The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is not your mother’s or father’s old catechism. Rejecting the teaching approach of pouring information into a child’s head or the idea that children are immature adults, the faith formation program, or catechesis, is expanding and taking deeper root at St. Timothy’s Catholic Community in Mesa and using time-honored Montessori techniques.
“Catholic formation” is focused, even intense. It is the serious business of faith development in a muted setting.
The catechist, or religious teacher, for example, never speaks and moves about at the same time.
Jennifer Sutton of Mesa has watched how her daughter Bayla, 8, has responded to the program. “Her prayer life has increased, and you can tell her heart is being moved by the Holy Spirit, and the songs that she sings and words that she speaks are just Christ-centered,” Sutton said.
Roman Catholics historically place heavy emphasis on children’s spiritual learning, or formation, especially leading up to their taking their first Eucharist.
In small “atria,” or work centers, children reverently learn about the Eucharist, the rosary and temple in Jerusalem through hands-on exercises. It’s crafting Catholics by a detailed layering of their learning so that religious education is a shrewdly designed means of child’s play that leads to personal spiritual growth and maturity. It’s building a Catholic from the ground up — precisely, intentionally, carefully.
In 2005, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted joined other dioceses in adopting the “Restored Order of the Sacraments” policy, lowering the age for first Communion. Vatican II (1962-65) had previously moved it up from around age 7 (set by Pope Pius X in 1910) to 15 to 16 (sophomore or junior in high school). Now the “restored order” puts first Communion at third grade (age 8 or 9). Data was showing as many as 60 percent of Catholic teens were not being confirmed with formal catechism coming so late. The diocese adopted a transitional schedule, which currently calls for baptized children in third grade and older to begin preparation in fall 2007 and celebrate confirmation and first Eucharist in the spring or fall of 2008.
But the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd goes beyond such conventional catechism by immersing children in a deeper experience that calls for more independent learning inside of the series of age-level atria teeming with handmade items and learning tools.
It embraces much of what Italian pioneer educator Maria Montessori posited — that children develop observation skills through many types of activities that fully exercise their senses, that their learning environment should be child-scale and that paced learning and development trump the needs of a traditional class. It discourages competition such as grades and tests. The goal is to absorb content more deeply according to the “rhythm of the child” and what’s in line with the Holy Spirit.
“We are not the teacher in the room — it is the Holy Spirit and Christ,” said Mindy Longwell, director of the parish’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which provides two hours of spiritual development weekly to enrolled children at its center, the former site of St. Timothy’s Academy in Mesa. There is an unmistakable reflection of the Bible at all levels of the teaching. It’s described as nurturing “the child’s need to love and be loved and the child’s capacity to enjoy God’s presence in their life.”
“There is a purpose to everything we do,” Longwell said. “We can find that purpose in Scripture. ... It is like breathing in the body of Christ for us. We breathe in the Scriptures, understand it. We exhale it in the liturgy, with our response.” All that is then applied to how one lives out life, she said.
St. Timothy’s Catechesis of the Good Shepherd moved into its space last July and just completed its first year. When the Catechesis resumes from a summer break in August, Longwell hopes that six more atria will be filled with the materials for learning “to be able to go from about 150 children to possibly 900 to 1,200 children,” Longwell said.
No more than 12 children at a time can work in the level 1 atrium (ages 3-6) where there are 28 “works” or stations focusing on Bible events such as the Last Supper and parables of Jesus, plus the basics of prayer.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was developed in 1954 in Rome by Sofia Cavalletti and her Montessori collaborator, Gianna Gobbi, after they carefully studied the distinctive ways young children learn through observation and doing. It was introduced to the Valley about 30 years ago. Longwell says it has grown like “mustard seed” from nothing to a flourishing approach in about 30 parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix.
They don’t talk about formation of faith. It’s “formation of the child.”
Anna Marie Rediro of Mesa has two children in the program — Amelie, 3, and Marcello, 7.
“They are having the experience of developing their faith lives early,” she said. “Spiritually, we see them grow, and they share it with us.”
“I will hear her (Amelie) singing songs, and she will repeat some of the things she learns about the Good Shepherd, and she calls him by name.”
“It’s really about the child’s relationship with God,” Rediro said.
The catechesis experience is not about socializing with other children, said Sutton, whose other daughter, Avery, is in level 1. “It is very quiet here, so that the children are learning to be open to the Holy Spirit,” she said.
Her daughter Bayla now enjoys going to religious stores to buy statues, crosses and prayer books that she likes to carry with her, Sutton said. “We have set up a little table at home where she can participate in lighting the candles and leading prayer time in our home.”
Longwell has a team of staff and volunteers constructing the extensive collection of models, worship items, liturgy booklets and Bible characters that are filling the rooms being developed.
Children who have been enrolled in Montessori preschool or schools “fit here so easily,” Longwell said. “When I say go to work, they know exactly what to do. They go right to it, and they understand wonder. When we quit wondering about things, we quit learning.”
Longwell, who is also a national trainer for the program, said it needs to spread. “My goal is to have this going and do (the) will of God wherever he leads me,” she said. “I never know where he is leading me. He is a demanding God.”