By: Katy Beedle Rice
A month ago I received a thank you card from one of the children in the Level 2 atrium (1st through 3rd graders) that I co-lead at St. Mark’s Catholic Community in Boise, Idaho. Inside Rosemary (age 7) had drawn me a picture of the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd with two lambs playing in green grass surrounded by a brown fence. Above the picture she’d written, with characteristic seven-year-old effusiveness, “I love you Mrs. Katee [sic] you have been a good atrium teacher you are like the sheep that loves Jesus.”
I’ve been carrying her card around with me in the back pocket of my journal along with a few obituary prayer cards and a picture of a brass cross on a multi-colored rug of whose provenance I have no memory. I take it out sometimes and re-read it, and hope that I really am like the sheep that loves Jesus, each day, in each moment, no matter how exciting, mundane, hungry and tired, or full and ready for the next adventure I might be.
Within the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) the image of the shepherd carrying a sheep across his shoulders is present everywhere. Each Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Protestant atrium contains a plaster copy of the Good Shepherd statue from the Domitilla Catacombs, so famous in Rome where CGS began. Orthodox atria pray with icons to depict the shepherd holding the sheep. The themes of the Parable of the Good Shepherd from John’s gospel are explored with children younger than two in the growing toddler atria (for 1 ½ to 3 year olds) all the way to the children in level 3 (4th through 6th graders). Of course, the parable does not end its influence on our lives as Christians when we reach the age of twelve, but continues to grow with us.
In their early work with children, Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi (the co-founders of CGS) believed that children were attracted to this parable because of the protection and safety the Good Shepherd offers to the sheep who (like children) are vulnerable and in need of care. Later they discovered, however, that the children in the level 1 atrium (for 3 to 6-year olds) did not focus primarily on the verses detailing the shepherd’s care for the sheep, but instead the relationship the sheep and the shepherd enjoyed illustrated by the verse, “He calls them by name.” This realization amazed the two women, because it demonstrates that the youngest child is capable of entering into relationship with God, into the Covenant relationship that is the foundation of our lives as Christians.
Within CGS the adults who serve in the atrium eschew the name of “teacher.” Instead, we strive to be “co-listeners” to the word of God with the children. While we offer some structure, boundaries, and help, for the most part CGS seeks to “follow the child” (as Maria Montessori, another Catholic, who provided the educational foundation for CGS would say). One of the ways we do this is by resisting the urge to “define” the parables for the children. We let the children discover on their own (sometimes over years of reading and interacting with the parable) who the Shepherd and the sheep are. Usually by the age of five a child will have proclaimed to us at some point within the atrium, usually with a measure of awe or a cry of complete joy, “I am a sheep!”
Maybe this is why Rosemary’s card has become so precious to me. Instead of telling me that I am like the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep, Rosemary has placed me as one of the flock, just as I should be, a sheep along with her and all others, who seek to listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice and follow wherever he leads.
Of the many gifts of being a catechist, the one I relish the most is how much the children continue to teach me about God. Jesus said with all seriousness, “Unless you become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). In order to follow this commandment, we must enter into the mystery of childhood—whether it’s through paying attention to the children within our own lives, volunteering as catechists (if this is God’s call for us) or meditating on the spiritual richness that children offer to us within our church.
Throughout the summer months, catechists and teachers throughout the U.S. breathe a collective sigh of relief. No matter how fulfilling and wonderful it is to be with children we need a minute to recenter ourselves, not to mention clean our classrooms and atria. This summer, amidst the plans for making new materials for the atria, attending CGS formation courses and working on album pages (our catechist “lesson plans”), I’m going to take some time with Rosemary’s card, praying with thanksgiving that I am counted among the flock of the Good Shepherd and for the honor of listening to God with children.
Katy Beedle Rice is the former Director of Religious Education of the Cathedral in Juneau. She and her family currently live in Boise, Idaho where she volunteers as a catechist at St. Mark’s Catholic Community and the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.