship with God. It has since been adapted to a variety of Christian traditions, including the tradition of the Orthodox Church.
Cavaletti and Gobbi observed that very young children have the capacity to be religiously educated. More than that, they have a deep hunger for communion (relationship), especially relationship with God. Typical catechesis for children tends to fall into two categories, according to Cavaletti: too intellectual or too moralistic. Young children are often offered ideas about God rather than a chance to establish a relationship with God. Building a relationship is the aim of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
If we believe that children are whole and dignified persons with real capacities and hungers, we must offer what will satisfy that deep need. CGS does this by keeping the parable of the Good Shepherd as the focal point of catechesis. From the very first presentation, an introduction to the prayer table used in the Atrium (the space set aside for CGS) and the enthronement of the Bible in a prominent place, children are introduced to Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
Who is Jesus, the Good Shepherd?
Jesus is, first and foremost, the full incarnation of God. This is why Jesus is the focal point for speaking with children about God’s love. From the first reading of the parable (John 10), children are struck by two facts: the Good Shepherd knows them, and he calls each sheep by name.
This is the essence of the relationship between the child and the Good Shepherd. The child’s deep-seated desire to be in relationship is satisfied by being known and being named. For the 3-6 year old child, this is even more impactful than knowing that the shepherd gives his life for the sheep. Thus, the Good Shepherd becomes the best experience of relationship for children. In the Good Shepherd they find someone who is protecting, warm, nurturing, loving, and giving – just like mommy, daddy, friends, or teachers. As children give and receive love from specific people in their lives, they begin to understand that they can give and receive love from Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
How does CGS work?
In our Atrium at The Saint Constantine School, children as young as four begin learning Practical Life skills (from the Montessori method) that increase their focus and attentiveness, preparing their hearts and minds for experiencing God.
As the year progresses, we will present a variety of essential facts of the Orthodox Christian faith – the articles of the altar, the articles of Baptism, parables of the Kingdom of God, narratives of the early life of Jesus, liturgical colors, and most important, the parable of the Good Shepherd. For the most part, each presentation is given individually. The child is read the relevant Scripture and shown the materials for the work that will help them deepen their understanding of what they have heard.
A Child’s Relationship with their Good Shepherd
The combination of Scripture, repetitive work, and silence helps children listen for the voice of God. Their response to the voice of God in the stillness of their hearts is simple, yet profound. They are quick to say, “I love you” and even quicker to say “thank you” to a God they cannot easily see.
I am amazed at the special relationship they have already kindled with their Creator, a relationship in which they know deeply that our God loves them and protects them. It is a privilege to witness these moments as an adult – they strengthen my own faith. They impress on me the vital need for catechizing our youngest children. To not do so would cause us to miss a brief window of life where a child’s relationship with the Good Shepherd is easily accessible, and unhindered.
How quickly the ease of that relationship slips away! We must take hold of it now and remain steadfast in our prayers for our children – they are the future of the Church!