A casual reading of the available data on Catholics leaving the Church is alarming to any Catholic, but particularly to those raising children in the faith. While it would be rash to claim any single method by which children staying in the Church is guaranteed, as part of the 7 percent of millennials raised in the Church who are still actively practicing their faith, I have been introduced to a method of childhood faith formation that offers a new hope.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is an approach to religious education developed by Maria Montessori of the Montessori method. She was a scientist as well as an educator and a devout Catholic. Her system of education looks radically different from today’s standard classroom but is based on her extensive study of the phases of childhood development.
My mother, Alicia Van Hecke, is in charge of implementing CGS at St. Charles Parish in Hartland. She said, “Over many decades and around the world, founders of the program have tested out a wide variety of presentations relating to the Bible and the Liturgy and discovered which ones particularly resonate with children at particular ages. It is clear to the careful observer of children which ones they are drawn to and which ones just don’t seem to satisfy their deepest needs.”
Becoming a catechist in this method requires careful training. I have completed only the first segment of that training, but it was a week that was powerful for me personally and incredibly encouraging for the future of the Church, as well as excellent training for becoming a catechist. Again and again, I was struck by how much the CGS method corresponds to the way the faith was passed to me. I want to hone in on three things, more specifically, three criteria required of anything used in the “Atrium” (the physical space prepared with incredible detail and intentionality for the catechesis). Everything used in this space must be “simple,” “essential” and “beautiful.” In reflecting on my faith and what has kept it alive and active, these three characteristics come to mind.
Catholicism remains an inseparable part of who I am because it is a relationship with a living God and every complex aspect of it boils down to the command to love God with all that you are and to love your neighbor as yourself. I studied theology as an undergrad student, and the intellectual background and understanding has greatly enriched my faith. However, without the simplicity of its essential nature — without the centrality of love — I do not think my faith would have held up as it has to the complexities and struggles of daily life.
That said, the complex theology has always held up to my questioning. And because I was given a good grounding in what is essential and simple, I was also invited into freedom to question what I didn’t understand, to be creative in how my faith was integrated into my life, and also freedom to embrace the subjective aspects of human experience, confident in the objectivity of my principles.
Alicia Van Hecke said, “We generally think of ‘essential’ as something which is very important. But Merriam Webster takes it a step further: ‘essential implies belonging to the very nature of a thing and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character.’ We simply can’t teach everything to every child and expect them to internalize it in a genuine way — and certainly not in a way that helps them meet, know, love and serve Christ.”
Perhaps most transformatively, I grew up knowing that beauty is sacred and points to God. While this includes things like the beauty of the liturgy, it also crucially extends outward. My love for books and movies (some Christian, some very secular) as well as for the beauty of the natural world was always encouraged, and I always saw it as coherent and integrated with my faith. The way my heart was attracted to the beautiful became a foundational experience of how my heart is made for God.
Carolyn Kohlhaas is an experienced catechist and also an instructor for the catechist training. She said, “One of the characteristics of 3- to 6-year-old children as identified by Dr. Montessori is that they are attracted to the beautiful. We see this innate sense of beauty in their attentiveness to nature, to their parents and family members, and to man-made structures which elicit awe and wonder. Dr. Montessori is quoted as saying, ‘We give the best to the smallest.’ In the Atrium, this maxim applies to the physical space as well as the materials within it (that) are available for the work of the children. While all of the materials should be beautiful, those used to point to the liturgy hold pride of place. In presenting the Model Altar to a 3-year-old, we enjoy the shininess of the model-sized chalice and then speak of how the real chalice used at Mass is even more beautiful. Von Balthasar said, ‘Every experience of beauty points to eternity.’ The children give evidence of this in their desire and ability to rest in stillness, enjoying God’s gifts as they stare at the candles which are lit once the model altar is set or as they attentively examine a tiny mustard seed or as they carefully page through the beautiful Bible which rests on the prayer table. The children express in an uninhibited way the attraction that beauty has for all of us and witness to us of his ability to draw us to himself through the beauty of himself and of his many gifts.”
At the end of the day, God can work with anything that he is given and the most important thing is to stay close to him.
Still, grace builds on nature, and CGS is an exceptionally powerful way of facilitating a transformative encounter and relationship with Christ in his Church. Children who are given Catechesis of the Good Shepherd learn how to pray, they learn the essentials of what it means to be Catholic and they experience their faith as something beautiful, something to be treasured.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a growing presence in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Whether you are interested in sending your children to the Atrium, becoming a catechist, or just learning more about it — check your neighboring parishes to see where it has started near you.