By: Cathy Bolling with Stephanie Haseltine
It’s amazingly quiet and peaceful on a Sunday afternoon inside the Atrium at Saint John by the Sea Parish in Klawock. The Liturgy has been celebrated and parishioners have visited over coffee and hospitality. The adults retreat to their religious education gathering in the social hall and some of the youngest members- ages 3-6, head to the Atrium, a classroom transformed through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
The Parish opened its Atrium this fall. Parishioner Stephanie Haseltine attended training in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in Juneau in 2016 and welcomed Nicole Miller and Hillary Hilson of Holy Name to Prince of Wales later that year, when they provided additional help.
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd sprung from a book written in the mid-1950s by then Hebrew Scholar Sofia Cavaletti, based on her and collaborator Gianna Gobbi’s work with children and the Catholic faith. The Catechesis is Montessori-based, meaning it is designed based on the child’s stage of development and their needs. It centers around helping the children recognize and nourish their relationship with Christ.
“Help me fall in love with God myself” is the main theme, said Haseltine.
In the Early Church, catechumens would wait in the Atrium before being fully received into the church.
“In the (present-day) Atrium it’s not about us just telling them that God loves them and here is why you should believe that,” she said.
“It’s about recognizing the dignity of each child, recognizing that each one of us is born with a deep love for the Father- it is our job as catechist to help the child discover that love that is planted in his or her heart, to nurture it, to water it, to let it grow and bloom in their hearts. We simply provide tools and the environment to best allow that to happen.”
The combination of low light and Haseltine’s soft voice help the children slow down and stay calm. Quiet helps them center to open themselves to hear God, she said.
The room is decorated with religious art- photographs and statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints. They use the same Bible as at Mass, not a children’s Bible. And you won’t find childish cartoon-like images in the Atrium.
The children choose from a variety of independent tasks, like transferring water between vessels, tracing liturgical shapes, and setting up the prayer table. Haseltine takes turns working individually with each student, demonstrating the different activities and saying, “Let me show you how to get this ready for the next child.”
One Sunday she is working with her not quite 3-year old son, Skipp. They are setting up the model altar. A small cupboard holds miniature versions of candles, altar cloth, Roman Missal, Lectionary, chalice and paten. She uses the analogy of setting up for a “fancy dinner” as she explains the uses for the items.
“When you set the table, you use a tablecloth (altar cloth), and what do you eat on? A plate. We call it a paten. And what do you need to drink with? A cup? Here at Mass we use a chalice.”
With Haseltine’s supervision, the children light the altar candles and use an old-fashioned snuffer to extinguish the flame.
She brings the children together with the sound of a very quiet chime. They gather before her and she pulls out a globe and other tools and teaches about where Jesus was born, lived and died. Jesus is presented as a real person, in real time and in real places.
“Think about Jesus…being born…spending time with friends…” she says.
Afterward, they move to the prayer table. One of the children sets it up, with cloth, candle, statue, prayer card and enthroned Bible.
“Think about the name of Jesus,” Haseltine quietly encourages.
“Say it out loud or in your heart.”
She models how to pray out loud and asks the children who or what to pray for.
Before leaving, they sing songs from the CGS collection, including “Holy Ground.”
“God’s in this place and so this place is holy. God’s given us holy ground.”
Haseltine loves the way CGS is set up. She favors the Montessori method and has used it with her daughter Sophia.
But she also loves that the children are learning the Mass, about God’s unfailing love for us, about Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
“They connect the dots on their own that the Good Shepherd, who will lay down his life for his sheep is in fact He who calls us to His Table every time we celebrate the Eucharist. It’s beautiful.”
Haseltine is so moved by the presentations of the Catechesis that it is hard not to cry.
“It stirs my soul,” she said.
She often thinks of how much adults could learn and get from the same presentations.
“In taking the training for CGS, I really can appreciate what our Lord meant when he said we need to become like the little children…we must always remember to take the time and become little children again- the Atrium allows me to do that.
She is grateful for the instruction and assistance she has received from others in the Diocese with bringing CGS to life at Saint John by the Sea. She is especially thankful for the help of Miller and Hillson, who shared their expertise, helped plan the parish’s Atrium and traveled to Prince of Wales to instruct parents in the catechism. What’s more, they even made an extra set of Atrium aids when they were preparing their own for Holy Name.
“Without Holy Name’s help this task would have been insurmountable,” she said.
When setting up the Atrium, Haseltine posted a list of items needed. The Atrium uses only natural things like wood, ceramic and glass. People would come and ask her what she needed and offer to make things. One of the parish’s talented carpenters made tables and other items for the Atrium, while others sewed, painted, made prayer cards or donated items. Several odds and ends found around the parish were useful as well.
“It helps because the parish feels invested,” she said.
The Atrium’s needs will change as the stations change and the Liturgical Year progresses.
For more information, visit the National Association of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd website, cgsusa.org.