As Emma Marple brings her three sons around the new Our Lady of Guadalupe space at St. Andrew’s Church, there’s plenty for them to explore.
One by one, they walk through and study the miniature vestments, wooden figures that illustrate Jesus’s parables and the events of the Gospel, a globe marking both Edmonton and Israel, and a miniature altar with chalice and tabernacle.
This open space, once a choir loft for the northwest Edmonton church, is now the atrium, or dedicated space, for the Archdiocese of Edmonton’s first Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. It offers a unique approach to teaching children about the Bible, Mass, and how to foster their own relationships with God.
The children are taught about Baptism by watering plants. Figurines of sheep and shepherds help them understand the role Jesus plays in their lives. And by folding cloth on dotted lines, the children become familiar with the preparation of the altar for Mass.
“I’m impressed by how much this program shows respect for children. It believes that they are more than capable of having a deep relationship with the Lord,” Marple said.
“Encountering Christ, understanding the parables and all of these beautiful truths of our faith are not too much for children. It just has to be presented to them in a way they understand.”
The program was first formed by Italian theologian Sofia Cavalletti in 1954 and brought to Canada in 1977. More than 45 Catholic and Anglican parishes in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario now offer the program.
The local Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for the Edmonton Archdiocese was developed over the past year. There are 33 children enrolled at St. Andrew’s, where classes will be offered Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday, beginning Sept. 17. Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park is also preparing a CGS program, expected to start sometime next year.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd uses the Montessori Method, a style of teaching through hands-on work that is intended to help children discover information for themselves, rather than just having it presented to them.
“It’s a one-on-one approach that allows the Holy Spirit to work through them,” said Della O’Malley, who will be teaching the program at St. Andrew’s. “It allows God to reach into their hearts and minds and create connections.”
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd focuses on children internalizing their faith and the Church’s teachings, and it’s had success across Canada, said John Ottens, coordinator of the with the Office of Catechesis at the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
“A big part of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is that it believes that children already have some grasp on the existence of God,” he said. “So it’s about helping them discover that awareness that’s already there inside themselves, and that will help them connect the Church to their own experiences.”
Colleen Rouleau, a parishioner at St. Andrew’s, hopes the program will deepen the faith of her own three children and other young people in the Archdiocese.
“In my experience bringing children to Mass, you don’t think they’re paying much attention. Then later in the week they’re singing the Gloria or they’ll mention something from the homily,” Rouleau said.
“So things are going in and they are embodying parts of the Mass, and I think that’s what this atrium is going to tap into. It’s bringing the Gospel to a level they can fully access and embody. It’s a very Catholic method of teaching – it’s incarnational.”
Marple was first introduced to Catechesis of the Good Shepherd through a friend in Calgary who had enrolled her children in the program. She was shocked to see their knowledge of the Mass seemed to outweigh that of most adults.
“Her children were talking about how much they loved going to Mass. They were naming the thurible, the epiclesis, and I was just blown away by these kids’ understanding. They were only 4 and 6,” Marple said. “I became really interested in getting my children involved, but at the time we had no program in Edmonton.”
Last March, the Archdiocese introduced the program to parishes in the Edmonton area. O’Malley was so impressed, she booked a flight to Vancouver to take the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd training that very same day.
“I’d been working with youth for years trying to teach them by using tangible things and objects to explain the events of Jesus’ life, and then I find this program doing exactly what I had been trying to do – building that connection into children’s hearts,” O’Malley said. “So God’s timing was perfect. I felt my heart surge and I thought, ‘This is it.’”
To set up the program at St. Andrew’s, parents, parishioners, seniors at the adjoining St. Andrew’s Centre, and staff at the Marion Centre donated and even made some of the crafts. To turn the choir loft into the atrium, the Knights of Columbus installed floorboards, fixed the stairwell, installed a safety barrier and completed other repairs. Archbishop Richard Smith blessed the space on Sept. 12.
For O’Malley, this effort reflects the priority that youth evangelization must take in the Church.
“This is our future. These are our children,” she said. “I myself was a product of poor catechesis. As a child I received the sacraments, but I was not evangelized and I left the Church for many years.”
“I think that’s why God led me into youth ministry. It’s to help the children fall in love with Jesus and make room in their hearts for the Holy Spirit. They have to know this is a faith we live, it’s not just something you do once a week on Sunday.”
Currently, St. Andrew’s offers only the Level 1 catechesis for children aged 3 to 6. Levels 2 and 3, for kids up to age 12, may be available in the future.
Marple’s eldest child, five-year-old Gabriel, is on the verge of taking his first class. She is confident the program will offer the guidance he needs to grow his faith.
“If he can have a space where he can begin to foster that friendship with Christ, not in a way that’s forcing him but allowing it to happen, I’ll be more than happy,” she said.
Correction: Classes for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd will be every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at St. Andrew’s Church. Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Sherwood Park is also developing a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program, tentatively scheduled to begin in early 2020