Anna White first came across the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in America, and she fell in love with it.
Mrs White, a Kiwi, said her family was in the United States while her husband was finishing his medical training. They moved to the States in 2014. and came back to New Zealand in 2018.
She was invited by friends to attend a four-week modified version of the catechesis with five other families. Three of the families were church-going and the other three were “lapsed Catholics”.
“That was my first taste of it. It was this beautiful community moment where people are welcoming others in their homes and telling stories in this way, in this message,” she said. “I was immediately drawn to it, and so I started researching about it.”
Mrs White is opening an atrium at the Sacred Heart Parish Hall in Ponsonby in term 4 of the school year. An atrium is similar to a classroom, but is a space prepared particularly to help the growth of the child’s spiritual life.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is religious formation of children based on the educational principles of Maria Montessori.
Mrs White said the programme had been researched for over 50 years, and is being continuously refined so that it meets the spiritual needs of the child, based on his or her developmental stage.
There are three levels. Level one is for three- to six-year-olds; level two is for six- to nine-year-olds and level three is for nine- to 12-year-olds.
“The key goal for level one is to help the child fall in love with Jesus. The child’s key developmental aspect at that age is of relationship and protection,” she said.
“The main image is the Good Shepherd, so when they walk in the atrium, the Good Shepherd materials are right in the middle of the room.”
Mrs White said that they read the story from the primary resource: the Bible. “Because whose word is better than God’s?” she remarked.
She said that, at seven years old, the child’s brain changes, and they want to know more about God and who they are to God.
“Their world is expanding . And they are ready for the more moral considerations. And so, the true vine is the key image for them that we hold up at that time,” she said.
At this level, the children learn about the Paschal mystery and liturgy with materials like the model altar and baptismal font. They also have a shared prayer area.
“We do a lot of geography as well, particularly the geography of Israel, because we want to lift up to the children that Jesus was a real person and he lived in a real place. It’s not just a story,” she said.
In level three, the children are given the opportunity to explore the covenants with God revealed in the Hebrew Scripture as well as the history of mankind through to the Parousia (Second Coming).
New Zealand atriums
This programme has just taken a foothold in New Zealand and is not yet widely spread. There are four Catholic atriums up and running for the past few years. These are in Christchurch, Tauranga, Hamilton and Pakuranga. There is also one Anglican atrium.
Mrs White said she is keen to set up one in Ponsonby to at least enable her eldest child to go for one more year. Her kids went to the catechesis when they were in Ohio.
“Part of my motivation, for sure, is to provide it over here so that they can keep having that richness in their faith life. They haven’t aged out yet. They are still in the age that they are able to do this,” she said.
This also led her to be formed as a CGS catechist.
“I completed my CGS formation in 2017-18 in Ohio and Wisconsin, and returned to the States in 2019 at my own cost to complete the last part of Level II formation . . . because I love this programme so much!” she said.
Mrs White said that the catechists of the four atriums are trying to increase awareness of this programme. At the moment, they are working towards the formation of a national association so they can support each other.
They will also be holding two level one formation courses next year on January 19 to 22 and April 14 to 16.
“Formation leaders will be flown over from Australia. We’re working really closely with them at the moment to prepare for it,” she said. “The formation will help us to be sustainable and to spread this wonderful thing throughout the country.”
The CGS formation courses have the support of Christchurch Bishop Michael Gielen, Wellington Coadjutor Archbishop Paul Martin, SM, and Auckland Bishop Stephen Lowe.
Mrs White is also studying to become a formation leader through the Australian CGS Association.
“It (CGS) is all across Australia. The Australian association is very strong,” she said. “In the States, where I was, honestly, just about every parish has this and the schools as well. It’s across 60 countries in the world.”
Mrs White that said the programme is meant to be experienced by the participants.
She recently held a parents’ evening for her parish just to show them how it is done.
“Whether you’re a three-year-old or 93-year-old, there’s a depth there for everybody. The three-year-old takes it on a superficial level, but the adults take the same meditation quite differently and it’s just beautiful at that age as well,” she said.
Towards the end of the programme, she asked the participants if there was a song forming in their hearts after meditating on the Gospel of the Good Shepherd.
“In this session, this woman sang this most beautiful song and people joined in. That was her prayer response. And when she finished, she wept. She was so overcome with the beauty of this message,” Mrs White said.