By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — Young children in St. Wenceslaus Parish’s weekly Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program gathered in a circle in the parish hall April 11 and listened to catechist Michelle Cain tell the Palm Sunday story. Then, the children removed their shoes and walked quietly into a conference room, which had been transformed into an “atrium” with different stations for them to explore independently, with help from catechists and assistants. “Remember, we don’t play in the atrium. We work and pray,” Cain told the children.
For the next hour, youths moved quietly between stations, including a model baptismal font, model altar, dioramas and other hands-on, independent activities to help them develop fine motor skills while encountering God. “The focus is really on Christ being the teacher and the adult is just there to help the children listen to the voice of their shepherd,” said catechist Kelsey Steffen.
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is an international program created by Sofia Caviletti and Gianna Gobbi with heavy influence from Maria Montessori’s principles of child development, which emphasize individuality and independence in learning. “The program focuses on the child developing an intimate relationship with Jesus,” Steffen said.
The parish raised money to train catechists and implement the program last year and parish members helped build the materials needed for the atrium. About 16 children ages 3-7 participate in one of two weekly 90-minute sessions. Currently, it is only open to St. Wenceslaus parishioners, but may expand in the future to include children of different age levels and from different parishes.
On the Thursday before Palm Sunday, Lydia Brown, 7, visited the diorama of Jerusalem where Cain told her the story of Jesus’ last days. Cain pointed out the different places in Jerusalem where the events took place, using figurines, tables, candles and other props to help Lydia bring history to life. “The emphasis is on the fact that Jesus was real,” Cain told The Catholic Messenger. “He’s not a made-up super hero.” Lydia said the diorama and presentation helped her to understand more about Jesus.
Cecilia Nuxoll, 6, finished sewing a needlework cross, then walked quietly to the Mass station to prepare the cruets. She attentively poured water and wine from one delicate vessel to another. This activity is intended to help youths with control of movement and to understand how and why the priest performs these actions during Mass, according to program materials.
Youths may also work to beautify the atrium during their time there. One boy chose to use a broom sweeper to clean up one area of the room. Volunteer assistant Beth Miner, explained, “This is where Jesus is and that’s why we respect it, keeping it clean and quiet.”
While the children are too young to fully articulate their experiences, Rebecca Narvasa has noticed a change in her 4-year-old daughter, Aurora, since enrolling her in the program. “She has this appreciation for anything sacred. She seems to understand when she needs to be quiet and listen during Mass. She is more excited about Mass, folding her hands and praying. It’s really fun to watch.”