Come and See

An Introduction to the Environment of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

Inviting a visitor to “come and see” has often been the best way to “explain” what the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is. When invited in, an adult will become quiet and wonder at all the different materials they can see. One material may catch their eye, something familiar, the altar table, the Cenacle. Just like the children who first walk through the doors, the adult longs to look with their hands, to open boxes and see what treasures are contained within. Perhaps, less like the child, they hesitate in case they are not allowed to explore further. Left alone, they may take things off the shelf and pick up the contents for closer inspection. They may get their phones out and take a few photos.

The first encounter in an atrium is one of wonder and perhaps awe. If parents walk in with a child, they like to share their knowledge of what they see, moving into teaching them the names or concepts the adult relates to in the work. Little children first seem to like to touch, to feel what has been prepared for them. They long to know, “Who made this?” They know it is a space for them because everything is just the right height and size for their smaller bodies. In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd it is the environment that becomes the teacher. The young children learn more from interacting in their environment than through direct instruction. That is why it is so important that the catechist prepares the environment to entice the children to draw nearer to God and to form a loving relationship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

If our goal is to help children enjoy a relationship with God, we must consider carefully the question, “What kind of environment will respect and cultivate their needs and capacities at their level of development, especially in terms of their spiritual development?”

The atrium therefore is not a classroom “not a place of religious instruction, but of religious life” (Sofia Cavalletti, Religious Potential of the Child). It does not replace the Church but instead prepares them to become full participants in the life of the Church. This work cannot be the work of the catechist or the atrium alone. As Sofia says “The initiation of a child into the Christian life is not a work that can be fulfilled by the catechist alone, nor by the parents alone. It is the whole Christian community that proclaims Christ, and the child must enter into contact with the whole Christian community. The catechist’s work… must be sustained and confirmed by a community that lives what the catechist proclaims.” Ideally the atrium should hold a place within a parish community.

The Atrium is a place of Prayer and Worship, a place of quiet and peace, a place of retreat. A place where quite spontaneously, work and study become meditation, contemplation and prayer.

We invite you to come and see the space we have prepared for the children. You will find the details on our website.

Or you can contact us via email to make a time to visit.

Characteristic #2

Characteristic #2

Since the child, particularly the religious life of the child, is central to the interest and commitment of the catechist of the Good Shepherd, the catechist embraces Maria Montessori’s vision of the human being and thus the attitude of the adult regarding the child; and prepares an environment called the atrium, which aids the development of the religious life.

What is Maria Montessori’s vision of the human person?

“Everyone accepts the fact that the adult is supposed to play a role in forming the child, but who knew that the child is supposed to be forming the adult, just as much.” Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori saw as one of her greatest discoveries was the planes of human development. This is when she recognized that the human person underwent a profound change as they entered different stages of their life. Though this understanding it is possible to see why some expectations of children are unreasonable at some ages but very necessary at others.

When you look at the planes, you can see the horizontal line of life, which indicates the age of the child. The lines that form the triangles show how the child moves towards a greater sensitivity to the needs of their age and then away from that intensity as they move toward the next plane. Montessori observed that development is intense at the beginning of a plane, peaks, and then tapers down to the next plane, in preparation for the beginning of a new stage of development.

For the first plane of development the goal is self-construction or to build a self.

The goal of the second plane of development is building the social self and how to be in society. No longer does the child need just the immediate family. Now the child is ready to explore the larger society and learn how to be with others and with other families.

The goal of the third plane of development is the birth of the adult self. It is another creative period, the creation of what is most valuable in their adult personality.

The goal of the fourth plane of development is the vocation, recognizing and giving back to society.

Within each plane there are specific sensitivities given that facilitate the achievement of the goal. The last characteristics of that each plane builds on the previous plane before it. So a plane that was not fully completed carries into the next plane. Life goes forward not backward. So as adults assisting children, we want to help children achieve the fullness of each plane of development.

The first plane of development is the most important phase in the life of the human person. Sofia Cavalletti called it the Golden Age of Relationship, the period of falling in love with God. 

Two Conditions for any Human Development

Montessori said that there were two conditions necessary for any human development to occur.

  • First, the child’s intimate, positive, loving relationship with the people and things in his/her environment. It’s so important for this first plane of development. The child being brought into this complete, unconditional, totally accepting and loving relationship.
  • The second element is freedom.  

All humans have certain tendencies or behavior patterns that drive the fulfillment of the fundamental needs. No matter the location, culture, or ethnicity, all humans throughout history have followed the same natural laws that lead to actions and interactions with the environment and each other.

All humans are driven:

  • To Explore- to know
  • To Orient – to find one’s place in the world where one feels loved and wanted
  • To Order – to put things in their place, physically and mentally
  • To Observe and to Abstract
  • To Work
  • To strive toward Self-Perfection
  • To Exactness
  • To Communicate – to express one’s self, to be understood, which leads to sharing, cooperation, and preservation of our knowledge, skills and achievements
  • To have Self-Control

What then should the attitude of the adult be regarding the child?

When it comes to the time for more formal learning the environment most children are placed in is a school of one sort or another. In a traditional school classroom the primary relationship is thought to be between the teacher and the child. In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, we believe that God is the teacher, he works through the environment and the materials to help the child to form a personal relationship with him. The role of the adult is that of a guide or servant, waiting for the time to give a new presentation to allow the child to go deeper into their prayer with the Holy Spirit.

The Catechist is not the teacher. The Catechists role is to prepare the environment, to provide the child with materials that will help the child to draw near to God.

As adults, we seek to serve the child in this regard. To enable them to come into God’s presence and spend time with him by themselves.

It is not unusual that in this environment, the children can become so absorbed in their work that the adult can step aside and wait until they are needed. 

What is the prepared environment, the atrium, and how does it aid the child’s religious life?

Montessori noted that the environment itself is a teacher; the children learn much more from interaction with their environment than they do from the direct instruction of their teacher.

If our aim is to help children to enjoy their relationship with God, we must ask, “What kind of environment can we create that will respect and cultivate the child’s needs and capacities at this level of their development, especially in terms of their spiritual development?” 

We want to create a space where it is okay to be small. Where a child can function independently, enjoy freedom of movement, freedom to repeat works over and over on one’s own without interruption etc.

The Atrium environment is not a classroom.  Cavalletti says, “It is not a place of religious instruction, but of religious life.”

The Atrium does not replace the church. It is to initiate the child into the life of the church and needs to be the work of the whole church. Cavalletti says, “The initiation of a child into the Christian life is not a work that can be fulfilled by the catechist alone, nor by the parents alone. It is the whole Christian community that proclaims Christ, and the child must enter into contact with the whole Christian community. The catechist’s work must be sustained and confirmed by a community that lives what the catechist proclaims.”

Everything in the Atrium is either a passage to prayer or prayer itself

The Atrium is a place of Prayer and Worship, a place of quiet and peace, a place of retreat. A place where quite spontaneously, work and study become meditation, contemplation and prayer.

It is more like a church than a classroom. It is not so much a place of instruction, as Holy Ground, where Christ can be encountered in word or action at any moment.

Why Formation?

To be a Catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd requires a commitment to many hours of preparation, materials making and then working with children. May people ask why, when many “programs” for children in the church utilise volunteers and follow written and prepared programs with activities and worksheets prescribed for each week of the liturgical cycle, why do we ask for so much preparation?

There can be many ways to answer that question and I do not think this article will exhaust them all.

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd uses an approach very different to that used in our schools at this time. It is not so much an opportunity to educate our children in the faith, but rather introduce them to the person of God in a unique relationship. To act as a matchmaker between God and the child and allow the children to fall in love with Jesus the Good Shepherd. Many people have grown up being filed with information and tested to check on their recall. All of that is useful and necessary. But consider when we have fallen in love, did it happen through knowledge or was it through relationship? Adults who become Catechists sometimes find they learn about their faith as if for the first time, seeing through the eyes of children the beauty of our traditions and the words of scripture in a new way  Through the formation experience we allow adults to discover for themselves the richest treasures God has to offer and we also help them to learn to step back and allow their children to make the same connections for themselves.

There is no lesson so well remembered or treasured than the one we discover for ourselves. Can you recall everything you have ever learned? What are the things you remember the best? Could it be those things where you made the connections, the discoveries for yourself? Like the person who discovered the treasure in the field and sold all they had to have it or the merchant who searched all his life for the most precious pearl, we want your relationship with Jesus to be a precious gift that you personally invested in.

During the formation, the participants will learn about an approach to learning discovered by Maria Montessori and also some Sacred History Theology. Interspersed with this some individual presentations will be given (the same as those given to the children) demonstrating the way we allow the children to continue to meditate on the small lessons of scripture, liturgy and practical life. There is time for prayer, sharing and also materials making. All of these will help to form the catechist, just as the time in the atrium for children helps to build the child in their personal relationship with God.

When we work with children in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, we do not follow a program. We do not have a curriculum that must be covered in a set amount of time. Some children will never work with or be given all of the presentations. We observe and follow the needs of each individual child, offering to them as gift various presentations as they grow in their understanding and relationship of God and as they grow as people in our community. As their abilities increase, they gain new skills which we provide opportunities for them to master, to help them do it by themselves. As one may imagine, it can be very difficult for some people to let go and let God be the teacher, with no measurable outcome. Sometimes we are blessed with glimpses of the work of the Holy Spirit in the response of the children, through their personal prayer and artwork. For the most part we are useless servants of God and the child and perhaps one day we may see the fruits of our labour.

Characteristic #3 and a Look at Practical Life in the Atrium

Characteristic #3

The atrium is a community in which children and adults live together a religious experience which facilitates participation in the wider community of the family, the church and other social spheres.

  • The atrium is a place of prayer, in which work and study spontaneously become meditation, contemplation and prayer.

  • The atrium is a place in which the only Teacher is Christ; both children and adults place themselves in a listening stance before his Word and seek to penetrate the mystery of the liturgical celebration.

Often, adults who work in an atrium environment find they have favorite works or ones they consider more important than other works. There are times when I have overheard people mention the works of practical life and care for the environment as noisy work or busy work and the real work is the scripture and liturgical work.


Maria Montessori did not see it that way. She said: “The child becomes a person through work.”

One of the reflections we give in formation of catechists is about the importance of practical life as an indirect aid to prayer. Through working with their hands in a concentrated and meaningful way the internalize the ability to listen and respond to the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

The work of the child is important whether it be liturgical work, scripture or practical life. We cannot measure their work by output or how many different presentations we have managed to get through this term or year. We must with great patience and humility, observe the work of the child waiting for a sign of what they next need from us. The adult is not the teacher, we act merely as a resource a guide for the child. God is the teacher and the environment is the means through which he teaches.

Below are some quotes about practical life, one from Maria Montessori and one from Gianna Gobbi.

 “When we speak about the behaviour of men and animals, we refer to their purposeful movements. This behaviour is the centre of their practical life. It is not just the practical life in a house, cleaning rooms, watering plants, etc., that is important, but the fact that everyone in the world must move with a purpose and must work, not only for himself but also for others. It is strange that man’s work must also be work in service of others; if this were not so, his work would have no more meaning than gymnastic exercises. All work is done not only for ourselves but also for others. Even something as frivolous as dancing would be pointless without an audience. The dancers, who perfect their movements with so much trouble and fatigue, dance for others. Tailors who spend their lives sewing could not wear all the clothes they make themselves. Yet tailoring, like gymnastics, requires lots of movements.

If you have a vision of the cosmic purpose, that every life in the world is based on this movement with a purpose, you will be able to understand and better direct the children’s work. In the beginning, children are urged by nature to be active. They are happy when they are active. They begin to develop the behaviour of humanity with its limits and its possibilities.”

Montessori, Maria. The 1946 London Lectures.

“It is very important that we adults not view the practical life activities merely as the duty or personal responsibility of the child in helping to keep the environment in good order. Rather, we must understand that the practical life activities fulfill a deep need in the child (especially in the younger child) and also are directly connected to the religious life of the child.”

Gianna Gobbi. Listening to God with Children

The Task of the Catechist Part 3

Characteristic #24 The tasks of the catechist include:

  • to go deeper into the Christian message through the knowledge of the biblical and liturgical sources and of ongoing living tradition of the church, including the theological, social and ecumenical movements which enliven the church today;
  • preparing an environment and maintaining order in that environment (the atrium) so that it fosters concentration, silence and contemplation in both the child and adult;
  • preparing the materials oneself as much as possible while collaborating with others in areas that are beyond one’s abilities.

Part 3

Our final part in looking at the 24th Characteristic of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is that of materials preparation.

A few things come to mind when thinking about preparing materials with our hands. The first is our belief in our own abilities. The second our individual skills. Thirdly our time. The fourth costs. I would like to consider each of these in this post.

Firstly our belief in our abilities. I am a person who enjoys doing things with my hands. Even when I was a child I enjoyed making things. When you make something for your own enjoyment and satisfaction, there is less pressure to “get it perfect” or for it to “work out” how you saw it in your mind. However, when you are making this for someone else or for public display, we like to get it perfect. We don’t want to let other people down or make it not fit for purpose. All admirable qualities considering these materials will be tools of the Holy Spirit!

This brings to mind the parable of the talents. It is easy to play it safe but by risking making something less than perfect we often find that God blesses us 100 fold for our effort. I think part of the challenge in having a go at making materials is our cultural belief in speaking less of our own abilities. This is somehow meant to make us appear humble. True humility is in seeing things truthfully. I think that acknowledging out gifts is as important as acknowledging our weaknesses, and for many of us both of these things are difficult.

Once we get over ourselves it is time to decide how to make materials. For most of us it is not beyond our ability to copy or trace things for the handworks. We may need to focus on our neatness in our handwriting or in getting the spacing right but overall this is one of the easier tasks. I recommend using paper and pens etc. that are of good quality or the best you can afford. This will help you to get a better result.

Woodwork is often an obstacle for people, especially when a lot of these handwork crafts have gotten lost over the years. I marvel at Sofia making all the materials by hand when she was primarily a scholar! As they say, necessity is the mother of invention! I think one of the best gifts my husband bought for me is a scroll saw. It is a little like using a sewing machine (which I have used – thanks Mum for teaching me). What it enables you to do is cut our shapes (like sheep and merchants) from pieces of wood with relative ease. Again, I suggest getting the best wood you can afford as you only want to do this once as it is time consuming and the better quality you make it the longer it will last. The website has some good tips for making boxes and dioramas which I recommend you have a look at and there are also loads of youtube videos to teach yourself most skills you will need.


For some of the materials you need to sew. As mentioned I have a sewing machine and some experience. Even so, a good pattern and nice fabrics help to get a good result with this. Some of the things like vestments also need a stand. We have various stands from “T” shaped pieces of wood to papier mache busts. I suggest just take your time and let your inner engineer out and have a go as much as you can.

There are some online resources you can purchase, but I would strongly recommend to only buy ready made materials as a last resort. The children are drawn to the uniqueness of the handcrafted materials. They see so much manufactured in their world that they easily recognize the love and care that has been taken to make this just for them. It also invites them to have a go themselves. I have one level 3 child currently working on making his own raised surface map of the land of Israel.

When painting your materials recall that this material will be used for a prayerful purpose. We do not want the materials to draw the child away from the scripture (for example) that it is highlighting but rather to draw them into it. Steer clear of being too cutesy or over embellishing. This is definitely a case of less is more! However, adding elements that attract the child to the work are useful (attract not detract). It would be suitable, for example, to paint the chalice in the last supper gold, but not suitable to give characters to each of the apostles. In painting I would also recommend using a base coat to help the colours stand out from the wood and then using some clear coat to finish them off after painting in the details.

One of the costs involved in making materials is our time. We live in a time where we are used to having everything instantly. We also try to use every moment doing something and feel like we are wasting time if something takes longer than expected. I think this is one of the reasons we are encouraged to make our own materials. We get first hand experience in slowing down and being in the moment. Of pondering the works these materials help to depict. What a beautiful meditation it is to paint Mary’s house, to think of how she lived. What sort of a life did she lead? What would she have been doing in the house when the angel came to visit her? All the same questions we ponder with the children! It is the time taken to make the materials and then prepare the album pages that are the times where we prepare ourselves to proclaim the word to the children. It does take time, but like the leaven our time and work will be rewarded by growth.

The final obstacle we may have in materials preparation is that of financial cost. This is one of the biggest hurdles many catechists face. Without the backing from a larger group such as the parents or the parish, it can be extremely difficult to prepare all of the materials. Some things can be acquired relatively easily and cheaply from second hand or charity stores, such as chalices and patens and small tables (look for goblets or silver or brass liqueur glasses, small plates or lids or coasters, coffee tables and so on). Most practical life materials are easily found this way also. For the sandpaper globe, just find a small globe (you can sometimes get these at discount shops for quite cheap prices) and paint over the continents with wood glue and coat with sand. Then after that paint over the oceans in blue and the land in tan. You may want to paint a sealer on top to protect it. It is quite easy to do.

Purchasing wood can become expensive. I suggest get creative. Find someone who can donate offcuts to you. You may be able to make use of old pallets or even old furniture to cut up and make into the various dioramas. When created the 3D figures you may feel you need to buy peg dolls and they can be reasonably priced or quite expensive depending on how many you need to purchase and costs for postage etc. Consider instead buying a wooden broom handle and cutting off lengths of these to make the shape of some of the characters. You will want to round off the tops and then they should be as enticing as any peg dolls and quite a lot cheaper.

Lastly, I think you need to use the resource of your community. By asking parishioners and parents to contribute time, expertise and money into building the atrium you are also building a community who own the work as much as the catechist and will then support it as the years go on.

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is a work not only for children but for the whole community to build a place where everyone can encounter Jesus the Good Shepherd and grow in their gifts through the Holy Spirit.

The Task of the Catechist Part 2

Characteristic #24 The tasks of the catechist include:

  • to go deeper into the Christian message through the knowledge of the biblical and liturgical sources and of ongoing living tradition of the church, including the theological, social and ecumenical movements which enliven the church today;
  • preparing an environment and maintaining order in that environment (the atrium) so that it fosters concentration, silence and contemplation in both the child and adult;
  • preparing the materials oneself as much as possible while collaborating with others in areas that are beyond one’s abilities.

Part 2

The second part of this characteristic focuses on the Catechist’s role in preparing the environment. This is the sacred space where will encounter God as they work with the materials. This requires a time commitment on the part of the catechist outside of the time you are working with the children. To help the children create order internally and externally it should start with an orderly environment in which they can work.

The atrium session is not the time to be sorting shelves, fixing materials or replacing missing or broken pieces. Of course, there will be times when things get missed and order may need to be restored on the spot. For the most part, however, the catechist should make themselves aware of what needs maintenance and plan to do this before or after the atrium time.

I have often heard catechists talking about modelling for the children cleaning or polishing so as to entice the children to join them. Each situation is unique and there may be merit in this approach, however this should not be the norm. During the atrium session our primary role is that of observer. Our second role is that of guide or presenter of materials for the child’s contemplation. The adult should become invisible to the child so that their focus is on Jesus and listening to the Holy Spirit.

The atrium environment should be one that fosters silence, concentration and contemplation in both the child and the adult. How can that occur if we are chatting with another adult or child? If the adult is unable to keep their body still and meditative, how can we expect that from a child? It is a great challenge to remain quiet and just observe in the atrium. It is a challenge that I believe will be worth trying and noting what changes it may bring to the atrium.

In an article “The Religious Experience of the Child Three to Six” (Journals of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd 1995) Gianna Gobbi remarks

“…the attitude and posture needed by the adult in our work should rather be one of humble observer. In the child, there exists a hidden, but profoundly religious nature, which the child desires to live out. For a child to reveal this true nature the adult needs to be prepared for the task of helping this revelation to occur. We need to recognize that our primary call is to be a humble and attentive observer of life.”

Maria Montessori’s guide for the preparation of the teacher gives these points, worth contemplating:

  1. Learn SILENCE
  2. Rather than teach, OBSERVE
  3. Instead of assuming self-pride that makes oneself important, one must put on the mantle of HUMILITY.
  4. We might add to this list the need for STILLNESS and
  5. Openness to LISTENING.

In her article “Action and Contemplation” (Journals of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd 2001) Sofia Cavalletti speaks of the contemplative nature of our observations:

“When one speaks of contemplation, one means, instead, an attitude that leaves aside specific activity…Contemplation is an attitude in which the searching moment has been overcome, and within which prevails a tranquil look that rests upon the known object.”

My challenge to you as an observer is to sit quietly. Set aside a minimum of 20 minutes in your atrium session to observe. While you sit take notes. These notes will be invaluable to you as you grow and develop as a catechist and as your get to know each child and their needs.