Each week children at All Saints–Sharon Chapel in Alexandria, VA, encounter Christ the Good Shepherd in presentations created by carefully trained teachers through Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS). It is a Montessori-based program set in a specially prepared environment that calls children to explore the life of Christ through stories and liturgy.
The sacred space where this occurs, the atrium, is a place of prayer and celebration. Amid our busy culture the atrium remains both a place of joy and quiet contemplation. All Saints–Sharon Chapel has a full CGS program for children from 3 to 12 years of age.
The youngest children, ages 3 to 6 years, discover the heart of faith by following the church year. Older children, 6 to 12, learn about the history of the kingdom of God and their place in it. A recent weekday outreach program targets toddlers between 18- and 36-months-old and their parents. Children 7 and older are also invited to participate in an eight-week communion preparation and retreat.
On a typical Sunday morning in the atrium at All Saints, younger children may be carefully preparing cruets—filling one with water, and the other with wine—practicing the gestures and prayers of the Holy Eucharist, polishing a brass candlestick, arranging flowers, or setting a model altar. In the geography corner some may be exploring the land of Israel though puzzle maps or a model of the City of Jerusalem.
Elementary children may be using calligraphy materials to copy or trace scripture, while others are pondering the many gifts of God through samples found in creation: Hubble photos of the cosmos, rocks, minerals, flora, fauna, plants, animals, people like ourselves and the greatest gift of all—Jesus.
The oldest children may be engaged in a typology study of an Old Testament text, learning about the Jewish roots of Christian liturgy, or engaging in discussions of social justice and ways they may further the work of the kingdom of God.
At the end of each atrium session in all corners of the room, children lead prayer sessions for their group for which they have selected prayers, music, artwork, a shiny candlestick, or lovingly prepared flowers. Afterward they join the main liturgy in the church. Liturgy is emphasized to be the work of the people every week in the atrium.
Mindful of the unique personal relationship each person has with God, weekly presentations are developmentally appropriate to the age of the child. As the children grow, the presentations grow with them to emphasize the gifts of God, the unity of the kingdom of God, and their place in the plan of salvation history. Each presentation is an invitation to reflect on the liturgical or biblical text through quiet work with related materials.
Adults prepare the atrium environment, proclaim the Gospel, and work with the children to allow an exploration of the meeting of two mysteries: God and child. Teachers honor and give time and space for each child’s personal relationship with Jesus to blossom and grow.
The content and rhythm of the Catechesis program has a deep impact on the adults who journey with the children. Formation training offers adults an opportunity to explore liturgy and the Bible, and learn about the work and theories of Sofia Cavalletti, Gianna Gobbi and Maria Montessori. Training takes on a retreat atmosphere.
Among the adults, there are moments of transformation and expressions of wonder and joy that are so often seen with the children. Children and teachers learn quickly that being in the atrium together is a very special experience.
Davette Himes is Christian Education Director at All Saints Episcopal Church—Sharon Chapel in Alexandria, VA.