She didn’t remember it until she began learning to be a catechist herself, but Halee Williams participated in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as a preschooler. Her parents, Steve and Kristi Burkins, ran the program at St. Dominic in Bremen. Now, Williams works full-time as a catechist for the program at St. Joseph Church in South Bend.
Several diocesan parishes provide this opportunity for young learners to encounter Jesus in Scripture and the liturgy.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd utilizes the developmentally appropriate Montessori approach for children ages 3-6 (Level I) and 6-9 (Level II). Ten or 12 students at a time visit what is called the “Atrium” – a term used in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to denote the space between the sanctuary and the outside world. It is a beautiful, calm, orderly space where children move deliberately and speak quietly. Each “work” is introduced to a group of children, primarily through the reading of Scripture. They also learn about Biblical geography to help make children aware that Jesus lived in a real time and place with a specific landscape.
In the Atrium, each child is free to choose what “work” he or she wants to use and for how long. At St. Joseph, Josephine, 4, encapsulates the method perfectly, saying: “You kind of play, but you kind of work. It is basically like prayer, but you are playing.”
The children use their senses prayerfully to enter into the meaning of Scripture and the Mass. That may involve smelling oil scented like the chrism used in baptism, helping Jesus the Good Shepherd find and gather figurines representing his sheep, moving the figures in a diorama of the Last Supper, or holding a minuscule actual mustard seed from the Holy Land on their fingertip and marveling that it can grow into a large bush.
St. Joe parishioners Katie Ball-Boruff and Lisa DeLorenzo began Catechesis of the Good Shepherd when Holy Cross Father Kevin Russeau was pastor, but it was limited to the Sunday CCD hour. After St. Joseph School opened its preschool 11 years ago, Joanie Rymsza trained Halee Williams at Christ the King in South Bend. Williams now oversees a program where every student in St. Joseph School from preschool through second grade gets to spend one “special” a week in the Atrium for 45 minutes to an hour. Preschool-age parishioners not enrolled in the school can also be signed up for a weekly session on Monday morning or afternoon. There are several trained catechists in the parish, including Director of Religious Education Sean Driscoll.
“This is a beautiful program,” Williams said. “I love enabling young children to encounter Jesus in a personal way, hopefully the beginning of a lifelong relationship with Him. Through repetition, the children become familiar with Scripture and are able to enter into what they see happening at Mass.” They learn the meaning of gestures like “epiclesis,” “offertory,” and the names of the vessels on the altar. The program is easily adaptable to the abilities of children on the autism spectrum and other special learners.
Williams has worked with some children for six years and delights in watching their understanding and faith grow over time. Children in Level II love to plan prayer services using the hymnal and other resources they find on the prayer table. Although they still work individually, there can be collaborative efforts at this age.
At St. Joseph, student Dylan said he likes learning his prayers and “processing” during his time at Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, while Pierre, 4, says, “I like that we do prayers and stuff.” Second-grader Remy explains, “I learn about Jesus, God, and Mary.” Classmate Molly said: “You can pray there. There are things that you can play with that can help you think about stuff that happened, like Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God.” Another second grader, Ezra, summarizes the most important thing he’s learned: “I know that the Good Shepherd would risk His life for the lost sheep.”
The best news. Delivered to your inbox.
Subscribe to our mailing list today.