When God called Abraham, asking him to go to "a land that I
will show you," the man of faith left everything he knew and followed.
Like Abraham, the founders of the Catechesis of the
Good Shepherd—Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi—left the
comfort and familiarity of lives they had led in response to a
call. Their call came not from heaven or a burning bush—it
came from a group of children.
Sofia Cavalletti, born into a noble family, had grown up in
Rome just across the river from St. Peter's. An avid student at
Rome's La Sapienza University, she had earned a doctoral degree
in Hebrew and Comparative Semitic Languages, mastering
French, English, and New Testament Greek along the way. After
extensive study of the Hebrew Scriptures with Eugenio Zolli, she
had joined him as a colleague at La Sapienza University and was
beginning to establish a reputation for her scholarship.
One day a friend asked Cavalletti to help prepare her son
Paolo for first Communion. She initially protested that she was
not the right person for this task: she had only worked with
adults and would not know how to teach a child. When the
friend persisted, she agreed to meet with the boy, with the
understanding that this would be a temporary arrangement.
On a March afternoon in 1954, Paolo and a couple of his
friends arrived at her apartment in via degli Orsini, the childhood
home she still inhabited. Paolo announced that he would
not be returning after this lesson, since this was his only free
afternoon. Cavalletti, formed in the rabbinical method of reading
Scripture, opened the Bible to chapter one of Genesis and
began to ponder the words of the text with the children. To her
surprise, two hours went by and they were still on the first page
of the Bible. She noticed that when it was time for Paolo to leave,
his eyes welled up with tears.
The following week Paolo returned with more friends. As
the weeks passed, the sessions continued to focus on the Bible
until one week the group received a visit
from Gianna Gobbi, who recently had
been introduced to Cavalletti. Gobbi had
been trained to work with toddlers by
Maria Montessori, the Italian physician-turned-educator. Later, Gobbi had
assisted Montessori with training courses
for new teachers and was now directress
of a Montessori school in Rome.
Gobbi showed up at Cavalletti's session
with small models of an altar, the
sacred objects used at Mass, and the
priests' vestments. The children were permitted
to work with these materials as
children in Montessori schools work
with "sensorial materials" to help them
develop skills in math or reading. The
children responded with such great joy
and enthusiasm—one child asking if he
could come to Cavalletti's apartment for a
lesson every day—that Cavalletti and Gobbi decided to open a
catechetical center where they could observe children and
respond to their religious needs. That fall, these two Catholic
laywomen opened the Maria Montessori Center for Catechesis
in Cavalletti's apartment.
Cavalletti, with her knowledge of Scripture, and Gobbi, with her
knowledge of the child and Montessori educational methods,
invited children to their Center for Catechesis and began to
experiment with a curriculum, seeking to discover which
themes of the Christian message met the vital needs of the child.
Together they made simple but attractive materials that they
hoped would assist the child's personal meditation following a
presentation on a scriptural or liturgical theme.
They called the prepared environment where they met
with the children the "atrium," after the part of the church
building where catechumens in the early Church were prepared
for full participation in the life of the Church. They borrowed
the term from Montessori, who had used it to describe an experimental
learning environment she had created in Barcelona in
1915 to nourish the liturgical life of Catholic children.
Cavalletti and Gobbi grouped the children by ages of
developmental similarity, as is the practice in Montessori education.
In choosing themes, they were mindful of the developmental
stage of the children who would be hearing each presentation.
After selecting themes, the next and most important step was to
observe the children carefully.
If the children consistently responded to a presentation with
serenity and joy—whether expressed in words, artwork, or reverent
silence before the mystery, Cavalletti and Gobbi added the
presentation to the work for that age group. If the children either
did not pay attention or were distracted by non-essential details,
the presentation was removed from the work for that age group.
Choice of materials was
also determined by observing
the children's interaction with
them. Gobbi describes the essential
role of the materials:
|Our relationship with God is
largely built through concrete,
This is a deep, vital need of
the human being, and God
honors this need by communicating
with us through
what is perceivable: through
creation, through events in
salvation history, through
the Person of the Son, the
Word, and God's continued
presence in the sacraments.
Thus, a concrete, perceivable
"material" is always
involved in God's self-communication
For the same reason, Gobbi designed catechetical materials
as "a concrete means of transmitting the Word of God and
coming to know the Person who has spoken in the Bible and is
present to us in the liturgy."2 When Cavalletti and Gobbi
observed that a material they had developed was not being used
by the children, they removed that material and placed it in a
closet with other failed experiments.
Cavalletti wrote in 1999:
|At the beginning we reacted with some fatigue, because it
was hard to see that themes that had been studied with
great care, materials made with some effort, were of no use
and had to be discarded. But later, we realized how beautiful
was the path the children were showing us, preventing
us from being lost in secondary things and intellectual complications.
At that moment the fatigue was changed into a
hymn of praise and gratitude.3
After many years, they concluded that "the themes to
which the children have led us . . . are . . . the most essential
points of the Christian message."4
Eventually, three levels emerged: Level I for children three
to six years old, Level II for six to nine years old, and Level III for
children nine to twelve years old. As the curriculum took shape
and the universal appeal of the parable of the Good Shepherd
became evident, the work of the Center—at times called the
Parable Method or the Method of Signs—began to be known as
the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
By neither accident nor convention does the Catechesis of the
Good Shepherd rely on oral transmission of its method and
content. Since the Catechesis is not a program but rather a way
of experiencing God with children, it can only be transmitted
from heart to heart and from spirit to spirit.
A person who attends a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
formation course hoping to learn how to give the presentations
to children soon finds that he or she is being invited into a
deeper relationship with God by means of these same presentations.
As each successive presentation lifts up yet another scriptural
or liturgical truth, the course participant is drawn into an
ever expanding realization of the gifts that God has poured out
on humanity from the beginning and the gifts that God has
given us since our birth. Following each presentation, the formation
leader meditates with the participants on the mystery just
proclaimed, praying with the participants while also modeling
the way the catechist will one day pray with the children in the
atrium. It is crucial that those being formed as catechists experience
for themselves God's invitation to covenant love through
the presentations, so when they share the presentations with
children, they are aware that God is extending that same invitation
to the children.
The catechist's formation does not end when the last presentation
has been given at a course. The catechist needs to
spend time observing in an atrium to begin to see how children
respond to the Word presented. Importantly, they witness the
catechist's role of proclaimer of the Word who steps aside when
the children are absorbed in working with the materials and
allows them to listen to the voice of Christ the Teacher.
Part of the catechist's meditative preparation is to make
the materials (small wooden figures, maps, booklets, laminated
cards, and so on) to be used in the atrium. Catechists with different
gifts can collaborate on this work, assisted by members
of the extended faith community who have the desired skills
Finally, for each of the presentations, a catechist writes an
"album page"—a summary that includes sources (e.g., Bible,
Roman Missal, Catechism of the Catholic Church), a doctrinal
point, direct and indirect aims, an outline of the presentation
and possible points of reflection, and a description of the materials
for the children's use. Those pages, which are sometimes
written together as a group during formation courses, are then
assembled into an album. Each page in a catechist's album is a
living document that is a record of both the catechist's continuing
meditation and the children's experience of that mystery in
All this work can seem daunting in the face of busy schedules
that often prevent catechists from devoting even a few hours
of time for a workshop or certification course. The strange phenomenon
is that participants in a 90-hour Level I course that
certifies one to work only with three- to six-year-olds often
express their disappointment when the course is over; some even
sit through the entire course a second time. After the first weekend
of a Level I course in which I was assisting, one participant
wrote, "Thank you so much!!! Was a beautiful experience of
God." Another wrote, "This course is fulfilling such a spiritual
need in myself, as well as, I think, in the Church. It is really a
Cavalletti and Gobbi initially offered courses for local catechists
who were interested in their work at the Center. A course would
include not only an introduction to the presentations and materials,
but also study of scriptural and liturgical themes; principles
of child development; and Montessori pedagogy. From 1967
to 1972, they offered courses through the Diocese of Rome,
attended mostly by nuns who took the Catechesis to other neighborhoods
In 1975, Cavalletti accepted an invitation to give a course
in the United States. The five-week course, covering the full
range of three to twelve-year-old children, was offered at a
Montessori training center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Of the 25
participants, five went on to study with Cavalletti and Gobbi
One of those was Patricia Coulter, the first Canadian to be
trained in the Catechesis. After completion of a two-year course
with Cavalletti and Gobbi, she introduced the Catechesis at the
parish level in Toronto. In 1978, Cavalletti made the first of several
visits to Canada that helped to lay the groundwork for its
acceptance in that country. On that visit she gave a two-week
overview of the Catechesis at the University of St. Michael's
College in Toronto. In 1984 she met with Bishops Marcel Gervais
and Aloysius Ambrozic, and in 1986, returned with Gianna
Gobbi to give a Level I course in Toronto.
In the meantime, Cavalletti had returned to the United
States in 1978 to speak at a Montessori Conference in Houston,
Texas. A young Montessori teacher named Rebekah Rojcewicz,
after attending her workshop on the spirituality of children,
wrote in her pocket diary: "Today my life is changed. This is for
me. I will go to Rome and study it, and it will become mine."
She began to correspond with Cavalletti and the following
year, after fulfilling a teaching obligation, Rojcewicz headed to
Rome, where she completed a two-year course covering all three
levels of the Catechesis (ages three to twelve).
The course, conducted in Italian, comprised a weekly cycle
of lecture, observation of children in the atrium level, and independent
time for making materials and writing album pages.
Upon her return to the United States in 1981, Rojcewicz
began to work at The Christian Family Montessori School, a new
school in Mount Rainier, Maryland, that would offer the
Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
For the next two summers, Rojcewicz and Cavalletti
teamed up for a Level I course in Washington, D.C. The participants,
who came from across the country, committed to forming
themselves into a National Association. After Cavalletti returned
to give a Level II course in St. Paul during the summers of 1984
and 1985, seeds began to take root as catechists took the
Catechesis back to their hometowns.
The remaining piece of the North American puzzle is
Mexico, where the Catechesis has met with an overwhelmingly
positive reception. When Cavalletti traveled to Mexico City in
1976 to give a course, she invited experienced and novice catechists
alike "to go deeper, to discover an authentically biblical
image of the God who loves us, and to live in a new way a real
encounter, through the eyes and hearts of children."5 Cavalletti returned to Mexico to give intensive training courses for four
consecutive summers between 1979 and 1982, sometimes bringing
with her Gobbi or other collaborators from the Rome atrium.
Maria Christlieb, one of the first Mexicans to study with
Cavalletti and Gobbi in Rome, was there at the same time as
Rojcewicz, spending an additional year studying Montessori
education in Perugia before returning to Mexico. She and the
other catechists who had studied in Rome began to offer formation
courses in Mexico in an attempt to satisfy the growing
demand for new courses. At times they could not keep up with
the demand and prospective catechists had to wait. A formation
leader explains that "the spread of this work was driven by the
joy of the children and the joy of the catechists."6 The work spread from its base in Mexico City and Chihuahua City to
nearly 40 states throughout the country.
In 1985, a great surge of interest in the Catechesis began among
members of the Episcopal Church. Today, nearly half of the
1,000 atria in the United States are in an Episcopal environment,
with a small number also found among Presbyterian, Methodist,
Lutheran, Orthodox, and other Christian faith traditions. The
ecumenical appeal and spread of the Catechesis pleased Cavalletti,
who had a commitment to ecumenism and served as a member
of the Ecumenical Commission for the Diocese of Rome. In
1997, she gathered catechists from around the world for an ecumenical
retreat in Assisi, Italy. The retreat, attended by Roman
Catholic and Episcopal catechists alike, surfaced a deep longing
for unity, and a shared hope that the Catechesis might hasten
I felt that same hope at a recent National Association gathering
of catechists and formation leaders in Atlanta. A monsignor
from the Archdiocese of Atlanta celebrated Mass for us,
and during his homily he sang the praises of the Catechesis, calling
it the answer to Pope John Paul II's call for a "new evangelization"
in the Church. In describing a Level I formation course
he was taking, he referred to his Episcopal formation leader as
his "mentor." Although it was painful to see his mentor remain
in her pew when the Roman Catholics in the group came forward
to receive Eucharist, still the monsignor's words struck a
Early catechists who studied at the Center for Catechesis in
Rome had access to the book Il Potenziale Religioso del Bambino that Cavalletti had written about the spiritual life of three- to
six-year-old children and their interaction with God in the
atrium setting. This book and several others by Cavalletti and
Gobbi did not appear in English until many years later. As the
Catechesis began to spread in English-speaking countries,
Cavalletti and Gobbi called upon their new colleagues—Coulter
and Rojcewicz—to translate their books.
The founders, both of whom placed great importance on
the oral transmission of the Catechesis through formation
courses, never wrote instruction manuals that described presentations
and materials in such detail that the course could be
bypassed. Rather, they wrote about what they had observed and
the theological and pedagogical underpinnings of their work.
In 1983, Cavalletti's The Religious Potential of the Child made its appearance in English and quickly became an indispensable
resource for catechists and those in formation. Its
reprinting in 19927 helped it to reach a larger audience.
Gobbi wrote about the Montessori principles at work in
the atrium in Listening to God with Children, hurriedly translated
and circulated in 1992, but finally published in 1998.8 The
book is a necessary guide for the adult who hopes to interact and
pray with children in an atrium setting.
A collaborative effort among Cavalletti, Coulter, Gobbi,
and Dr. Silvana Q. Montanaro, The Good Shepherd & The Child:
A Joyful Journey was published in 1994, and then reprinted in
1996.9 Another fundamental resource for the catechist, this book
discusses in detail several of the key presentations of Level I,
including the parable of the Good Shepherd, and the Kingdom,
Baptism, and Eucharist.
Catechists working with six- to twelve-year-old children
were overjoyed when three additional Cavalletti books were
released in English. The Religious Potential of the Child: 6 to 12
Years Old,10 published in 2002, is a sequel that describes and
explains the expanded themes presented to children who now
have the capacity to think about time and synthesize what they
In History's Golden Thread,11 w hich appeared i n 1998,
Cavalletti the Scripture scholar is in her element, explaining
typology and other methods of biblical exegesis. She then
applies those methods to Old and New Testament themes alike,
underlining the common thread that runs through all of salvation
history—the plan of God to bring all creation into cosmic
Living Liturgy12 is Cavalletti's reflection on the Mass and
sacraments, including their ritual and theological roots in the
Jewish tradition. It is a necessary volume for catechists who are
working with children in the Level II or III atrium.
The revised edition of History's Golden Thread, now titled
The History of the Kingdom of God, Part I: From Creation to
Parousia came out in Spring 2012, and the revised Living Liturgy,
titled The History of the Kingdom of God, Part II: Liturgy in the
Building of the Kingdom, will be out in Spring 2013. These new
titles express the dynamic relationship Cavalletti so clearly saw
between Scripture and liturgy.
Part I includes new content in the chapter on miracles, the
fruit of a long meditation by Cavalletti in the last years of her life
that is manifested in powerful new materials recently added to the
Level III atrium work. Part II adds Cavalletti's personal reflection
on the Lord's Prayer to the section on prayer; it also makes
some changes to the section on the Eucharist. The volume begins
with a rich new Preface on liturgical history in the Church.
A lovely book that can serve as an introduction to the
Catechesis is Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: Essential Realities,13
a collection of essays by the founders, catechists, and former students
as they look back on 50 years of the Rome atrium.
Cavalletti lost her friend and collaborator, Gianna Gobbi, in
January 2002. Continuing her work after Gobbi's death, Cavalletti
revised books, wrote articles for catechist journals, and even initiated
a new means for a budding international council (Consiglio
Internazionale) of catechists to communicate with her and each
other. These newsletters, called foglietti, would feature contributions
from Cavalletti, stories about the spread of the Catechesis
to new countries, accounts of interactions with children in the
atrium, and instructions on materials revisions. Cavalletti was
aware that the Catechesis was "a living thing [which] like all
living things, continues to develop,"14 and she continued to play
a vital role in its growth with her guidance, encouragement,
In 2007, the religious order that Mother Teresa founded,
the Missionaries of Charity, requested a formation course in
Panama. Within a year, the sisters had opened an atrium in 14
locations around that country, one of them serving 263 indigenous
children between the ages of three and thirteen. A 2008
foglietto reported the good news with this observation:
|The Missionaries of Charity work with the least of the least
in the evangelical sense. And their collaboration opens, for
our Catechesis, the gates to the most fertile soil for the
Word of the Gospel.15
The best news was yet to come. One spring day in 2009,
Cavalletti received visitors to her home, three Missionaries of
Charity. They had come to tell her that the previous summer at
their general chapter, the religious order had decided to adopt
the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd both for their catechetical
work with children and in the formation of their sisters. When
Cavalletti asked, "What have you found in CGS that is different
from other catechesis?" their answer was "contemplation."
Cavalletti could only respond with the words of the Magnificat,
and in a special foglietto, she invited catechists around the world
to join in her song of praise.
In late 2009, as Cavalletti's health declined and she could
no longer participate in either the atrium sessions or adult formation
courses, the site of the atrium was moved to a convent in
Rome in Via Alessandria, the home of Francesca Cocchini, a former
child of the Rome atrium who had become a close collaborator
Cavalletti died peacefully in her home in August 2011, just
days after her 94th birthday. She had reflected near the end of
her life that her work with Gobbi "was not born in our own
heads, nor did it come from our own hands; rather, it has all
been a GIFT." It is a gift that Cavalletti received with great joy
and deep gratitude. She would have remained, in her words, "a
mouse in a library" but for the call she received in 1954.
It is no coincidence that Cavalletti had a deep connection
to the biblical patriarch Abraham, once devoting an entire catechetical
year to exploring his story with her Level III children.
Abraham had left his homeland and traveled far, with a promise
from God that he would not only be blessed but that he would
also be a blessing to many. Although Cavalletti never had to
leave her home—dying in the same apartment where she was
born and where she had hosted countless children and adults—God called her to leave the world of academia and enter the
world of children. In this place she found endless delight and the
opportunity to hear God's voice with and through the children.
The willingness of Cavalletti and Gobbi to answer God's
call, without knowing where they were being led, has released a
great blessing that outlives them. The Catechesis can now be
found in 37 countries on five continents. It has touched the lives
of children with special needs, children on American Indian reservations,
and children in migrant worker camps. The addition
of the Missionaries of Charity means that 5,000 sisters serving
in 142 countries will now introduce the Catechesis to the "poorest
of the poor." Already, U.S. catechists have assisted with formation
courses for the Missionaries of Charity in the Philippines,
the Caribbean, the Russian region, and Eastern Europe; and the
sisters have established many atria.
The blessing does not end with the children. It extends to
adult catechists who through this Catechesis have experienced
the love of God through the eyes, the voice, and the work of the
child; to the Church that has been given a new way of looking at
the Bible and liturgy; and to Christians everywhere as it has
stirred up hope that one day, as Christ prayed, we all "may be
one" (John 17:11).
- Gianna Gobbi, "The Meaning, Importance and Limitations of our
Catechetical Materials," The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd 10 (2001).
- Gobbi, "Catechetical Materials," p. 4.
- Sofia Cavalletti, "Discovering the Real Spiritual Child (Part 1)," The NAMTA Journal, 12 (Spring 1999).
- Sofia Cavalletti, "Searching Among Memories," Consiglio
Internazionale Foglietto, no. 18, p. 3 (2009).
- Lupita Palifox, "A History of Growth in Joy," in Catechesis of the Good
Shepherd: Essential Realities, ed. Tina Lillig (Chicago: Liturgy Training
Publications, 2004), p. 73.
- Palifox, "Growth in Joy," p. 74.
- Sofia Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child, trans. Patricia M.
Coulter and Julie M. Coulter (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
- Gianna Gobbi, Listening to God with Children, trans. Rebekah
Rojcewicz (Loveland, OH: Treehaus Communications, 1998).
- Sofia Cavalletti et al., The Good Shepherd & The Child: A Joyful
Journey (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1996).
- Sofia Cavalletti, The Religious Potential of the Child: 6 to 12 Years
Old, trans. Rebekah Rojcewicz and Alan R. Perry (Chicago: Liturgy
Training Publications, 2002).
- Sofia Cavalletti, History’s Golden Thread, trans. Rebekah Rojcewicz
(Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1998).
- Sofia Cavalletti, Living Liturgy, trans. Patricia A. Coulter and Julie
Coulter-English (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1998).
- Tina Lillig, ed., Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: Essential Realities (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2004).
- Sofia Cavalletti, "From Sofia," The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, p. 4 (2009).
- Sofia Cavalleltti, "An Important Date," Consiglio Internazionale
Foglietto No. 9, 3 (2008).