In CGS Courses, Isn’t Everyone on the Team?

June 2018

by Catherine Maresca

Over the last ten years or so I’ve been considering the benefits and challenges of providing more than one formation leader for small CGS courses. Formation leaders are encouraged to work in teams at each CGS course. I heartily concur that the breadth of knowledge and experience available to the participants is beneficial, as well as the model of more than one style of presenting the materials. And, if the course has more than fifteen people, it helps greatly to have more than one formation leader to address their needs.  

But what about a small course, held to keep local atriums alive and growing? Is a team always needed for these? Should formation leaders be asked to bear the cost of extra staff unsupported by income from the participants? Which configurations can be considered teams? When could the concept of team be expanded to include the participants themselves? 

Since 1985 I have worked on courses as an assistant, co-leader, one of a rotating group of leaders, unassisted leader, assisted leader, leader with a mentee, and a leader with a substitute as needed. These can all work well, if the match of the number of leaders to the size of the group is good, and the dynamic among the course staff is positive. Through no fault of the leaders, some partnerships work better than others.

Additionally, because our churches have often undervalued the work of their catechists and expected unlimited work for little or no pay, we should be cautious about doing this to one another in CGS. Formation leaders have developed their expertise over a number of years and at no small cost to them and their families. They meet the ongoing criteria of CGSUSA to lead courses. They will be planning and leading the course, checking album pages, and fielding questions from the group for a year or more. Experienced formation leaders should be paid well for their work, without pressure to work for less than a just wage.

Perhaps looking back to the first CGS courses held in the US can help us. 

 CGS arrived here with a series of summer courses. Previously, Sofia Cavalletti shared her work in two long courses in the ‘70s in Minnesota and Texas, before the course content had been clearly divided into three levels. In 1982, Christian Family Montessori School hosted a three week Level I course in Washington DC. Rebekah Rojcewicz, who had studied with Sofia in Rome and then opened the first class at CFMS as both primary teacher and catechist in 1981, was our “trainer,” assisted by Sr. Sheila Sentiff. Sofia joined us for the third week. I was both a participant and course administrator. 

The following summer we offered the first course again with Rebekah, Sheila and Sofia, followed by a one week reflection on the Mass, led by Sofia, using Eucharist materials from all three levels, as well as the Gifts and the Plan of God. The following summer the courses moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, CGSUSA was formally formed as a membership organization, a board was elected, and the publication of an annual newsletter, now called “Journal,” began. Three week Level I and II courses were offered in both 1984 and 1985, along with weekend retreats and/or meetings for catechists from Mexico, Canada and the United States. 

The National summer courses moved to Toronto for 1986-87. Sofia, Rebekah, Sheila, Maria Christlieb, Patricia Coulter, Carol Dittberner, Betty Hissong, Tina Lillig, Anna Guida, Bert and Marty O’Bryan and I were present as participants, leaders or assistants for many of these first ten courses. After ’87 Sofia considered her work in North America well planted and did not return. Courses began to be held in more than one location during the summer, and eventually they were offered in various formats throughout the year as well. 

Teams were crucial to these early courses. The American catechists had limited experience, Sofia’s “course” books were not yet published and Sofia’s energy for leading a course of 20 or more people was limited. In addition, CGS was so new to us we could offer little help to one another as participants.

 During these years, though the team members were all working hard, it was clear that when Sofia was in the room she was the professor. She offered marvelous morning lectures, referencing a few notes, children’s art, and her Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Our arms were falling off in an effort to write down everything she said, and we certainly didn’t want to waste a moment of her time with us listening to anyone but her. 

It was while Sofia was taking her meals and rest without us that we all became part of the team. Along with course work, our time together was used to establish CGSUSA, “incubate” formation leaders, make and re-make materials from photos and measurements, practice with materials, write album pages, find and learn appropriate songs, plan and celebrate daily Mass, and help each other as we planned to open atriums at home. We were fortunate to have among us theologians, clergy, Montessorians, artists, musicians, material makers, shoppers, drivers, writers, and organizers that were happy to share the load. The days and nights were demanding and exhilarating. 

Today our courses have settled down quite a bit. Retreats and national meetings usually happen separately, a course-worthy atrium is available, former course notes are now published as Sofia’s books, and materials manuals, song books, and a library of good CGS reading material are on hand to enhance course content. Together we explore the themes of CGS based on a much richer experience with children than we had in 1982. National courses are still offered, and are especially important for catechists from communities where a local course is not available. Local courses create access to CGS for catechists without the resources or time-off from work for an extended stay away from home. National courses foster a broader network of CGS colleagues, while local courses foster more local and regional  solidarity among catechists.

What has not changed is the communal work of everyone at a course, even when they are local, small courses led by one FL. We are still blessed with a marvelous mix of thinkers, singers, artists, liturgists, contemplatives, educators and special educators, parents, homeschooling parents, scientists, linguists, and women from a mix of careers that lend different perspectives and gifts to our work. I have found that in each of the 120+ courses I’ve led the participants have also been the team, and together we weave our meditation on the heart of our faith, captured in the materials of CGS.

Perhaps this dynamic is good for CGS. In a Montessori environment, the ratio of children to adults is high. This is deliberate, to be sure that the community is child-centered, the children have opportunities to become leaders, and the questions to be explored (by elementary children) emerge from the group. If too many adults are present, the atrium is “driven” by the adults’ spirituality, energy and agenda rather than the children’s.

In our CGS courses, a ratio of two leaders to less than fifteen participants can also suppress the questions, spirituality, and emerging leadership of the new catechists. Course information is at risk of becoming one directional (top down) rather than a circle of learning that would be a model for the atrium. While we are committed to the carefully prepared syllabus and moving the group through it wisely, the work of the formation leader is also key to  making room for each person in the room to participate fully.

 The team may well be the group itself: formation leader and participants together. This dynamic could help a course to be culturally or denominationally appropriate, address the questions we are faced with now as church and society, promote new leaders, and create a community reflection that enriches everyone in the room. 

Blessings on all of you leading and contributing to CGS summer courses this year.

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