Discernment in the Atrium

Monthly letters to help put the work of the catechist of the Good Shepherd into the context of the larger world · from the archives

March 2017

by Catherine Maresca

It’s the Middle of Lent. We had a snow day last week instead of atrium. My birthday is this week, as well as the first day of spring. Everyone I know has been out sick sometime this winter. I had a conference to attend last week, and had to remember to wear green for St. Patrick’s Day.  And I’m trying to get to Mt. Sinai with my Level III group studying the book of Exodus.

Such are the smaller things that create the context of weekly time with children in the atrium. Everyone in the room has a list like this. Some items are shared, some are unique to each child. The rough plan we made at the beginning of the year for presentations took few of these items into account. How much should these events impact that plan?

In Rome, I was fortunate to observe Sofia in the Level III atrium several times over a thirteen-year period. Her decisions about which lessons to present (if any) were organic. She didn’t seem to have any concern at all that the long list of possible presentations be covered in a three-year cycle. Her conversation with her colleagues after each session was about collecting observations and impressions about the day’s work in order to discern the presentations for the next one. New materials (and there were many in these years) were born of a need for something not yet present in the room. Some of these became permanent materials. Many did not.

For new catechists working their way slowly and systematically through the three-year cycle this approach can be nightmarish. To be flexible enough to offer what seems to be needed every week by individual children requires both finished materials and the ability to present them at all times. But some flexibility can be built into their practice by planning for a new presentation only once every two weeks. That allows the catechist to discern which week is better for a new lesson, what previous lesson should be represented, what practical life lesson might help to center the child, and what extension might serve the child’s work well. It also allows extended work periods, especially important for shorter sessions in parish “Sunday Schools.”

For experienced catechists there is the luxury of a fully equipped atrium and the confidence to present every material. This allows them to choose to present the Cenacle in the fall instead of in the Easter cycle if the children seem to be drawn to it early in the year. Or to continue to present the Infancy Narratives to the child working almost exclusively with materials about the Incarnation. The prayer table and the overall cycle keep the atrium centered in the liturgical year with the rest of the church, but work in other areas can be supported as the personal choice of each child.

New and experienced catechists can make a note every week about a possible direction/lesson/extension for each child that will offer good suggestions quickly if that child needs extra support. Giving lessons to one child, pairs of children, or small groups helps to keep the choice of lessons responsive to the children needs each week.

In Level III, larger or whole group presentations are fruitful with the Bible meditations, the Reconciliation meditations, and the first presentations of the Plan of God and the History of the Jewish People. But there is still the flexibility needed to decide to extend a presentation for a week to accommodate an unexpected but fruitful conversation triggered by the study. Or to accommodate weeks when the group cannot meet together during the session for one reason or another. And any presentation with small print cards should probably be presented to 2-4 children only.

At every level, whole groups can be gathered for song, celebrations, and grace and courtesy lessons. Older children gather for prayer services and occasional meetings as well.

If we cannot “measure” our work by checking off every lesson on our list what can we focus on? I am slowly committing myself to a much smaller list of spiritual skills to foster. I would like the children to leave the atrium knowing that they can pray and how they enjoy praying, how to read the signs of liturgy and be nourished by those signs, how to approach any Biblical text with confidence, seeking the treasures within again and again, and how to be confident with the language, prayers, and signs of the church that unites us to one another. And, of course, joy!

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