Dressed in small aprons, a class of 3- to 6-year-olds bustle around Father Tom Charters’ living room in Erwin, Tenn. Students of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program, a religious education class designed specifically for young children, they are learning about Scripture, how to pray and how to take care of the altar. But even more, they are falling in love with their Catholic faith.
“They look forward to coming to the atrium,” said Kathy O’Brien, pastoral associate and religious education director for Erwin’s St. Michael the Archangel mission. “Parents have told us that kids come home from school and say, ‘Is it church night yet?’”
The program began in Italy and has spread to Mexico and the United States. In every place the program is offered, the children meet in “the atrium.” Currently, the only space available for St. Michael the Archangel to create an atrium is Father Tom’s living room.
In early Christianity, the atrium was the most central and important room in the house. It was where people gathered to pray and celebrate Mass. In Erwin, the room is similarly important. When the mission moves into its new church the atrium will be the only classroom. St. Michael the Archangel’s parish is so committed to the program that even as it scaled back its new church’s design, it saved the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd room.
“You have to have some space for the program,” Kathy said. “You need a place that you can set things up and leave them. In the new building, we can put up bookshelves and set up our displays.”
The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd class meets every other Wednesday. During the off weeks, the First Communion class meets in the atrium, and the Confirmation class also has used the atrium as part of its preparation.
The room is filled with small versions of everything a priest uses during Mass, from the chalice, paten, and ciborium to the purificator and vestments.
It has a wooden liturgical calendar, showing the students whether the Church is in ordinary time or in preparation of a feast. It shows the corresponding colors for each season, including which colors the priest will wear and the church will display before, during and after a feast. For example, the children changed the room’s colors during Lent from green for ordinary time to purple for Lent.
“It is hands-on learning,” Kathy said. “It is not just book learning. They take care of the plants, set up the prayer table. They know how to set up the altar and where to put everything away.
“Enrollment for Catechesis has doubled,” Kathy said. “The kids love it. They look forward to coming to the atrium. Even our high school students say, ‘Why didn’t we have this program?’”
This year, between 12 to 20 kids attend the program each week.
“We have found it very effective,” Kathy said. “We see the children’s openness to God.”
The program is set up similar to a Montessori school. Kathy and her staff start each session by calming the children and lining them up to enter the atrium.
“We tell them they need to listen and be quiet, because it is a holy space,” Kathy said.
Kathy or her teachers do a presentation, followed by free “work time” for the children. Some play with the wooden map of the Holy Land. Others play with a wooden model of the parable of the Good Shepherd.
“It gives kids a comfort level with liturgy,” Kathy said. “It helps them come in touch with the Lord in a different kind of way. Three and 4 year olds cannot concentrate on any book for a period of time. This allows them to be involved and energetic. They are probably learning more than they did before.”
St. Michael the Archangel started preparing for the program about two years ago at the urging of Diocese of Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika.
The mission quickly found the materials it needed at Glenmary headquarters. Every month, Glenmary receives many donations, including Mass kits, which priests use when they travel. The kits have small versions of everything priests need to celebrate Mass. The smaller materials were perfect for children’s hands.
Members of the parish also pitched in. One lady made aprons for each of the children and small vestments. Another made the lectern and a third is working on a tomb for the Resurrection.
The Knoxville diocese offers training for the three levels of Catechesis. Kathy and four parishioners took the first training for 3- to 6-year-olds. Kathy later took the Level II training for 6- to 9-year-olds, and she hopes to take the Level III training for 9- to 12-year-olds and eventually become a trainer.
“It will give me something to do once I retire,” she joked. “But does a missioner ever really retire?”
This story first appeared in the April 2018 Boost-a-Month Club newsletter.