The Youngest Lambs Get to Know the Good Shepherd

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Catholic program for preschoolers presents lessons and then has students do hands-on activities to understand the faith concepts.

Gathered around their catechist, the students in the 10am religious-education class at St. Vincent de Paul Church are silent. They are utterly, completely and totally absorbed by Miss Ginny’s reading of the Gospel in which Jesus tells his disciples they are the light of the world.

Such devoted focus just isn’t what one expects of a preschool class — but for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd classes, it’s the norm.

“I’m just in awe of this program,” says Rose Antognoli, director of faith formation at the Huntington Beach, Calif., parish.

“These little preschoolers know more than some kids who have been going to faith formation” for a few years. (When’s the last time you heard a child discuss the quality of the priest’s gesture of epiclesis, when the priest invokes the Holy Spirit over the bread and wine?)

CGS got its start in the 1950s, when a mother of a young boy asked Scripture scholar Sofia Cavalletti to provide instruction to her son. Cavalletti declined, but the mother persisted. The instructor’s eventual catechesis with the 7-year-old provided the inspiration for the program that she developed with her Montessori collaborator, Gianna Gobbi.

Now in more than three dozen countries, CGS came to the United States in the 1970s; the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (USA) was incorporated in 1976. National director Mary Mirrione first — and reluctantly — encountered CGS 20 years ago when her pastor at St. Anne in Gilbert, Ariz., sent her for training.

“I wasn’t so sure about it,” Mirrione recalls with a laugh, but exposure to the atrium — the space in which children undertake their CGS work and experience CGS catechist presentations — swiftly changed her mind.

The program is hands-on for catechist and student alike. For instance, all materials used, from the pint-sized altar to dioramas representing biblical parables, are created by the catechists (or volunteers they’ve enlisted). Certified catechists undergo 90 hours of training per CGS age level: 3-6, 6-9 and 9-12 years old.

Of course, the point of the program is to be hands-on for kids. As in a Montessori classroom, when it is time for work, children may choose which area they would like to go. Do they want to draw? Do they want to work with a diorama? Do they want to do a “practical life” activity like arranging flowers?

In a manner of speaking, it’s self-directed catechesis; and though you might not expect it to be, catechists insist that it’s an excellent program for children with special needs. Linda Sgammato, director of early childhood religious education for the Archdiocese of New York, underwent her first CGS training about 15 years ago, when she was coordinating a special-needs program in her parish. She immediately realized what she has witnessed time and again: “When children with special needs come into catechesis, they really respond to this approach. It’s not for children with special needs, but for all children.”

Mary Heinrich, director of faith formation for the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, agrees. She recalls one mentally challenged little girl who, when asked to bring to the prayer table something that shows how Jesus comes to us now, fetched the chalice and paten from the altar. “She recognized Christ in the Eucharist,” Heinrich says simply. “We gave her a language she didn’t have otherwise.”

In CGS, the catechist’s role is different than in other religious-education programs. Catechists do provide instruction — one-on-one “presentations” on specific topics. But, for the most part, the catechist’s task is to “get out of the way,” Heinrich says. “You introduce the child to the Good Shepherd and introduce the Good Shepherd to the child.”

This approach allows children to learn about their faith at their own speed and in depth. Antognoli recalls a class during which one student was working with the cenacle — the diorama of the Last Supper — while another was laying the cloth upon the altar. In those two areas, when a student has finished his work, the lights are dimmed, a candle is lit, and the entire class sings together. This particular day, the two students happened to finish at the same time. Antognoli watched as the preschoolers looked from the altar to the diorama of the Last Supper, and she saw the light of comprehension on their faces.

“They made the connection” between the Last Supper and the Eucharist, she says.

Parents are consistently amazed by the depth of their CGS students’ knowledge of theology and Catholic tradition.

Tina Balmer, a mother of five children ranging in age from 6 to 15, has four children in CGS at St. Pius X in Urbandale, Iowa; her eldest two are also trained catechists. “Even though I’d gone over the Mass and they understood it, [CGS] really made the Mass mean more to them,” she says. “They say [things like], ‘Mom, that’s the ambo! Did you know that?’ All of a sudden, it made Mass mean more to them than it did before.”

It may be designed for children, but CGS educates catechists and parents along the way — and not just by refreshing their knowledge about the names of parts of the church or the color associated with Pentecost.

“You’re learning the theology of your faith, but you’re having the time to delight in it,” says Sgammato, pointing out the words of Jesus in Matthew 18: “Unless you become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.”

Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.