Catechesis in an Age of Religious Pluralism

Issue XI April 2012

Children of today live in a political and religious world that is very different from the one in which we were raised. The world has become a global village. Many of our children have opportunities to meet and befriend children from other faiths in their schools or neighborhoods. This paper looks at the commonalities in approach to the spiritual journey between the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Eastern religions. It also looks at areas where catechists need to be particularly sensitive so that we might encourage our children to appreciate the presence of God in the lives of persons outside the Christian tradition.

by Elyse Strathy

Elyse Strathy has a Master of Theological Studies from the University of Toronto. She studied the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with Patricia Coulter and Catherine Maresca and is a catechist in Toronto. Elyse graduated from law school, but found her true vocation working with children—raising four daughters and working in the atrium.


Last year our daughter, Anna, who is Roman Catholic, shared a house with four friends at university – a Muslim, a Hindu, a Protestant and a boy whose parents had deliberately raised him outside of traditional religion. This year Anna is sharing an apartment with a Jewish girl. Children in Canada and many other parts of the world are already engaged in the interreligious dialogue of life. They have questions and concerns that would never have occurred to their parents a generation ago. So how do we proceed with catechesis today? How do we remain faithful to our tradition, providing children with roots that will enable them both to enjoy the presence of God in their lives, and to see God’s presence in the lives of those outside their own religion?

Many involved in religious education today are quietly despairing. In The Christian Initiation of Children, Hope for the Future, Robert Duggan and Maureen Kelly write: 

Our starting point is an admission of failure. We want to shout, ‘The emperor has no clothes!’ to all who have grown complacent with or chosen to ignore what is happening with our children’s religious education across the country. We want to force an admission that it’s just not working from all who would choose denial as the more comfortable option when surveying the landscape of religious education for the young (Duggan and Kelly, 2).

For some years now, the general approach to catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church has been to have children undergo a period of intense education before first communion, first reconciliation and confirmation. The sacraments can appear to be the “prize” at the end of a term of study instead of enrichment of the child’s ongoing religious life.

Christian adults who have completed the traditional catechetical programs in parishes and schools are today often looking to Eastern religions to fill the gap they find in their spiritual lives. Their religious knowledge does not inform their lives. They feel like they are going through the motions at their weekly liturgies and want something more. Swami Vivekananda, an important Hindu teacher in India in the late nineteenth century, recognized this longing over one hundred years ago during his trip to the United States for the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. When he returned home to India he encouraged Hindu missionaries to go to North America to teach Christians how to pray (Eck, 151-152). Yoga classes and meditation centers are now commonplace in our culture.

If adults are finding help at yoga and meditation classes, the question remains: what about our children? Is there a way to guide them in their search for meaning that honors both their intellectual and spiritual needs? How do we address the concerns that have been raised by our partners in interreligious dialogue about Christian attitudes toward other religions? This essay will explore one approach to religious education called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) and how it attempts to serve the needs of Christian children today. We will take a look at some general characteristics of CGS and what it shares in common with the approach of Eastern religions to the spiritual journey. We will then look at how CGS treats the question of whether there is salvation outside the church and, finally, how CGS has responded to the church’s call that catechesis today take into account the fact of other religions.

General Characteristics of CGS

CGS is an approach to religious formation of children based on Dr. Maria Montessori’s educational principles. Montessori was a pioneer in the education of children in the early twentieth century and identified what she called “sensitive periods” in childhood development, that is, periods “when the child feels himself irresistibly attracted toward specific objects, or, better, toward specific acquisitions, such as language, for example.” (Cavalletti 1992, 170.) The force within the child drives his development and, when this deep need is satisfied, leads to the “harmonious construction of the person in himself, and in his relationship to the world” (Cavalletti 1992, 170). The Montessori method is in widespread use today but its Christian connections have largely been abandoned (Lillig, 80). Montessori was one of the first to take seriously the deeply religious nature of the very young child. One of her colleagues, Gianna Gobbi, collaborated with Dr. Sofia Cavalletti, a biblical scholar, in Rome beginning in the 1950’s. Through years of observing and working with children, they developed what came to be called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (Gobbi, vii-xi).

One of the unique features of CGS is that it begins when the child is as young as two and a half or three years of age. Few today would question the importance of early childhood education. UNESCO has called it a “social crime” to ignore the learning potential of children of preschool age (Cavalletti 1992, 155). Most of us, however, are content to wait until the child is six or older to begin religious education. Gobbi and Cavalletti have observed that to wait is to risk distorting the child’s relationship with God. 

“… it is from the point of view of moral formation as well that the religious experience before six years of age seems so important to us. Before this age, the relationship with God is established without constraints; the child is free from any preoccupation and open to the encounter with God and to the enjoyment he derives from it. To coincide the beginning of catechesis, or religious formation of whatever kind, with the age when the older child is opening up to moral values can have, in our estimation, serious consequences. The meeting with God is confused with moral problems, and God will easily come to assume the aspect of judge” (Cavalletti 1992, 155).

It is often observed that “joyful” is not the first word that comes to mind when describing Christians, at least here in North America. There are no doubt numerous factors that account for this, but one may be that we have identified religious formation with moral formation and failed to give the person time to fall in love with God. Cavalletti has found that the very young child has a vital need to be in relationship and experiences profound joy and peace in the proclamations from scripture about the Good Shepherd (Cavalletti 1992, 169). Allowing the child time to discover who she is in relationship with, and to enjoy that relationship of love and protection, prepares a more solid foundation for moral formation. The child of six who begins to ask questions about right and wrong does not need to look to some external law for guidance but will look to someone—the Good Shepherd. Morality becomes a question of where the person is in her relationship with God rather than a list of “shoulds” (Cavalletti 1992, 152).

CGS and Judaism

The Roman Catholic Church states that catechesis today must take account of the fact of other religions. The Vatican II document “Declaration on Christian Education” (1965) recognizes that young people should be educated in such a way that they are “open to dialogue with others” (Mohammed 1992, 13-16 quoting Gravissimum Educationis). Particular attention has been paid to repairing the damage done to our relationship with our elder siblings, the Jews. The suggestions included in “Guidelines and Suggestions for Jewish-Christian Relations” (1974) and “Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” (1985, Brooks, 23-47) have been incorporated into the CGS presentations in order to help the child live Christianity’s intrinsic link to Judaism.

Catechesis with young children is not concerned with undoing the past. Catechists do not have to explain that Jews are not responsible for the death of Jesus or that God’s covenant with the Jews has not been revoked. Rather, from the beginning of their initiation into the Christian message, children in the atrium are exposed to the Jewish roots of Christianity in a natural way. The infancy narratives, particularly the Presentation in the Temple, are opportunities to talk about where Jesus was born and what his traditions were as a Jew. The presentation of the cenacle, where Jesus celebrated Passover with his apostles, is another opportunity.

The dialogue with other faiths since Vatican II has made Christians more sensitive to some areas of catechesis. For example, there are several simple geography presentations in the three-to-six year old atrium to help the child come to know that the birth of Jesus happened in a particular place and at a particular time in history. One material, the topographical map of the land where Jesus was born is referred to as “the land of Israel” by some catechists while others call it “Palestine.” Catechists need to be aware that there was no nation state of Israel when Jesus lived. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew, living in a land occupied by the Romans. Today many Jewish thinkers would acknowledge that the Palestinians have been unjustly deprived of their own land by the state of Israel. Again, none of this enters the discussion with the children, but the catechist must use words that are sensitive to the realities of our world. If she wants to use the term “land of Israel” she should be aware of how she is using it, that is, in the biblical sense or in the geopolitical sense.

In a similar way, catechists need to be aware of the current scholarship on the New Testament’s treatment of the Pharisees (Mohammed, September 22, 2005). The reflection on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14) with the six-to-nine-year old children focuses on how God wants us to pray, and how sometimes we might be like the Pharisee and at other times like the Publican. However, in introducing the character of the Pharisee in the parable the catechist should be careful not to suggest that the Pharisee in this story is representative of all the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. That might be how the author used the character but it clouds the message of the parable. The actions of the Pharisee speak for themselves. They do not need to be linked to the characterization of all Pharisees as hypocrites that we see through much of the New Testament. That characterization is now seen to be a retrojection of the conflict between those Jews who chose to follow Jesus and those who did not. Some of the older children may already be aware of such characterizations and may have questions. The catechist should be prepared to answer them intelligently with an explanation suitable for the age of the child.

Finally, there are the messianic prophecies. One or two prophecies are read from scripture each year, and the children are invited to meditate on the wonder of them anticipating the birth of Jesus. The Vatican II document Nostra Aetate insists it is “necessary for Christians to affirm that Judaism continues to play a unique and distinctive role of its own in the overall process of human salvation” (Pawlikowski, 89). It is important, then, for catechists not to overplay these prophecies as “the total fulfillment of Judaism with the clear implication that post-Easter Judaism constitutes nothing but an empty shell” (Pawlikowski, 48).

The 1985 Notes pay particular attention to the role typology can play in catechesis, in helping children to see the “common patrimony” of the Church and Judaism (Brooks, 35). Children in the nine-to-twelve year old atrium have five typology studies—Creation, the Fall, the Flood, Abraham and Sarah, and the Exodus—over a three year period. Each typology study spans at least three sessions in the atrium. Children spend the first session on the reading from Hebrew Scripture without reference to Christ or the church but taking time to grasp what actually happens in the text. The catechist guides the reflection, mindful of showing great respect for the Jewish scriptures in and of themselves. The second session links the reading to Redemption. The children are by now very familiar with liturgy and the New Testament and make their own connections to the Hebrew text. And in the third session, the catechist will introduce scriptural passages that will help the children link the Hebrew text to parousia. In this way, the children become very aware of the reality in which we live—the “in-between time”, the “not yet.” They themselves make the connection with the Jewish people who are also waiting (Cavalletti 2002, 42-52). The typology study of Abraham and Sarah also provides an opportunity for the catechist to point out that Christians, Jews and Muslims “are brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham,” in the words of John Paul II . Such a self-understanding from an early age for Christians offers great hope for the future.

Characteristics of Spiritual Journey CGS shares with Eastern Religions

The theme of relationship, or covenant, to use the biblical term, is paramount in CGS. After years of experimentation and observation of the children, Cavalletti and Gobbi found that the two parables fundamental to John’s gospel—the Good Shepherd and True Vine— satisfied the deepest religious needs of the children. It is important to emphasize that the children receive these proclamations directly from scripture. They are not mediated by a children’s Bible. The youngest children come to know the Good Shepherd, in their own time, by working with the simple, wooden figures of the sheep, Good Shepherd and sheepfold throughout the year in the atrium. Children in the six-to-nine year old atrium meditate on the parable of the True Vine, especially during the year they prepare for First Communion. It is interesting that today, when John’s gospel seems slightly out of fashion and is often dismissed by theology students because of its “high Christology”, children in the atrium find in these two parables the mystery of the interconnectedness of all life (Cavalletti 1992, 53-57), a major theme in Buddhism (Mohammed 1992, 13-16).

The emphasis on relationship, the personal spiritual journey and the quality of joy in making that journey are characteristics CGS seems to hold in common with Eastern religions (Mohammed, November 24, 2005 and Mohammed 1992, 14). There are two others that are worth mentioning: the discipline of the body and practice of prayer—the one being a preparation for the other. In the same way that the Christian connections to the Montessori method have been largely suppressed, the purpose of yoga—to prepare for meditation—is generally overlooked in the West today. Probably the majority of North Americans who practice yoga do so for its health benefits only (Ryan, 131). Contrary to popular belief, yoga does not belong to Hinduism but is considered to be independent of all religions. What is called “hatha yoga” today is a series of postures, performed with attention to the breath, that are designed to “bring the body and mind into harmony” (Ryan, 134.)

Yoga seeks to cultivate a focused awareness of one’s deepest being, one’s Self, and that Self, God. Physical exercises are but the skin of yoga; its sinews and skeleton are mental exercises that prepare the way for a transformation of consciousness which is always a gift of God and a work of grace (Ryan, 131).

Similarly, Gobbi writes of the movement exercises in the first few weeks of the very young child in the atrium—the prepared environment for catechesis:

The movement exercises, harmoniously uniting mind and muscles, prepare the way to self-control, the possession of free will, and a natural obedience. They lead to concentration and finally to meditation which forms the basis of prayer” (Gobbi, 49).

And: “Knowing how to use objects correctly, how to carry things, how to care for one’s surroundings, and so forth, all share an aim that goes beyond physical functioning. Both the movement exercises and the practical life activities [flower arranging, polishing, watering plants] nurture wholeness in the child. The children carry out these activities with joy. They live a religious experience in the totality of their persons. (Gobbi, 51).

A Hindu will seek a spiritual master, a swami, to guide him on his personal journey. In CGS, the child’s swami is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, while the catechist’s role is that of humble servant to the Gospel (Cavalletti 1992, 47-61). Both Hinduism and Buddhism emphasize that to know reality one must have an experience of it (Mohammed, November 24, 2005 and Mohammed 1992, 14). This experience cannot be found in books but only through life and prayer. In a similar way, CGS avoids an academic approach to religious formation. Cavalletti writes:

…the center of catechesis is a place in which the community of children and their catechists live their religious experiences together. The center of catechesis is a place for celebrating the Word of God, for listening, praying, and reflecting together, for meditation and work. It is a place where the child is able to do everything at his own rhythm, which is slower than the adult’s…(Cavalletti 1992, 23). 

The work that Cavalletti refers to is the time spent by the child with the materials especially prepared by the catechist for them and shown to them during a presentation of some part of the liturgy or scriptural passage. The materials “are not meant to lead to the formulation of concepts, but to a vital encounter with a real Person” (Gobbi, 20). Having seen a presentation, the child is free to take out the materials when she chooses. She will work by herself allowing “an opportunity for an interior dialogue between [herself] and the true Teacher” (Gobbi, 21).

The CGS approach to religious formation of children takes into consideration the development of the Western notion of truth that has taken place in the last century. Until the end of the nineteenth century, truth was considered absolute and unchanging. The Baltimore Catechism is the classic example. Religious education involved the transmission of these truths and the child’s memorization of them. CGS prefers to speak of education to wonder rather than to truths. Cavalletti writes:

The nature of wonder is not a force that pushes us passively from behind; it is situated ahead of us and attracts us with irresistible force toward the object of our astonishment; it makes us advance toward it, filled with enchantment….Education to wonder is correlative with an education that helps us to go always more deeply into reality. ..[Wonder] strikes root only in the person whose mind is able to settle and rest in things, in the person who is capable of stopping and looking. It is only through a continued and profound observation of reality that we become conscious of its many aspects, of the secrets and mysteries it contains….As we gradually enter into what is real, our eyes will come to see it as more and more charged with marvels, and wonder will become a habit of our spirit” (Cavalletti 1992, 138-139).

Cavalletti stresses that the attitude of wonder is especially important in religious education: 

When wonder becomes a fundamental attitude of our spirit it will confer a religious character to our whole life, because it makes us live with the consciousness of being plunged into an unfathomable and incommensurable reality (Cavalletti 1992, 139).

In order for the attitude of wonder to be sustained, the person being educated must be offered a worthy object. The object must be “capable of taking the child always farther and deeper into the awareness of reality, an object whose frontiers are always expanding as the child slowly proceeds in the contemplation of it” (Cavalletti 1992, 140). CGS offers the youngest children, ages two and a half to six, the Kingdom of God parables which “reveal to us the secret of the universe and lead us to contemplate it” (Cavalletti 1992, 142). It is interesting to note how similar the fig tree parable in the Upanishads (Chandogya 6.12), a book of Hindu scriptures, is to the mustard seed parable in Matthew 13:31-32. It seems to be a striking example of the possibility of a common language between the children of our two religions.

The Kingdom of God parables seem particularly valuable in an age of religious pluralism because their approach is global. Children as young as two and a half have unarticulated questions about the mystery of life and these parables allow them to contemplate that mystery in all of creation. Cavalletti writes:

The enjoyment, the ‘falling in love’ the child is capable of in relation to God, should be expanded to embrace everything in which His Spirit is present and manifests Himself, persons and things; in everything we call, to use the biblical term, the ‘Kingdom of God’. It is against this background of global love for life that every manifestation of life, in persons and things, comes to be colored with love (Cavalletti 1992, 142).

In the same way that the parable of the Good Shepherd prepares the way for the older child’s moral formation, the Kingdom of God parables prepare the way for the older child’s intellectual development:

Reality enlarges itself before the older child, yet it also becomes more fragmentary, and so it is necessary that the child face it carrying within himself a global vision. Helping the child to read this or that sign of creation can become a superficial, sterile work if the older child does not already have within himself a key with which to interpret it…too often we become preoccupied with the details without first giving the whole. We guide the child to find the imprint of God’s presence in this or that person or in this or that event, but we do not give sufficient care to initiate the child into the contemplation of the miracle of Life in itself. We think this is due to the fact that early childhood, the period when one’s ‘hold’ on reality is global, is disregarded; and once more the educational work that has neglected early childhood presents itself as founded on a void (Cavalletti 1992, 143).

Again, like Hinduism, the CGS approach prefers symbols or signs to concepts (Mohammed, November 24, 2005), for “when theology ceases to speak through images, it loses its hold on people and becomes a science of the specialists” (Cavalletti 1992, 158 referring to P. Duploye, La religion de Peguy.) It is not that propositions or formulae are necessarily wrong but they “enclose and restrict” the Word, leaving the “impression that everything has already been researched and resolved and that nothing remains for the individual to do” (Cavalletti 1992, 159). And so, in the atrium, signs are used to help the child enter into the mystery. For example, in the presentation on baptism children light their own candles from the lighted paschal candle and pour water over their own hands from a small baptismal font. The gestures from the Mass are isolated and demonstrated to the children so that they too can move their hands in the gesture of epiclesis, for example, when they are working with the altar table and its articles. The responses and artwork of the children have demonstrated that they are able to move from the concrete to the transcendent with ease (Cavalletti 1992, 178).

The Question of Salvation Outside Christianity

We have reviewed a number of general characteristics of CGS that distinguish it from older models of catechesis. Its emphasis on mystery reflects the attitude of the church since Vatican II that we are a pilgrim church. The practice of group and individual meditations on scripture and liturgical prayers in the atrium seems to dispose the children to an attitude of openness as they participate in “a shared investigation of the truth” (Mohammed 2004, 36 quoting Redemptor Hominis), in the words of John Paul II, albeit within their own tradition. Now we will turn briefly to the question of salvation under discussion by Christian scholars today. Our encounter with persons of other traditions forces us to ask questions such as: Is there salvation outside the church? Outside of Christ? Outside of God? Are the many religions just different means to salvation? How does CGS deal with salvation in its presentations to the children?

There was a time when the Roman Catholic Church taught that there was no salvation outside the Church. Since 1547, however, when the church was confronted with the existence of people in the Americas who could not have known about Christ, the church has recognized the concept of baptism by desire, whereby those outside the church who follow their consciences may be said to be saved (Mohammed 2004, 34). The Council fathers at Vatican II (1962-65) went further and acknowledged “that there is truth and grace among the nations ‘as a source of the secret presence of God’” (Mohammed 2004, 34 quoting Ad Gentes). This more positive attitude towards other religions has opened up dialogue between the church and all of the world’s major religions. There is a new atmosphere of respect as the partners in dialogue get to know one another better. The question of how God is working in those religions is only beginning to be opened up by Christians but there are signs of conversion in statements like the one issued in 1991 by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples called “Dialogue and Proclamation.” The two commissions not only acknowledged the “positive values in the religious lives of individual believers in the religious traditions” but “went even further and conceded that the religious traditions to which these believers belong may be regarded as ‘ways of salvation’” (Mohammed 2004, 36). In addition, the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, made it clear that God’s covenant with the Jewish people continues today (Mohammed, October 6, 2005). God does not go back on God’s promises. So, we can conclude that the Jewish people are saved through their own covenant.

CGS uses the language of creation, redemption and parousia rather than salvation. One of the major themes in the atrium for six-to-nine year olds is the history of the Kingdom of God. While the younger child asks about the mystery of life and is offered the Kingdom of God parables to ponder, the older child asks about time and history and her place in it and is offered the material called the fettuccia. The fettuccia corresponds to the first step in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. It provides a “blueprint, some map the mind can trust if we are to direct our energies purposively” (Smith, 106).

The fettuccia (ribbon in Italian) “consists of more than fifty meters of grosgrain ribbon wound onto a spool. Each ‘rib’ of the ribbon represents about a thousand years; one rib does not make up even one tenth of an inch” (Cavalletti 2002, 21). The presentation to the children catches their imagination as the ribbon is slowly rolled out. [The catechist] recounts the very long period of time when God was at work in creation before humans ever arrived. When human beings finally arrive, they find that the environment necessary to sustain their life has already been prepared for them. This resonates deeply with the children in their experience of the reality that surrounds them. They can readily join with those earliest humans in the asking of the question, Who has prepared all this for me? The narration continues by affirming that the Bible furnishes us with the answer to this question. God created the world and all that is in it. The Bible names the artisan of the creation. …Generation after generation, God accompanies the people who participate in this history as it unfolds through various stages, until God himself enters history to dwell in our midst in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the moment we call ‘redemption’.

It is the constant presence of God that gives meaning to history and guides it toward its final destination: the gathering up of all things into the fullness of God, that ‘God may be all in all’. We call this moment parousia….(Cavalletti 2002, 21-22). A short part of the ribbon in the color white extends beyond the marking for the current year. The children learn that on this “white page” all human beings will write history together. We are co-creators with God in bringing about the Kingdom of God. There is no hint of the atonement theory in the CGS approach to redemption. While there is no explicit model of salvation in the CGS approach to religious formation, catechists naturally come to the atrium with their own understandings of Christianity’s relationship with other world religions. In Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, Diana Eck points out that there are exclusivists, inclusivists and pluralists in every tradition. The exclusivist believes that her own tradition’s understanding of reality is the one and only truth. The inclusivist recognizes the legitimacy of other traditions but sees her own as superior. The pluralist sees that we have much to gain from each other’s traditions and is open to dialogue (Eck, 168-170). It requires a great deal of humility and discipline on the part of the adult in the atrium not to impose her own thoughts on salvation on the child. This is a time of great searching in the church and the catechist needs to be aware that there are many different schools of thought on the question of whether only Jesus saves (Knitter 1985).


Catechesis in an age of religious pluralism has to be, like interreligious dialogue, a work-in-progress. We learn who we are as Christians in part from our interaction with those outside our tradition. But perhaps by being open to the child, whose “relationship with God is marked by enjoyment, simplicity, wonder, and love” (Center for Children and Theology, November 2005) we will discover new ways of “strengthening the bonds that unite all people who honestly seek for the truth” (Mohammed 1992, 13 quoting John Paul II).


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_____. The Religious Potential of the Child 6 to 12 Years Old. (Chicago: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Publications, 2002).

Center for Children and Theology,, November 2005.

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_____. “Catholicism in Dialogue with World Religions.” Toronto Journal of Theology 20/1 (Spring, 2004): 33-50

_____. “Christianity and World Religions: On Hinduism” (lecture, Regis College, Toronto, Ontario, November 24, 2005).

_____. “Christianity and World Religions: On Judaism” (lecture, Regis College, Toronto, Ontario, September 22, 2005).

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Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).

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