Montessori meets deep faith formation in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me,” and a religious education method used in a growing number of Denver’s Catholic schools and parishes seeks to help kids do just that. 

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) is a religious education method centered around the parable of the Good Shepherd and based largely on the Montessori method of education. Through interactive lessons and hands-on experiences, children learn about God and faith in a way that is experiential, tangible and developmentally appropriate. 

Faith is something that can be taught only to a degree. For it to truly be instilled into one’s soul, the person must come to it on their own, and that is ultimately through a relationship with Jesus. In essence, this is what CGS aims to do for the child. 

“The goal behind it comes from this desire to really instill the faith in the children and not just teach them the Ten Commandments, not just have them memorize the prayers, but [to help them] love the faith and be alive in the faith,” said Audrey Nord, a preschool teacher at St. Rose of Lima Catholic School in Denver. “[The hope is that] when they get older, they have this relationship, this connection built so they don’t just lose it. It’s not their parents’ faith, it’s theirs. It really empowers the kids.” 

Nord previously taught CGS at Frassati Catholic Academy. Only a handful of local schools use the program for religious education, but it is slowly growing in popularity. Instructors don’t like to think of themselves as teachers, but rather as catechists who act as facilitators of a relationship between God and the children.  

“We’re not teachers. We are catechists who echo down what has been handed on to us,” said Jo Ann Padgett, director and trainer of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd at Sacred Heart of Mary Parish in Boulder. “We are announcing the good news to a child who is already primed for God.” 

Padgett has been involved in CGS for 32 years and has been a nationally recognized trainer and formator for adults in the method for 17 years.

“I first encountered [CGS] when a friend of mine had gone off and taken an early course and came back and showed us the baptism presentation that we give to three to six year olds,” Padgett recalled. “And it was really quite an experience for all of us. Even though I could tell you what baptism was, it’s like the presentation bypassed my brain and went straight to my soul. And I understood it at a level that I could hardly even articulate.” 

“We cannot teach a child how to love God. You can’t do that. It’s the Holy Spirit that teaches the child. The Holy Spirit, Jesus is the teacher. God is the teacher. What we do is we make the announcement and then we have all these materials and we orient them to the material and then we leave them alone to work. And it is in their personal work that the encounter really happens.” 

jo ann padgett

The curriculum is divided into three levels, and each level differs in tasks and instruction according to the developmental needs of the child. Level one is for ages three to six, level two for ages six to nine, and level three for ages nine to 12. A dedicated space called the Atrium is where Catechesis of the Good Shepherd takes place, and the children are encouraged to explore the various areas on their own, which contain a mix of practical skills, a main& focus of level one, as well as religious formation. 

Catechists are required to go through one 90-hour course for each level to become qualified to work with the children in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. This is an important element that separates Catechesis of the Good Shepherd from other religious education methods, Padgett explained. 

“[What] I really appreciate about our approach is it’s not just a random volunteer who you give a book to and say, ‘study this’ and they look at it a few minutes Saturday night so they can give the lesson,” Padgett said. “It’s a real committed personal development of the catechist’s faith.” 

Children bring a beautiful perspective and understanding of faith with their experience of it. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Having childlike faith is essential to the Christian life, and this philosophy lies at the core of CGS. 

“We cannot teach a child how to love God. You can’t do that. It’s the Holy Spirit that teaches the child,” Padgett explained. “The Holy Spirit, Jesus is the teacher. God is the teacher. What we do is we make the announcement and then we have all these materials and we orient them to the material and then we leave them alone to work. And it is in their personal work that the encounter really happens.” 

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd relies on Maria Montessori’s understanding of human development and the methodology of understanding who we are at the different ages to achieve its goals. While the Montessori method has been repurposed to varying degrees for secular educational environments, Montessori herself was a devout Catholic and was once quoted as saying “I believe my work will find its ultimate fulfillment in the religious realm.”

If human beings were made for relationship, and ultimately relationship with God, then CGS is simply tapping into what’s already innate in each child and helping them come to a fuller and deeper understanding of God’s love for them as the Good Shepherd. 

“That’s why I think [CGS] is so beautiful,” Nord concluded. “It presents the children with something that’s true and beautiful and simple, but rich and you know they can understand it. Once you set that expectation, they always meet it, maybe in their own time, but eventually they all come to understand it.” 

To learn more about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, visit cgsusa.org.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”