- Category: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd
Training Course enhances the Spiritual Instruction for the Church’s Youngest Members
Catherine Varkas’ dream of establishing an early childhood program aimed at the spiritual growth of the young child began in 1982, while a graduate student at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
Catherine believes that if young children “experience faith” at the age when spiritual formation is just beginning, that faith will never fade.
In 2007 she founded the Orthodox Teacher Education Center. With the endorsement of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Department of Religious Education, Catherine offers an Orthodox teacher-training course that provides an environment for adults to nurture their own understanding of the Faith while learning how to present it to children.
Through hands on activity with materials rich in theological traditions, the adults learn to share Orthodoxy with children by emphasizing participation and experience in the Church. The method retains the beauty found in the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church without unnecessary adaptation or condescension.
Teachers, priests, seminarians, and parents from around the world have attended the course in person and online. Live courses have been delivered in Romania, at Hellenic College, and at local parishes. Online courses have included participants from across the United States, South Africa, New Zealand, England, and Pakistan.
Interestingly, it was 25 years after graduation from Holy Cross that Catherine fully put herself into this ministry. Upon revisiting the campus for her 25th class reunion, she was moved into action. Catherine likes that familiar phrase “The Holy Hill”. She says, “It surely is a holy place. Every time I come here, I am inspired and renewed. When I go to the chapel and I pray, my world changes. After that reunion visit to HC/HC, I was able to sit down and write clearly, the curriculum flowed. I am still awestruck by the whole experience.”
Drawing from her own experience as a Montessori educator and founder/director of nationally-accredited Palm Harbor Montessori Teacher Education Center, Catherine has a solid understanding of Montessori principles. Her understanding of the spiritual development of young children comes from her studies of the church fathers, her own childhood experience, and 43 years as an educator.
Catherine later discovered the work of Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi. Two years after Montessori’s death*, Cavalletti and Gobbi continued Montessori’s religious work. They developed Montessori’s ideas for curriculum into wonderful presentations for children. Gobbi and Cavalletti spent years fine tuning and developing new religious presentations for children. It was helpful to see how they used Montessori principles and applied them to religious studies. Much like Montessori, they were guided by the children’s responses to the lessons. For example, they chose which parables to include, after many years of observation. Their work is called Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS). It was developed for the Catholic church.
Catherine was able to use many of the ideas from CGS to add to the curriculum that she had started to write so long ago. It really enriched the work. Each and every lesson plan has been constructed from "scratch" in order to represent an authentic Orthodox content. The language used in the presentations comes from Orthodox liturgical texts, and the Orthodox Study Bible.
Dimitra Dinos of South Africa, already a Montessori educator, pushed Catherine into teaching her via distance learning. The result was the online course. Dimitra wrote to Catherine, “What an inspiring way to introduce the topics. The parables, the Mystical Supper model, and the Jerusalem model are just amazing. After every lesson I am more and more inspired and excited to get started with the children. It is evident that you enjoy your work very much and that you put your heart into the presentations you do. It has really been a great experience for me. I feel confident that together with your instruction and the videos I should be able to carry out the lessons in the children’s room.”
* "Maria Montessori's pioneering work (1917) in the field of education and the developmental and spiritual needs of the child are the foundation of The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Program. In 1954, Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi developed the program drawing upon Montessori's work: her religious schools, religious materials, research, and experience as depicted in Montessori’s many books including; The Child in the Church, (1937). Cavalletti's classic work describing her experience with children is The Religious Potential of the Child (1992)."