Parishes embrace Montessori catechesis

Aaron Garris, a second-grader at St. James School in Elizabethtown, Ky., held a pretend Communion wafer and a bell as he role-played parts of the Mass in the atrium at St. James Jan. 13. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Aaron Garris, a second-grader at St. James School in Elizabethtown, Ky., elevated a pretend host over a tiny altar as he enacted a hands-on lesson about the parts of the Mass. The exercise — open to girls and boys — is part of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a faith-formation program for children ages 3 to 12.

The Montessori-based catechesis focuses on offering children an encounter with Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd. Several parishes in the Archdiocese of Louisville have adopted the program and recommend it to others.

St. James Church in Elizabethtown, Ky., has been offering the program since 2016. It’s taught in the school and in the parish’s religious education program. St. Louis Bertrand, St. Gabriel, St. Raphael churches and St. Aloysius Church in Pewee Valley, Ky., also offer the catechesis.

“It gives children the doctrines of our faith in small chunks without it being watered down,” said Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia Ana Catherine Kim, who teaches the curriculum to second-grade students at St. James School.

During a recent interview, she said children connect to the lessons on an “intellectual level but also at the level of the heart.”

The curriculum is designed for children ages 3 to 12 and uses the hallmarks of Montesorri education — self-directed and hands-on learning.

Lessons are broken into three levels. The youngest children — preschool age — are introduced to the Mass and to the parable of the Good Shepherd as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Level two builds on level one. By age six, when children are ready for this level, they are old enough to contemplate the Parable of the Good Shepherd and think about how it applies to them, said Sister Kim.

“At this point, they know Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd and they are the sheep,” she said.

The students at this age also start preparing for the sacraments of reconciliation and holy Communion.

All the learning happens in a space called the “atrium.” The atrium is prepared ahead of time with materials such as figurines of the Good Shepherd, the Holy Family, a child-size alter, chalice and raised maps of Israel.

The atrium is not just another classroom, said Sister Kim.

“It’s a sacred space and a place of encounter. The teacher provides the space for the child to encounter Christ,” she said.

In the atrium, children have the liberty to choose to work with their peers or to work alone. This allows the Holy Spirit to guide a child in the direction he may need to go that particular day, said Sister Kim.

Polly Duncan Collum, who taught the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for about 20 years in dioceses outside of Kentucky, said the atrium is what makes the program different.

Duncan Collum now assists in St. Louis Bertrand’s atrium alongside Leslie Genius.

“Solid good content” is the goal of catechesis, but the experience should be one of “relaxing and enjoying the beauty” of the faith, said

Duncan Collum. The atrium provides such an experience, she said.

The curriculum embraces the “idea that a child has a prior relationship with God and we should honor that,” said Duncan Collum. “Children respond from the depths of their being to the beauty, mystery and truth of Catholic Christianity.”

The atrium allows the children to explore this independently through working with materials at various centers, which are called “presentations.”

Leslie Genuis, who leads the program at St. Louis Bertrand, offers training in the program. She will offer levels one and two trainings in the spring. For more information, contact Genuis at St. Louis Bertrand at 583-4448.

St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Ind., will also offer level one in June. The deadline to register for the course is March 1. For more information, visit www.saintmeinrad.edu/continuing-formation/catechesis-of-the-good-shepherd/.

For additional information about the faith-formation program, contact Maureen Grisanti Larison in the archdiocesan Office of Faith Formation at 636-0296.

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