Although all were created in the image of God, catechesis is not unique. The Diocese of Camden and its faith-filled parishes offer instruction and resources for families, people with special needs, and touch-centered education to ensure God’s message of love is clearly understood by all its children – from young to adult.
The “Good Shepherd” guides the children
Ten years ago, when James Hemschoot first heard of a program of religious instruction known as Good Shepherd Catechesis, “I thought, ‘Eureka, this is it! It’s the secret sauce,” he said.
Hemschoot, who serves Saint Andrew the Apostle Parish in Gibbsboro as a pastoral associate for lifelong faith formation, realized that Montessori-based instruction “is a biblical, sacramental, and liturgical approach that makes so much sense,” and one that could be scaled to accommodate the larger classrooms its program has attracted. The parish calls it mystagogical catechesis – a catechesis that initiates the faithful into the mystery of Christ.
In a program adhering to Good Shepherd Catechesis guidelines, an atrium is filled with children’s bookshelves filled with objects commonly found in a church, which children are encouraged to explore. Conversations with guides about Scripture and the liturgy can lead one child to imitate the celebration of Mass, while another can use the figures of Jesus and the sheep to bring the parable of the Good Shepherd to life. Colorful garments for the different seasons of the Church year add to the explanation of the cycle of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death and resurrection in a tactile way.
This mystagogical catechesis allows for larger classes and a portable cart to serve as an atrium due to parish space constraints. In addition, the parish promotes teaching by learning and a teacher page to give depth to the teachings.
“We don’t even mention sin with the first and second graders,” Hemschoot said. “Children have a relationship with God rooted in them. Our job is to help them recognize it and verbalize it. The child needs to hear about God’s personal love and care for each one – ‘The Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name and they know his voice.’
Second graders are introduced to the idea that sheep may wander away from the shepherd, but love drives him to seek them out. Third and fourth graders learn how their faith “fits together” in the books of the Bible, the order of the Mass, the liturgical seasons and the sacraments; higher grades “continue with lessons that are more suited to the reasoning mind, but still focus on our relationship with God in God’s plan,” Hemschoot said.
Hemschoot, who was a catechist for 50 years – “I learn more every year,” he said – pointed to the many successes of the program.
“All of our primary teachers have been touched by the deep understanding and acceptance of the children, and the learning and the connection are quite evident in the confirmation interviews,” he said. “These lessons are tried and true, profound yet simple.”
He chuckled as he remembered a parent’s comments. “The mother said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but my kids get in the car on the way home and want to talk about it. “”
Hemschoot is a strong supporter of the program, inviting those interested to request his virtual First Communion lesson plan or even an in-person visit to further explain mystagogical catechesis.
He can be reached at [email protected] or 856-783-0550.
Special needs “a custom fit”
In Vineland, a mother/daughter team of catechists conducts an adaptive religious training program for children with special needs. The bi-weekly afternoon program is suitable for children under 17 who might not fit into the standard class pattern.
Cathy DiAntonio, sacraments coordinator for Christ the Good Shepherd parish, and her mother, Lisa Pagden, a specialist helper in the local school system, work one-on-one with students “to see what level of relationship with God we can recognize in order to thrive.” , explained Felicia Navarro Morris, director of continuing faith formation for the Catholic Collaboration of Vineland, which encompasses the three parishes of Vineland: Christ the Good Shepherd, Divine Mercy and Saint Padre Pio.
Prior to COVID, the duo worked with a dozen children in grades 2 through 10, some with hearing loss, those with ambulatory difficulties, still others non-verbal or with learning delays. “Not everyone is able to fit into traditional classrooms,” Morris said.
“It’s a custom fit. Some of these kids already have a wonderful relationship with God; it’s not our job to change or interfere with that.
Morris shared anecdotal stories of children who might not be able to speak clearly about Christ, but who seem to recognize his place of love and forgiveness in their lives.
She said, “I’m not a [check-off-the] person box; I am in the area of relationships and evangelism. The boy who has recognized Christ and been able to draw him knows who Christ is in his life and where to find him. I hope that when their families come to CCD, we will encourage them through our actions to go to Mass and strengthen their desire to know God.
Practical Family Faith
Also in Vineland are the Collaborative’s Family Catechetical Gatherings, which have been designed for private or home school students who want to fit their faith into their unique schedule. Families met one evening a month in one of the parish halls to have dinner together, explore a biblical or sacramental theme, and complete an assignment. Then came COVID.
“Our book series had an at-home component, but after two weeks when parents revealed the stress of families staying home for school and work, we pivoted,” Morris said. Using modern technology to introduce ancient Church teachings, Morris and his assistants brainstormed new topics with the goal of bringing families together around a table without the pressure of a lesson plan.
“We’ve planned a series of religious-themed crafts and brought families together with the touch-based activities,” she said. “Most of the creativity came from Cathy DiAntonio and Lily Simpkins. They were invaluable in creating these activities and lessons. I would come to them and say, ‘How can we…’ and they would turn to Pinterest and got on it.
A system of socially distanced supply deliveries, the use of a QR code for directions, and the ingenuity of one parent and son posting videos on YouTube have enabled families stuck at home to do monthly crafts. Morris made sure to time each craft to coincide with the events of the Church year.
“We made magnets that said, ‘I always thought love was in the shape of a heart, but love is actually a cross’ during Lent,” Morris recalled. “Early Communicant Saints made their own wooden tabernacles, and children made Paschal candles which they then lit while their families prayed together or received their sacraments.
“It helped build the domestic church,” Morris said. “It’s not just a craft project. We will do it again this year, but now [with the waning of COVID]families can come together to do it.
For more information on the many religious education initiatives underway through the Vineland Catholic Collaborative, visit www.vinelandcatholic.org/services.
Diocesan resources abound
In its document “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote: “The Catholic Church wants all people of diverse abilities to feel welcome and participate in the life of the Church. Catholics with disabilities have the right to participate actively in the Eucharist as full members of the local Church.
To assist parishes in the mission of catechesis, the Diocese of Camden provides many opportunities for brothers who are deaf or hard of hearing to participate in Mass and sacramental preparation through the VITALity Catholic Healthcare Services ministry.
Father Hugh Bradley, director of the Diocesan Office of Deaf and Disabled Ministry, has compiled a schedule of these welcoming and inclusive Masses, which are celebrated both in person and live. The opportunities for preparation for the sacraments are numerous; the faithful can obtain assistance with the sacraments of initiation (baptism, reconciliation and first communion) as well as visits to the sick, faith formation for children and adults, pre-Cana classes, funeral preparation, pastoral advice and spiritual direction.
“In the ministry of Jesus in proclaiming the Kingdom of God, he reached out to marginalized people. It is therefore the obligation of the Church to continue this mission, especially to the deaf community, people with disabilities and their families,” Bradley said.
In addition, the ministry offers Deaf Reader Training, Cursillo and ASL classes, support for hearing parents of Deaf children, and interpreting services for parishes. Links to external agencies and social media focused on the unique needs of Deaf Catholics are also available.
For more information or to view a list of resources, visit vitality.camdendiocese.org/ministry-with-the-deaf/.