The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

The Atrium at St. Michael’s

Here at St. Michael’s parish, we have our own atrium attached to the 1st grade Religious Education room.  In the atrium, the children sit together at the beginning for a presentation on a parable, an examination of one of the mass parts, or a look into the liturgical year.  They then go to do their own “work,” or activity, and at the end come together for prayer table before dismissal.

A session in the atrium is like an hour in retreat.  The children spend time in quiet, can ask questions when they come up, and slowly start to develop for themselves that sense of relationship with Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.

A Scene From the Atrium

The children are gathered around the catechist who gives a brief introduction to the scriptural story, recalling something the children already knows about Jesus (lifting up any words that may be unfamiliar to the children).  Then a candle is lit and the solemn reading of the scripture takes place.  The catechist might ask, “What did we hear in this scripture?”  At this point the material is introduced.  “This is the sheepfold.”  (It is placed on the table.)  “This is the Good Shepherd.  These are the sheep.”  The catechist reads the parable again, moving the material with very simple movements:  placing the sheep in the sheepfold, the shepherd calling them out, the shepherd going ahead of them, the sheep following.

The second narration is followed by the catechist posing a few, open-ended questions:  i.e., “I wonder how far the Good Shepherd’s voice can be heard?” or “I wonder how the Good Shepherd knows each sheep by name?”  The catechist invites a prayer response from the heart of the child.  (There are other moments when the catechist begins to introduce formal prayers.)

The catechist shows the children how to gently put the materials away and where the materials are stored so that they can choose this work for themselves during their individual work time.  The expectation is always to return materials to their place ready for the next person.  It is in this work time after much repetition where the child comes to know the scripture passage by heart.

It is with this text that the children are introduced into the mystery of the person of Christ.  It is primarily the children’s responses that account for the choice of this parable.  The children work repeatedly with this material, moving it in their own way as they appropriate its truth.

(from The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in a Parish Setting, Tina Lillig)

Atrium: A Christocentric Way of Catechesis

The children teach us the importance of the Christocentric way of catechesis:  to come to God through Christ.  This is our religious reality, having been born into the time of redemption.  And so religious experiences, and even the reading of the Old Testament, are always in this light.

“The points on which we linger, for it is these that most enchant the children, are above all the personal love and protective presence of the Good Shepherd:  He calls each one of His sheep by name, He knows each intimately even if there are many sheep; He calls His sheep and gradually they become accustomed to the voice of their Good Shepherd and they listen to Him.  In this way, a precious relationship is established; a thread of love binds the sheep always more closely to their Shepherd.  The Shepherd’s voice is powerful and supremely patient; it never tires of calling and reaches out even to those sheep who are far away, beyond the sheepfold.  Slowly they too turn to hear His voice and they gather together into one great flock.  The Shepherd knows the needs of His sheep, and He guides them to good pastures, walking ahead of them to show the way and to be the first to confront any danger should it arise.  So the sheep are safe and peaceful with their Good Shepherd; they know there is someone to protect them even in danger.”  (Sofia Cavaletti, The Religious Potential of the Child)

Cavalletti mentions that for a long time she thought the most powerful part of the Good Shepherd image was the protective aspect of the shepherd.  It was an obvious thing because little children have a particular need to be protected, to feel secure.  But as she studied their artwork, she saw another element, fuller and deeper, and at the root of the sense of protection.  It is the element of relationship.  The sense of security is rooted in the relationship and is indeed a fringe benefit of that relationship.  Later the child will encounter the depth of this relationship in the paschal aspect of the parable:  “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11)

(from The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in a Parish Setting, Tina Lillig)