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Faith Matters: An Interview with Rebekah Rojcewicz

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Little Lambs, With Gentle Guidance, Find the Good Shepherd on Their Own:
This article features an interview with Rebekah Rojcewicz

Article about Rebekah Rojcewicz and the Good Shepherd Center in Memphis.
Little lambs, with gentle guidance, find the Good Shepherd on their own

Ecumenical program fosters the spiritual lives of children

By David Waters

January 4, 2003 picture The children in the atrium hear the gospel story of the Good Shepherd twice.

First, a leader called the catechist gives them a short, simple introduction to the story in her own words. She is careful not to embellish. She emphasizes the Good Shepherd's personal love and protective presence.

Next, the catechist lights a candle, then reads the story directly from the Bible. She reads the text softly, slowly, solemnly and without expression.

As she reads, she moves small figures of a shepherd, sheep and a sheepfold, simple materials she makes herself out of wood or clay. When she is done, she pauses, then poses a question or two.

"The sheep of the Good Shepherd are so fortunate. They are loved so much. I wonder who they are?"

The children, in this case age 3 to 6, respond. The catechist does not explain to them that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and they are his beloved sheep. She waits for them to realize it on their own.

She does not want to deprive them of the joy of that spiritual discovery.

"The atrium is, above all, a place for prayer and celebration," catechist Rebekah Rojce wicz wrote in the foreword to The Religious Potential of the Child.

"Children are free to listen and respond to the only true teacher, Jesus Christ himself. This frees the adult to contemplate and enjoy God's presence with the children."

That's the defining feature of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Bible-based, Montessori-style, church-approved, Christian spiritual formation program for children age 3-12.

It began with three Catholic students in Rome in 1954 but now is offered by several denominations in two dozen countries on five continents. There are hundreds of programs in U.S. cities, including Memphis.

Rojcewicz, a 52-year-old mother of three, is one of the world's leading experts on the program. She's also founder and director of the Good Shepherd Center in Memphis.

Every Wednesday afternoon for two hours, about 40 children of Catholic and Protestant backgrounds gather in one of three prayer rooms, or "atriums" - one for age 3-6, another for age 6-9 and another for age 9-12.

There, with the gentle guidance of a handful of adult catechists, children encounter the mystery of God.

"We trust that God is always searching for His creation," Rojcewicz said.

"In the atrium, we try to provide a sacred space and time and content to allow God's children to recognize and respond to God through Jesus. . . .

"They sense God's presence."

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has been called the deschooling of Sunday school. It's not instruction so much as preparation for life in the Christian community.

The quiet and ordered atriums are more like little sanctuaries than traditional classrooms. There's a model altar, a prayer corner and any number of religious implements and symbols.

Scripture and liturgy are the only curriculum. The Bible is the only text. There are no games, no handouts, no tests and nothing to memorize.

"Too often religious education is so goal-oriented and curriculum-conscious that it loses sight of its mission to minister to the religious life of the child," Dr. Mark Searle of the University of Notre Dame wrote in The Religious Potential of the Child.

"In traditional models of education, the teacher, who knows, stands before the students, who do not know. The teacher instructs them."

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd "insists the teacher not come between the child and God but stand back to allow such contact to occur."

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was founded by two Catholic laywomen: Sofia Cavalletti, a Biblical scholar, and Gianna Gobbi, a teacher trained by Maria Montessori.

In 1954, Cavalletti was asked to give three young boys some religion lessons. She had never worked with children. She wasn't sure what to do. So she started the lesson by reading the first page of Genesis to them.

The boys spent two hours pondering each phrase on the page. Their joy surprised her.

Cavalletti continued her Bible lessons. A short time later, Gobbi joined her. She brought a small model altar and some religious materials used at mass.

The children enjoyed working with the materials. So the catechists began using them in their presentations of Scripture. After each presentation, the children were invited to work with the materials themselves.

In doing this personal work, children internalize the Word of God, Cavalletti insists.

"The help the adult can give the child is only preliminary and peripheral and one that halts - that must halt - on the threshold of the 'place' where God speaks with His creation," Cavalletti wrote.

Rojcewicz, who grew up in East Tennessee, met Cavalletti at a conference in 1978.

Afterward, Rojcewicz told herself, "Today my life has changed."

Rojcewicz soon was on her way to Rome, where she spent two years studying with Cavalletti. She returned to the Washington area, where she led a catechesis (religious instruction) program for 16 years.

She began traveling to Memphis in 1993, leading courses on the program for Calvary Episcopal Church and St. Michael Catholic Church.

She and her family moved to Memphis in 1995. She led a program at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, then at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, where the Good Shepherd Center was established.

Last summer, the center moved into a house offered rent-free by the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion.

Rojcewicz wrote the foreword to the English edition of Cavalletti's book, The Religious Life of the Child, published by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1992.

She spent the past three years translating the English edition of Cavalletti's latest book, The Religious Life of the Child 6 to 12 Years Old, published in fall 2002.

Roman Catholic officials granted both books the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, declarations that they are free ofdoctrinal and moral error.

Though the program is Catholic in origin, it is ecumenical in practice.

"Children and adults who come to the center are also involved in their own parishes and churches," said Rojce wicz.

"The prayer life of the center is meant to nourish personal prayer and the child's or adult's fuller participation in their own Christian communities."

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd follows the liturgical calendar.

Generally, the catechist begins each session with a Biblical show-and-tell that fits the season and the child's age.

The catechist introduces and then reads a brief story, prophecy, parable or maxim from the Bible, using simple materials such as a figure of Mary or a map as a visual aid.

She invites the children to think about and discuss what they've heard and seen.

"When we ask questions, we're not looking for answers," said Donna Turner, a catechist since 1994.

"We pose questions to allow the children to meditate and contemplate, to listen for the true teacher within the text and within them."

Next, the children are invited to spend the next hour or longer working with whichever materials they choose.

There's a model altar with a chalice, a cross, a candle and a Bible. There's a prayer corner with a Bible, a candle and prayer cards.

There's a geography area with a three-dimensional map of ancient Israel and a scale model of old Jerusalem.

There's a shelf or a table with parable materials, such as mustard seeds. There are other shelves and tables with figures representing scenes from the birth, life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

"After they've listened to Jesus' own words through a solemn reading of Scripture, and after they have chosen a material designed to aid their continued meditation, the real 'knowing' happens," wrote Rojcewicz.

"How often have I seen children stand the figures of the Good Shepherd outside the sheepfold and then work very carefully to get each sheep close enough to the Shepherd to be touching him."

Each session closes with song and prayer.

Cavalletti and Gobbi designed the program around a few basic themes to which children most eagerly and joyfully responded: Jesus as the True Vine, Jesus as the Light of the World and Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

They also designed the program to fit what they saw as a child's natural love of order and silence, desire for work, capacity for concentration, and need for love.

"My two girls embraced it right away, but I wasn't sure how my son would react," said Kathleen Kruczek, who's been a part of the program since 1997.

"He's your typical boy who just wants to run around and play. But he loves to work with the Good Shepherd. He goes straight to it every week.

"He keeps saying he wants to be with the Good Shepherd. He wants to give the Good Shepherd to others. He's 4, and he's teaching me."

For information about the Good Shepherd Center, call 767-9220.

Contact columnist David Waters at 529-2399 or E-mail Faith Matters runs on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundaysent here

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