By Matthew Chicoine
The Catholic Church strives to build up holy families who pray and learn about their faith together. Parents long for their children to grow up to know God loves them and to know they can share God’s love with others. However, our noisy and busy world can make those efforts difficult for parents and parishes.
Parents need a place of quiet, calm and peace for their children and even themselves to have an encounter with the God who made them. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd provides a place for this peace and encounter to happen.
The Good Shepherd leads
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) program has popped up in several parishes in our diocese in recent years. The program’s website describes what they do this way: “CGS is a common religious experience involving children and adults in which the religious values of childhood, primarily those values of contemplation and enjoyment of God, are predominant. This experience is shared in a place particularly prepared for the religious life of children called the atrium.”
Amanda and Nick Lanners, parishioners of Risen Savior Parish in Brandon, have learned a lot from their experience with CGS.
“When I entered the atrium, it had a warm and inviting atmosphere. It was a natural environment, and holy,” Amanda said.
A shepherd allows his sheep to wander through the pasture while still maintaining clear borders and limits for where they can go. The CGS program takes on this quality in teaching children about the faith.
“The environment is set up to enhance the students’ learning,” Amanda said. “It allows them to explore on their own but with boundaries.” She described how each of the stations (or works as they are called in the CGS curriculum) are detailed and life-like.
Amanda says the placement of the works is intentional, and the set-up is meant to invoke a pause or wonderment in the child when they enter the atrium. She leads a group of eight students ages 3-4 (atrium level 1) on Wednesdays.
“It’s a humbling experience to teach this program,” she said. “Children are calmer and in tune with what their heart is with their mind.”
An environment of encountering Christ
In Matthew 16:13, Jesus asked his apostles, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” He doesn’t dictate the answer, he prompts a reply with open-ended questions and patience. This is the approach of CGS. It’s an invitation to wonder and awe, not memorization of rote facts.
CGS teaches the children to be aware and how to be mindful. The students aren’t perfectly silent, but a change occurs in them in the atrium—they are calmer, and the space inspires curiosity.
“The environment creates wondering that plants the seed of pondering,” Amanda said. “This lets the children seek God out more on their own.”
The Lanners family experienced an encounter with Christ through the CGS program. Amanda was a cradle Catholic but didn’t take her faith too seriously until she met her second husband. She received the sacrament of confirmation at age 29 and was married in 2008. She joined Risen Savior Parish a year later. Amanda was first introduced to CGS by Rachel Uhrich, director of faith formation at Risen Savior.
The program was in need of donations, so Amanda helped sew curtains and tablecloths for the atrium. Her simple gift led her more deeply to the gift of the Good Shepherd. Amanda brings the things she learns from CGS to her job as an educational aid for Holy Spirit Elementary School. Additionally, her husband helped build materials for the atrium.
“Nick made a wooden puzzle of Israel and other wood cutouts of Biblical figures for the kids to play with for CGS,” Amanda added.
Impacting the domestic church
The Lanners’ three children enjoyed the atrium experience and started to get involved in learning about the Catholic faith. Together Amanda and Nick have three sons: Henry (age 8), Raymond (age 6), and Patrick (age 2). Amanda also has two older children from her first marriage: Matthew (age 16) and Theresa (age 20).
As their sons participated in the CGS program, the Lanners noticed they were more curious about God and the faith. Amanda recalls one night, close to bedtime, Raymond knelt before the Sacred Heart of Jesus at their home altar, and his eyes focused on the heart. He asked questions about the heart with thorns.
“Instead of answering him right away, I allowed him to think and wonder about the image,” Amanda said. “I asked him questions about why there were thorns around the Sacred Heart. He made the connection to the cross and continued to gaze at the image of Jesus for 20 minutes.”
Before CGS, Amanda says she would have answered those questions for him. Now she lets her boys’ minds ponder and wonder. Nick and Amanda are very grateful to have been changed by their family’s encounter with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
Amanda says she would definitely recommend this program to other families. It was an emphatic and joy-filled “yes” from her family.
“This program allows the catechist to be a leader or guide while allowing Christ to come into the child’s heart and connect the child’s heart to their mind,” Amanda says.
To learn more about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, read this month’s feature story on the next pages.