BY PJ BUTLER
My name is PJ Butler, and I’m the director of faith formation at the parishes of St. Mary’s and St. Michael’s in Stillwater. I wanted to say a few words about a life-giving program we offer here.
“It is not a place for religious instruction, but for religious life.” These words, spoken by Italian Hebrew scripture scholar Sofia Cavalletti (1917-2011), refer to the special environment in which the young children, aged 3-12, participate in the method of religious education known throughout the world across denominational lines as The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. This method of Christian catechesis is built on Dr. Maria Montessori’s (1870-1952) discoveries about the child, and contrasts sharply from the traditional style of religious education we see around us most of the time. Here in the St. Croix Valley, the parishes of St. Mary’s and St. Michael’s use The Catechesis to educate the young children, and we are continually encouraged by the fruit.
At first glance, the room we use for The Catechesis, called an atrium, looks nothing like a conventional classroom. The catechist does not have a fixed position at the front of the room, there are no desks and chairs, but there are child-sized bookshelves full of child-sized materials, and there are small tables for children to work independently. There is a prayer table around which the catechist gathers the children at the start and close of each week’s session. The atrium is quiet and pleasantly lit, and one will see the children working silently at their own work over there, perhaps while the catechist might be presenting something new to another child over here. The essential feeling one gets is that this place is a prayerful place for the children, which is a feeling we don’t often get in spaces with a lot of children.
With the help of the Montessorian principles, in the atrium the children are immersed in the mystery of God, rather than just introduced to stories or ideas about God. We believe the children have an interior life, and come for the first time to the atrium with a pre-existing and unique relationship with God. In the atrium the mystery of the child meets the mystery of God, and the fruit of this meeting is a beautiful thing for us catechists to witness. There are countless moments in the atrium in which the adult catechist is sincerely moved by the insights had, and the connections made by the children.
Finally, our work with the children in the Good Shepherd atrium has shown itself to be fruitful not only for the children, but also for the community as a whole. Reason being, the children have a special need to receive what is essential, and have a special capacity to get down to what is essential. And this has helped many faithful, devoted Christians come to a renewed awareness of the beauty and simplicity of their faith.
PJ Butler is director of faith formation for St. Mary’s and St. Michael’s Catholic churches in Stillwater.