For this past week, I've been to training to be a Good Shepherd catechist. I have to admit, I went to this rather reluctantly.
My parish priest had asked if I would be willing to consider being a catechist this year, since it recently expanded their catechism program and was in need of more catechists. I wasn't sure I really wanted to do the Good Shepherd program, because I thought it was a watered down, preschool way of teaching children. But boy, was I wrong!
I love children, but the idea of working with 3-6 year old kids didn't appeal to me when it came to catechizing. I mean, how far can you really go with catechizing a little child? I wanted to go deep, have discussions. I wanted to have the benefit and reward of watching a child grow a religious education. For all these reasons, being stuck in a classroom with little kids and watching them play with religious toys made me want to tell our parish priest that this program just wasn't the right fit for me. I just wasn't excited about it, and wasn't enthusiasm part of discerning God's will??
But every time I was about to email my parish priest, I just couldn't do it. Something inside of me was telling me to wait. Not so much, "wait, you're gonna love this" but "just wait."
I was still skeptical but soon, the day came for me to go to class and even then, I was still playing with the idea of just not going. But I did go, uncertain about all of this and what I was getting myself into.
Let me tell you, it's no small sacrifice to commit to the training and I can tell you that every person that showed up sacrificed something of their time. For me, it was going all week without seeing my kids for four days. That may not sound like a big deal to those who have jobs, but those who are working mothers might know what I'm talking about. The length of training for this catechism is 90 hours.
I found myself chafing with the strictness of the training. From what I thought I understood about the program, I couldn't understand what training could be filled with 90 hours of my time. Ninety hours to learn about setting up some toys for the kids and simply watch them play? Ninety hours just to sing a few songs and say a prayer here and there? From what I saw of the program (my daughter was in it), it seemed to be an unnatural atmosphere of silence strictly imposed with teachers off in the distance, seemingly aloof, rather than taking part in the children's play. It was not a way I wanted to spend my time, and yet, this still quiet Voice within me kept telling me to wait and see.
I will now get to the part where I will tell you how wrong I was about the Good Shepherd program and why. I am so excited to be wrong about this, to discover it is not what I thought it was and to hopefully inspire a lot of parents to bring their children into this program!
What I saw were not little children walking around in boredom, tinkering with this or that, like I thought. What I actually saw (but didn't realize it) was children at work, not play. There is some truth that they are playing, but a better way of describing their play is that they are reenacting what they have learned through play.
Within the atrium (not called a classroom), there are aspects of our faith that is taught to the children, split up into categories or stations. Here is what is different about this program; unlike preschool, children are not allowed to play (or work) with these stations until they have been taught.
That is because our faith--the catechism--is being taught literally through these stations.
The children are not taught as they would be in a typical classroom either. They are guided by the catechist, however, they are left to ponder. Wondering leads to contemplation, and contemplation leads to awe and reverence.
But it is not done by teaching, but through guiding. The children come up with their own awe; it is between them and God. The catechist is merely a tool to help guide the children in their wonderment.
I was wondering how that was accomplished. Does the catechist just simply say, "Hey, did you know that Mary said "yes" to God when He asked her to be the Mother of Jesus?" And then leave it at that?? If so, I always thought that would be confusing to the child and would leave them with more questions than answers. Shouldn't we finish the lesson for them??
But as the catechist talks about the lesson she wants to share with the child, she alternates factual questions and pondering questions. Factual questions to insert some actual facts and "wondering questions" to help the children ponder the facts. Then they are left to "ponder and pray" on their own--a time between the child and God.
It is a little hard to believe, but once the children have been "trained in" on the material and what it is for, how it is to be used, ect--they do the work themselves. They are invited to go to whatever station they would like to work on. And because they revisit the same station over and over, they are understanding deeper and deeper the lesson behind the story, through play and contemplation.
The atmosphere is set up for quiet; there are no overhead bright fluorescent lights used. Only lamps. Children are not allowed to be loud; everyone whispers. Everyone I know has been surprised by how much children actually like silence.
There are processions as they set up the prayer table for a new liturgical season; there are songs and times for group discussion.
I had said before that the catechists were off in the corner, seemingly "aloof" to the children.
What I had misunderstood was that they were respecting the children's work. When the children are deep in their play (assuming they are using the tools correctly and as shown and usually they are), it is also to be assumed that they are in contemplation with God, and they are not to be disturbed.
A wonderful quote from Sophia Cavaletti: "Leave your pride and anger at the door."
We are not teachers, but merely a tool to guide the children. Therefore, leave your pride at the door before you enter the atrium and let the Holy Spirit teach the children.
Things will not always go the way you think they should; sometimes the children will want to talk about rocket ships and super heroes rather than God. Or maybe they will be loud when you want them to be quiet. Leave your anger at the door and remember that it takes time for things to bear fruit.
The wonderful thing about this program is that they have brought everything about our faith--the big, difficult things that are hard for little ones to understand--into child sized portions. The materials are child sized, they are allowed to touch it. Everything becomes tangible. Everything becomes real.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd does not focus on "pouring in" truths into the child; but rather "drawing it out." Because it is already there...it just needs to be discovered.
I had a hard time keeping my emotions at bay during my time of training (which isn't done yet, I still have some classes in August.) I had a hard time not getting emotional and making a fool out of myself, because I felt like I finally found the answer to help Anna and Henry. I have not been able to reach Anna and Henry. I have not been able to help them make the connection that God loves them so much. I have taught them much, yes. But I have not been able to form a relationship for them. Needless to say, I emailed our faith formation director as soon as I got home and signed both children up for the Good Shepherd program this fall.
Through the child's natural ability to wonder and be in awe (something that is being stifled through so many electronics), they discover Jesus for themselves. Again, being guided by the catechesis. But not being drilled on facts.
I know this is a long post, but I just need to say one more thing about this program. One thing that sealed the deal for me; that made it real and necessary. It was what St.Pope John Paul said when he visited an atrium one day while visiting a particular church.
"This is the most beautiful Gospel I have ever heard."
That pretty much sums it up right there.