The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, also known as the Montessori Catechesis, is an educational process of religious formation for children aged between 0-12yrs which leads children to develop an authentic prayerful relationship with God who loves them, through the use of sensorially rich materials. Good Shepherd catechist and Montessori teacher Christina Manara from Malta, shares her experience as a Catholic Good Shepherd Catechist which she has been doing since 2015. She explains why Montessori children enjoy their catechism classes so much.
“Help Me Do It By Myself”
The Good Shepherd Catechesis is grounded in the famous Maria Montessori’s way of teaching. Maria Montessori realised the child’s need for independence in discovering his/her own capabilities when she overheard a young child’s comment saying “Help me do it by myself”. It was not Maria but two of her followers Dr Sofia Cavalletti – a Biblical Scholar and Prof. Gianna Gobbi – a Montessori trained educator who started the Good Shepherd Catechism. Sofia Cavalletti once said “The child whom God is searching for is asking us without words “Help me to come close to God by myself”.
Christina starts: “I fell in love with this catechism programme after I heard nuggets of information about it. I pursued the method because I realised that it was an amazing way to reach children. The Good Shepherd Catechesis is heavily based on the Bible and the liturgy framed by the Montessori principles of education. It’s researched, it’s tried and it’s tested. This was like an add-on to what Maria Montessori had already created in education.”
The Child In Class – “The Hands Are A Pathway To The Brain”
The Good Shepherd Catechesis doesn’t take place in a normal class with students on long benches or big chairs listening to the teacher. Instead the room is divided in different stations and children do some work in each station. Christina says: “The room is called The Atrium. The Atrium is a place of prayer, work and study for the children. The Atrium is very heavy on resources. Resources include models of Biblical figures, a model of the city of Jerusalem, prayer cards written by hand, items used in the church like the altar and vestments, cushions, flowers, crayons, colours, ruler, scissors, etc. Children work with the symbolic, with stories, they explore in the different stations, they train their senses to reason and construct their own philosophies, participate in discussion and sharing and also in questioning.”
Christina continues: “Maria Montessori believed that the hands are a pathway to the brain, so she needed to give children something to do with their hands for them to take it in. In the Atrium children learn various tasks including basic ones like carrying a chair, carrying a tray, speaking softly, dry pouring, wet pouring, flower arranging, greeting people, asking for something, interrupting politely etc.”
A Properly Prepared Environment Full Of Different Resources
Another thing which Maria Montessori emphasised is having a well prepared environment for the child. The Atrium is set-up with small chairs and little tables which fit the size of a child. It was Maria Montessori who introduced the idea of small chairs and desks in the late 1800s. Christina says: “This type of Catechism is not just giving one hour of service weekly and going back home. It is little stations of work organised in different areas. It involves lots of preparation. The Atrium is specially prepared every week with resources.”
“Some of the resources you can’t buy, the catechist has to actually do them. For example Biblical models are made by hand. Last year I spent hours making these resources. Yet they can also be made in a group and one helps the other. One day the children will realise that these things have been made by hand for them and will probably appreciate them even more.” Christina adds that making these models have also been a prayerful experience for her. Besides, she also needs to set up the class every week when she does not find a room which only serves as an Atrium.
The different areas of the Atrium consist of a Prayer Table, a Baptisimal Area, an Art Corner, a Life in the Church Area, a Practical Life Area, The Good Shepherd Area, A Geography Area, An Infancy Narratives Area and the Paschal Mystery area. “These are in the same place every lesson. Children get used to them. Areas are not too busy with materials, neither too close to each other. If I need to change something, I tell them and explain to them. It helps children to have everything in the same place like having their own bedroom and they know where a particular book or toy is. Children like order at this age.” Christina explains.
A Catechesis For Different Kinds Of Children
The Good Sheperd Catechises caters for different kinds of children, including those who experience a learning difficulty. “Maria looked at the developmental stages of education as a whole (not just for the cathechsesis) and asked ‘what it is at this age that the child is doing, what do we need to give them?’ She was able to prove that using the hands and giving children knowledge, underprivileged children or children who experienced disability or learning difficulty achieve results that were superior to those coming from affluent families and who go to normal schools. She was able to get these kind of children into mainstream exams and they would pass with better grades than the other children.” Christina explained.
“The Good Shepherd Catechises is open for every child. Whether a child is autistic, another one is energetic and another one is quieter, children are all different; so the presentation of the station has to be done in a different way and the children need to be monitored in a slightly different way. It is up to the catechist how to manage that child. Sometimes there needs to be individual attention or the help of a Learning Support Educator. When I did my Montessori teacher training I realised that every child needs attention and they all have their specific needs.” she continued.
The Catechist As An Observer And Facilitator
“I really feel that God is involved in class. What comes out of the children in not from me, I really believe that. I am like the connecting bit, like the conduit in a way. I let something that is inside them come out. I don’t teach them to pray. They pray with words that really come from their heart. I never say lets’ pray for your family. They might say ‘I want to thank Jesus for my mummy and my daddy and my brother and maybe a dog, I wish to have a dog next year.’ But it comes from them.” Christina describes.
“Being a Good Shepherd catechist is not like having prepared notes and telling them to the class. Instruction on the day is limited. The catechist’s role in the Good Sheperd programme is more on observing, letting the children do their work without interrupting, and also facilitating. You have to trust that the children will do their work correctly after having put the ground rules in place like walking slowly, speaking softly, carrying your chair, waiting for your turn instead of interrupting or punching other people when you need something etc. The ground rules are very important. If they have the ground rules in place, they can then do almost anything. But if you don’t have the ground rules in place you have them running around and disturbing, and it would ruin the whole setup of the atrium life.” Christina says.
Christina, who teaches the 3-6 year olds describes how “the catechist tries to limit movements so as not to distract the child. You allow the child to focus on your hand. Then you can add some words. You try not to do the same two things simultaneously because the child at that age really needs to pay attention to one thing at a time, s/he can’t cope with more than one, two is already confusing, so you say essential words and do essential hand movements only. For example you don’t bombard them with the history of something, you just give them what they need, essential facts.”
Instead Of Correcting Children, We Promote Self-Learning
“As Catechist we also try not to correct children, it is a very Montessori thing. You can very gently say something like “I’ll be with you in a minute” and they try to wait patiently. Sometimes they nudge you again but your soft calming voice, will remind them what we had said about talking softly. You don’t tell them ‘don’t you remember what we said that we speak softly?’”, she continues.
“A lot of the things are also good for the general development of the child, they come to realise things and learn to self-correct. If they drop something they might say to themselves: ‘maybe I was walking too fast and we’ve been told that there’s no rush.’ Actually, the vast majority of things in Montessori are self-correcting works. Telling a child that they have done it wrong might deflate them and might be a disincentive to do it again. So we leave negative thoughts out.” Christina states.
A Parent’s Review
A parent relates about her daughter: “Kim started CGS when she was 4 and a half and I thought that it might be too much for her at that age but I was wrong. She was very keen to attend her lesson every week and felt very special, in fact she did not miss one session throughout the whole year. I found that CGS helped me too as it is not easy to explain certain things to a child that age and at the Atrium they do a fantastic job with that. Kim is now more aware of the presence of Jesus and also when we go to church she can understand the meaning of certain things. I think this was an amazing experience for her and I myself have learnt a lot with regards to what a child so small is capable of taking in.”
A Parish Priest’s Review
Christina is at the moment giving her classes in St Julian’s, Malta. When we contacted St Julian’s parish priest Fr Claude Portelli, he had a very positive reaction for this kind of catechism. “I have positive reactions to this catechism. The children are active during the class. We also have parents who get their children from outside the parish. This catechism involves a lot of props. For me it was difficult to dedicate a room only for catechism so the catechist has to spend time setting up the class and dismantling it after. Now this is the fourth year running and I never had any complaints.” Fr Claude remarked.
Mother Teresa’s Review
Christina also shares how Saint Mother Teresa realised the beauty of the Good Shepherd method: “It’s interesting to note that when Mother Teresa discovered the Good Shepherd Catechises method in 2009 she decided that being trained in the Good Shepherd method has to be part of her nuns’ and brothers’ formation. Today every sister and brother of the Missionaries of Charity as her religious are called, have to do this catechetical training. I think Mother realised how beautiful it was and the value it brings. This is something they do to the poorest of the poor. In Malta the Mother Teresa nuns have an Atrium in Birgu.”
The Good Shepherd Catechesis Stages
The Good Shepherd catechesis, which can be used both in a parish and in a school, has four main stages. In Malta only the 3-6 year old stage is being done so far. Christina is hopeful that this will be extended to the other stages as well. Her dream is to have this programme running in various parishes around Malta. “I work and pray for this dream to be realised as it is such a beautiful method.”:
LEVEL I – 3-6 years
At this level the emphasis is on presenting “God as a Loving Father”, “Jesus as the Risen One” and “We are all his sheep”. Christina explains how “Jesus is presented as the Good Shepherd who provides to all their needs. We do not give this as an answer or in summary format. We just give the children nuggets of information that allow them to work further. They just come to know that there is a loving good shepherd who takes care of his sheep, he takes them to clean water, who knows them by name, calls them by name, takes them to green pastures, takes them in the pen at night and closes the gate of the sheepfold, protects them and give them everything they need, he’ll go out look for them if they go missing even if it is the middle of the night. So they start to understand that there is this loving figure who’ll do everything for them, he’ll even lay down his life as they read in the scripture.”
LEVEL II – 6-9 years
The emphasis at this stage is “What is God’s plan?” and “What is my role in the community?“ Christina describes how “The age of six is that age when moral reasoning starts. The children start to be introduced to and how would he react to different kinds of behavior so the children are introduced to the parables of mercy and justice and Jesus suggestion “Do to others what you would have them do to you”. So the moral intelligence that children get to at this age, reasoning about good and bad, comes to them already after they have solid foundation knowing that Jesus is a loving father; they’ll just know that he loves them and that they can change and go to him for reconciliation.”
“The sacrament of reconciliation is explained to children as an opportunity to receive a clean sap. We see ourselves as branches on a tree and when we sin we don’t tell them it’s a failure we say that it is a blockage in the sap and that it needs to be cleaned out and purified by the holy spirit and so by going to the sacrament of reconciliation the children believe that they are having their sap cleaned out, renewed, so they can start again. We don’t say it’s a failure because sin is part of our human nature, we all make mistakes, but we need to get up again. God encourages us – every time we fall, to get up again. So these children realise that this is an opportunity to get closer to God and start a fresh. It’s not a failure but a gift,” she continues.
LEVEL III – 9-12 years
The emphasis at this level is “What is God calling me to do as His co-worker in the Kingdom?” And “What gifts have I been given that I should use in this work?”. Christina explains how this stage is inclusive of the sacrament of confirmation.
The Good Shepherd Catechesis Is A Discovery Of Faith
The Good Shepherd catechesis has spread in 35 countries in 6 continents since in start in 1954. “This is not catechism in the normal sense. There isn’t a formal answer as you would find in the Catechism of The Catholic Church which goes question 1 and answer 1, question 2 and answer 2. This catechesis, and also catechesis in general, is more about providing an idea and then letting it grow inside you so each person will have a slightly different answer and you are discovering that answer, you are part of the discovery process. It is more about a discovery of faith, an understanding of one’s faith through one’s own lived experience with a bit of guidance to help form it.” Christina explains.
The Good Shepherd Catechesis Training Course
Christina has helped in organising six training courses in London and in Malta to both nuns of the Missionaries of Charity and also lay people. She now plans to organise another course in 2020 “The training course to become a Good Shepherd Catechist is quite intensive. It involves 90hrs of training. This course is beneficial both to those who plan to be catechists and also to those parents who wish to understand more how the faith can be passed to their child at different stages of their life. Those who are interested can contact Ms Christina Manara at email@example.com
– Listening To God With Children: The Montessori Method Applied To The Catechesis Of Children, Gianna Gobbi, 2000.
– The Religious Potential Of The Child, Sofia Cavalletti, 1992.
– The Good Shepherd And The Child: A Joyful Journey, Sofia Cavalletti, Gianna Gobbi, Patricia Coulter, Silvana Quattrocchi Montanaro, Rebekah Rojcewic, 1994.
– Catechesis Of The Good Shepherd In A Parish Setting, Tina Lillig, 1998 .
– The Child In The Church, Maria Montessori, 1929.
Explore more on these websites:
– Catechesis Of The Good Shepherd UK
– The United States Association Of The Catechesis Of The Good Shepherd