When I was growing up, our parish offered a few options for Catholic kids: you could join "Snoopy Group," which meant that you sat in a circle and talked about friendship; or you could join JCDA -- which, in our area, meant holding elections, baking, and frantically filling out the virtue chart on the way to the church basement. "How many times do you think I was generous to someone this month? Ten? Five? I'll just write five." There was also a Catholic school, but my parents quickly discovered that it combined the worst of both worlds: old school disciplinary practices, and a horribly new-school approach to academics and doctrine.
So my parents took full responsibility for our religious education, and I have done the same with my own kids. A few years ago, though, I discovered that our parish offers Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. This has been life-changing for our family. I still assume that we, as parents, are in charge of educating our children in the Faith. But this Montessori-based program for children has given the kids something I could never be sure I was conveying: a simple, synthesized, profound involvement with the Gospel and with the liturgical life of the Church.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was founded in the 50's by two Italian laywomen, one a scriptural scholar and one an expert in Montessori education. Together they conceived of a simple, attractive method for sharing the richness of the Faith with children, who are uniquely capable of accepting the beauty of God's love. The program is presented in three levels, and includes time in the "Atrium," which is a quiet environment where children learn through tactile play.
Catechesis of the Good shepherd emphasizes quiet contemplation and -- imagine this -- "the enjoyment of God." The children hear Bible stories and watch them acted out with simple materials; they learn songs and prayers, and are encouraged to play quietly with simple and meaningful objects. One mother explained that CGS "cracked the code" of the Mass for her son, as he learned to become alert to the details of the liturgy: the significance of color, the names and purposes of the various vessels and tools on the altar.
If Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is available in your parish, I can't urge you strongly enough to sign up next year -- even if you already homeschool, or if your child is already enrolled in some other type of religious education. Some of my children have enjoyed their time more than others, but they have all been drawn more intimately into the life of the Church through their time with CGS. My daughter just made her first confession, after being prepped through CGS. She was excited to go to confession, and she was almost dancing when she came out. "I'm so happy," she told me. "I feel so clean." She didn't groan and shuffle her feet when she heard we were going to confession again last week. "I want to go a lot!" she said. My younger daughter wants to spend Mass at my side, explaining things to me -- why the priest is wearing red, what certain candles mean, and so on. She gasps when she recognizes phrases. "The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light!" she agrees in a stage whisper. "I KNOW THAT."
Some of my older kids -- especially the ones who haven't been through CGS for the earlier levels -- are tougher nuts to crack. My son came home with a three-page comic he had drawn, depicting the exploits of The Bad Shepherd, a vengeance-minded fellow who isn't afraid to use his staff. I still think CGS has gotten to this kid, though. They are conveying messages and images that are true, meaningful, and memorable to everyone, even the tough nuts. Next year, I hope my schedule allows me to stay with the younger kids during catechesis. More than once, I've seen a mother emerge from the Atrium with a shining face, or with tears in her eyes.
If you can get involved, do! The website offers information for how to start CGS in your parish. The growing popularity of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is one of most tremendous signs of hope I've seen in the modern Church.
Edit as of 4:40 PM 4/17: Thanks to a reader, I have corrected several factual errors in this post. CGS was founded in the 50's, not the 80's; and the Montessori philosophy prefers the phrase "working with materials" rather than "playing with toys," and referring to "catechesis" or "the Atrium" rather than "class."