Children, parents and teachers across the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese are discovering (or rediscovering) Christ
Kindergarten is not where you would expect to find silence and quiet meditation, but here we are. The students in Mrs Cathy Ward’s brightly-decorated classroom at St Laurence’s in Forbes sit in a circle on the floor and absorb St Luke’s story about the Annunciation.
At a gentle pace she recounts Gabriel’s visit to Mary, moving small figurines of the angel and woman before a diorama representing her simple home in Nazareth. Then the questions: I wonder why God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus?
“She’s very kind.”
“She is a beautiful person.”
“She loves God so much.”
Then they are invited to explore different aspects of faith and worship through hand-crafted materials and respond through play, art, or reverent imitation. An atmosphere of peace continues throughout.
It’s impressive, but that’s not all.
Teachers across the vast country and outback diocese say that since the roll out of the Educating in Christ primary religious education program this year, they are being drawn to or deepening a relationship with Jesus Christ themselves, while the students are enthusiastically evangelising their parents.
At St Ignatius’ Parish Primary School in Bourke, principal John Cowan says one of the fruits of the program is that three out of his seven teachers began instruction to enter the Church this year.
“They’re finding that they are gaining formation along with the children,” he tells The Catholic Weekly. “They are understanding this in a way that’s not judgemental or confronting.”
An hour’s drive west in Condobolin, wheat farmers are reaping their best harvest after years of drought. Parish priest Fr Vincent Kamba is celebrating a different kind of harvest. Weeks after giving a homily about baptism to the children of St Patrick’s School in nearby Trundle, the principal Trish Cleal informed him that the parents of 14 children were asking for them to be baptised.
“I thought it was a joke,” he beams. He also reversed his decision to defer First Holy Communions until next year due to COVID-19 because the children asked not to have to wait longer.
“These children have such a good foundation in their understanding about the Catholic faith that they will never forget what the sacraments are,” Fr Vincent says.
“Good things are happening here in the bush, and I don’t know what other dioceses are doing, but were blessed to have this and I think we can lead the way in this.”
Susanah Ford’s three younger children Grace, Matilda and Sally, attend St Joseph’s Parish Primary School in Condobolin. “They are living their faith through this program, while its hands-on approach gives them skills that enhances their learning in other ways; their thinking processes, their ability to problem-solve,” she says.
The program was created for the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese by education leader Dr Gerard O’Shea and is directed with with the assistance of his Religion and Mission Team members Chris Kupkee and Luke Burton.
Wilcannia-Forbes Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green is eager to share the approach with the world. “We are a small diocese but the Holy Spirit is very active here and there’s no reason why we can’t give back to the wider Church sometimes. “In this we can punch above our weight.”
Luke says that going to work each day “is a joy”. “There’s nothing better than to be doing something you really believe in and making a difference to people’s faith,” he says.
Meditation made natural
Classrooms using the program are “peaceful, calm spaces which make the Gospel very tangible to students and teachers and where they can feel the presence of God,” says Fr Manoj Manuel who ministers in the communities of Narromine, Trangie and Peak Hill.
Sharon Grimmond, principal at St Joseph’s Parish School, Nyngan said in 40 years of teaching religion she had never seen such rich theology imparted “in such a calm reflective relationship-building atmosphere that the kids don’t realise they are learning”.
“There are no tests, and one of the joys of this approach is my teachers can encourage the children to have a relationship with Christ without worrying about getting an A, B, or a D.”
Parish priest of St Laurence’s Parish in Forbes Fr Simon Apablaza was excited to see how the children’s imaginations are engaged in the classroom experiences. “Christian meditation is deeply connected with the Word of God but we are not taught this much anymore,” he says. “But here without explicitly teaching them that, they are actually doing it, engaging their imagination to respond to Scripture, the liturgy and the sacraments.
“It’s absolutely amazing.”
Educating in Christ
By Gerard O’Shea
The Educating in Christ program owes much to the insights of Maria Montessori, Sophia Cavalletti and their collaborators in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Its foundational insight is drawn from Christian anthropology, which acknowledges that we are both spiritual and physical beings.
Long before they set foot in the schools of the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes, children are already ‘in contact’ with God. St John Henry Newman referred to this as implicit reason – an essential characteristic of human existence.
Simply put, all of us perceive spiritually things that we cannot yet express in words.
At the beginning of last year, in a kindergarten class at St Ignatius School, Bourke, I asked the children, “Where is Jesus right now?” They gave me good answers: Jesus is in heaven; Jesus is in the church. One indigenous child, Clinton, then offered this: “Jesus is in my heart; he’s talking to me all the time.”
Another child guilelessly asked, “What does he say?” Clinton’s answer disarmed both me and the principal, John Cowan, who was also present. “He doesn’t talk to you like that,” came the answer. “He doesn’t say words. You just know things that you didn’t know before and that’s him talking to you.”
I suspect that those of us who have been working with children for many years would also report that children’s answers often reveal unexpected depths. God is very near to them.
The genius of Montessori and Cavalletti was to create a method which acknowledges Jesus himself as the evangelist. In the words of Saint John Paul II, the role of the teacher is to put students “in contact, in intimacy with Jesus Christ”.
The distinctiveness of Educating in Christ is that it gives time and space for children to reflect on what has been presented. This gives the Holy Spirit more opportunities to move their hearts and minds to be open to spiritual reality, guided by the teaching of the Church.
“Children (and adults) can always be touched by God at the core of their being”
Christian anthropology has always affirmed that we are simultaneously spiritual and physical by nature. Children (and adults) can always be touched by God at the core of their being. Our participation in the sacraments and the practice of prayer itself depend on this.
Features of the program
Attention is paid to the religious developmental stages identified by Montessori and confirmed by contemporary research. A different face of God is needed for students of different ages and stages of development. Cavalletti and her collaborators identified appropriate materials for each level and these materials serve as the basis for about two thirds of the Educating in Christ curriculum.
Moreover, the programme uses each of the four essential languages for incorporating us into the mystery of Christ identified in the new Vatican Directory for Catechesis:
- Biblical language – Sacred Scripture
- Symbolic-liturgical language – Sacraments, liturgy and prayer
- Doctrinal language – the Creeds and formulations of the Magisterium
- Performative language – the witness of saints, martyrs and the Christian community
The connection between the sacraments and the Scriptures (mystagogy) lies at the heart of the programme. Every aspect of the liturgy makes present some of the mysteries revealed in Scripture.
Biblical typology is also a focus. This looks at the unfolding of God’s plan from the shadows of indistinct but valid revelation in the Old Testament to the clearer images of the New Testament, and pointing to the final reality of the Kingdom yet to come.
In line with Montessori teaching principles, the environment is seen as teacher. Topics are underpinned by concrete materials which students use independently to help them delve more deeply into the mysteries.
Ongoing reflection on the essential message of Christ (the Kerygma) and the implications for moral life are thus made personal in each child’s experience.
Dr Gerard O’Shea is Assistant Director of Catholic Education (Mission and Religious Education) for the Diocese of Wilcannia-Forbes