A catechist is the “Keeper of the Memory of God,” a witness of the source of our hope, and an educator who accompanies those desiring to know more about our loving God and the most essential mysteries of our faith and tradition.
The word “catechesis” is derived from the Greek word meaning “to echo.” In context, the goal of the catechetical process is intimate communion with Christ, brought about through a process of accompaniment. Catechists don’t simply “dump information” into the brains of our young people or those desiring to enter our Catholic fold – but rather they aim to inspire, stand beside, share our ancient story and memories, and give witness to the steadfast love, mercy, and reality of God in their lives. Catechesis is an interactive, dialogical process in which the Word of God re-sounds (echoes, bounces around) between and among the proclaimer, the one receiving the message, and the Holy Spirit. We don’t aim to talk “about God” but rather prepare a space, time, and spirit that supports and facilitates a deeper encounter “with God” – an encounter which of course is instructive but not in a “textbook” kind of fashion. The catechist is called to adopt a listening stance before the beauty and truth of the presence of Christ, our only teacher, and shares in the awe and wonder that forever accompanies our relationship with our creator. This never ending willingness to enter into and model an “education to wonder” is one of the most important characteristics of an effective catechist.
In June of 2020 a new edition of The Directory for Catechesis was released with a significant shift in focus of this foundational ministry of our church stressing the vital role of the “art of accompaniment” – which is humbly listening for God together, again and again with those we aim to serve so as to enter more deeply into our shared Kerygma.
In May of 2021, Pope Francis released an apostolic letter instituting the formal recognition of the “lay ministry of catechist” as a vocation of service to the Church. “The object of catechesis is communion with Jesus Christ. Catechesis leads people to enter the mystery of Christ, to encounter him, and to discover themselves and the meaning of their lives in him” (National Directory of Catechesis, p.55).
By virtue of our Baptism, each of us is a catechist – a witness to all God is to us. We do this joyful service in our everyday life with our friends, family and children. We also do it here in a more formal way in our Children’s Faith Formation program and our Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
“Catechesis is nothing other than the process of transmitting the Gospel (the good news of Jesus Christ), as the Christian community has received it, understands it, celebrates it, lives it and communicates it in many ways.” (General Directory for Catechesis #105)
One of the many great insights in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation is its understanding of revelation not as a set of doctrines but rather as Christ himself, “the fullness of all revelation,” by whom God speaks to us and lives with us (No. 2). The goal of catechesis is intimate communion with Christ, which is “the ultimate end of the catechetical initiative” (#3), and—here’s the new emphasis—it should be “brought about through a process of accompaniment” (#3). This is again an echo of Evangelii Gaudium, in which we were introduced to the term “the art of accompaniment” for the first time.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS)
A little bit about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a distinctively kerygmatic style of catecheis designed for children ages 3-12 years old that we use at Christ the Redeemer in Lake Orion where I serve as the Director of Religious Education (psst…we are always looking for dedicated catechists! CLICK HERE for a short but informative introduction to CGS designed specifically for those considering service to our community in the role of catechist. Your prayerful consideration of this essential work is deeply appreciated. Contact me if you are local and interested. We will even cover the $400 tuition cost for your CGS training, contact Lisa at email@example.com if interested).
In the summer of 2014 I was invited by a friend at Gesu Parish in Detroit to observe their elementary faith formation program. Unlike traditional textbook-based programs, this Archdiocesan recognized delivery method is a Montessori-based, contemplative style of sharing our religious tradition. No textbooks. No worksheets. Just simple presentations rooted in the words of Jesus and the words of our ancient prayer of the Mass designed to invite the children to wonder about their meaning and application. Within the first hour of being introduced to this beautiful program, my mind was blown and, one by one, all of the members of our CTR education staff followed suit, (thankfully) becoming engrossed and eager to learn more right along with me.
The method is called The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and is an approach to the faith formation of children ages 3 through 12 that grew out of over 40 years of research and careful observation of children by Dr. Sofia Cavalletti, a Hebrew & Scripture Scholar, and her collaborator, Gianna Gobbi, an expert in Montessori education.
It began when Sofia, quite content in her role as a scholar and professor, was asked by a neighbor to give some religious instruction to her child. At first Sofia declined saying she knew nothing about children. But, the mother was persistent and Sofia eventually gave in and her experience with this seven-year old was to change the rest of her life. She saw and studied in that child (and many others afterwards) a way of being in the presence of God that is both unique to the child and a gift to the adult who stops long enough to notice.
Sofia and Gianna identified two key moments in the learning process:
In the first moment the child passively receives the short proclamation (in the form of what’s called an “album page” presentation) being offered by the catechist.
The second moment begins with a series of wonder questions designed to help the child ponder and chew on what they have heard so as to internalize it and make it their own. Such as: I wonder what Jesus meant when he said he was the Good Shepherd? I wonder how the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed? I wonder why the merchant gave up all of the other pearls just to get the one? Children are never instructed as to what Jesus meant in the scriptures, no interpretation is given, rather the children are invited to wonder and ponder Jesus’ words from our sacred texts with the catechist.
In service to this second moment, Sofia & Gianna found that young children learn best through working with their hands, so, central to this CGS method is what is called the “atrium”: a sacred, screen-free, prepared space containing homemade, simple, beautiful, hands-on materials that help keep the child focused, such as small models of various objects we see inside the church, dioramas and figures of stories from the bible, and maps of ancient Israel.
These materials or “works” are not an aid to the teacher but a help for the child in that second moment of learning: they help the child prolong, alone with the inner Teacher (God), the meditation begun with the catechist.
CGS has two pillars: Scripture & Liturgy – our story and our prayers.
Scripture is essential in passing along our collective wisdom gleaned from the experience of God in our lives, and this witness is critical because as theologian Michael Himes says “Christianity is not a series of conclusions that any one of us could have reached by simply sitting down and thinking about them very seriously and carefully for a long time. Christianity is a story about a particular person and set of events in a particular place and time in history. It is a report that requires that someone bring us the ‘good news.’ We need to hear it from someone else.” Scripture is our story, our witness and our collective memory of salvation history and God’s movement in our lives.
The second pillar is our Liturgy. Bishop Ken Untener once said “If you want to know what we believe listen to what we pray.” For centuries our Mass has offered a highly visual, sensory and symbolic yet concrete means through which we experience the sacred; connecting two levels of reality by imbuing very simple, humble things like water, bread, wine and oil with deep spiritual meaning – so our liturgy is, for our children, early training in imaginative, non-literal, spiritual thinking, fostering an ability to reverence the inexhaustible mystery that God is – what Sofia calls an “interior agility” that is central to all spiritual development.
The goal of time in the atrium is to foster wonder, prayer, and provide an environment for the child to be able to hear our Good Shepherd call his or her name – to encounter God – because that is the seed from which life long faith and trust grows and lasts.
Most of us know the power of hearing that still small voice within, as rare and elusive as it might be at times, especially in our busy, noisy, device-laden world. We can know every little factoid there is about Jesus and our Tradition, but if we haven’t heard our name called in love by God nothing takes root – nothing grows.
We have prepared a few videos for you (links below) as an introduction to this CGS style of accompaniment with our children. Some things to know before you watch these videos.
First, all our presentations are designed to be given to an intimate group of 10-12 children in the atrium and then discussed using the “wonder questions” together. Since these videos were shot during the pandemic, this discussion was not possible.
Second, things in the atrium move slow and this is purposeful. The catechist moves the materials at what feels like a snail’s pace, but the children watch intently. With these slow movements, the children are being invited to contemplate the and ideas and words being spoken.
The first video is a six-minute visual tour of our three atrium spaces.
The second is a reflection on the Mystery of Life and Death.
The third video is a presentation on our sacred library of the Bible.
To view a few more short videos, a detailed overview of our curriculum and more information about the CGS method of faith formation, please visit our parish website at ctredeemer.org under WE FORM.
Dear Lisa, Another profoundly insightful article. You need to package into a book your articles and publish the book.
My friend, Fr. Charles, is publishing an easy to read autobiography. I’ve been assisting him through the publishing process. Let me know if you want to chat with him about the process.
You, and your articles, are a tremendous gift to the church.
Warm regards, Michael Goddard