When Jackie Pyrz's eight young students walk into her classroom next week, they'll understand immediately that the season of Advent has just begun and that it marks the beginning of the Christian year.
"We'll have a celebration and change the cloth to purple. We prepare everything so we know that now we're in a time of Advent," says Pyrz, a volunteer catechist, or teacher, at Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church two mornings a week.
"We live out the liturgical year."
Pyrz and her classroom of preschoolers live out the Christian calendar -- and the Roman Catholic liturgy -- by working with child-size altars, crosses, vestments and other sacramental objects as part of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori-style Christian formation program for children.
"We want the child to walk into the room and say 'This is a place for me. This is also the place God lives,' " explains Nancy Wood, who initiated the program at Holy Cross in 1996 and now trains catechists.
Developed by Italian biblical scholar and writer Sofia Cavalletti nearly six decades ago, the program is based on the New Testament parable of the Good Shepherd. Intended for children ages three through 12, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has its own language and terms -- the classroom is the atrium, play is called work, teachers are catechists -- and all the materials and equipment are designed for young children.
Initially designed to be used within the context of the Roman Catholic Church, the Good Shepherd program is also widely used in Anglican and Protestant circles, and children of several denominations from Winnipeg and nearby communities attend the weekly programs at Holy Cross.
Pyrz's modest classroom, once two rooms in a priest's residence, features low furniture, open shelving for books and toys, and a small altar inside a double closet. Using scaled down objects, the primary-aged children are able to decorate the altar in the appropriate colour for the season -- in Advent it would be purple -- in order to understand the rituals and participate more fully in them.
"It gives them the language. They know the names of things, they know the gestures," explains Pyrz, a mother of seven children.
"They love the language and it allows them to participate more fully in the mass."
But the program is intended to give children more than just a familiarity with Christian rituals and symbols. At its core, the experience of the atrium is meant to nurture and grow a child's relationship with God, says Wood.
"It's really about listening to God together with the child," says Wood, who volunteers at the Thursday afternoon program at Holy Cross.
Catechists undergo extensive training to understand the philosophical and theological concepts of the program. The underlying principle is that the adult is there to learn with the child, not to teach them, says longtime catechist Louise Fillion.
"It's respecting the sacredness of the child. Every individual's relationship to God is unique. You have to be careful not to say too much or too little," says Fillion, who runs the French atrium at Holy Cross on Monday mornings and the English language one on Wednesday mornings.
"They're going to get from the parable what they're getting that day."
"We're all just wondering together," adds Pyrz.
That approach appealed to the people of St. Peter's Anglican Church, who painted a sunny room in their church hall and furnished it with pieces constructed by church members to set up an atrium for children ages three to six.
"We've decided we wanted to create something that would allow children to be nurtured in the faith and they would be nurtured in the best possible way. We decided we would build it and they would come," Rev. Donna Joy says of the atrium set up two years ago in their River Heights church.
She says the benefits are already visible after just two years, adding her congregation plans to extend the program to accommodate older children.
"They are engaged because they can see what we're doing in the atrium is connected to what we're doing in the service," says Joy, who took the catechist training with Wood.
But the atrium also does much more, says Pyrz. Not only does it connect rituals and worship to a child's experience, it also recognizes and nurtures their spirit at a very young age.
"The premise is children are already in relationship to God and we're just giving them something to allow them to grow," she explains.
"There's (only) one teacher in the room and that's the Holy Spirit."
-- The next catechist training session for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd runs for three weekends in 2013, beginning Friday, Jan. 18. Cost is $250. Contact Nancy Wood at 204-885-2260 or email@example.com
-- At least six Anglican or Roman Catholic churches in Manitoba run the program. Check out www.cgsac.ca for more information.
-- Holy Cross Roman Catholic Parish, 252 Dubuc St., 204-233-7367, runs their community atrium program two mornings and two afternoons a week from September to May, with a French-language program on Monday mornings. Cost is $60 per child, or $75 for a family.