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The 'Good Shepherd' within

Former Rochester priest Tom Loomis once described in a homily a problem in the education of Catholics.

"We're given the answers before we ask the questions," he said.

A program called "Catechesis of the Good Shepherd" addresses the issue. Drawing on the Montessori method of self-directed learning, children ages 2 to 12 search within themselves for answers about theology.

The program, taught at Pax Christi Church but open to all Catholics in Rochester, was started four years ago with 15 children. This year, enrollment is about 125.

Diane Solheid-Miller, coordinator of preschool ministry at Pax Christi, oversees the program. Among local volunteers is Amy Crowley.

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Can children as young as age 2 really learn about theology?

Children innately have a relationship with Jesus through baptism, so the reality is already there. It gets dismissed by people a lot because people think children don't have the capacity to know Jesus like that. But children have that capacity, that hunger, and we need to facilitate it.

Children eagerly seek religious experience and find fulfillment in it if they are helped to live this experience in its deepest, most essential elements, without any "childish" overtones.

When these conditions are present, young children live their relationships with God in enchanted wonder and profound joy, which gives them peace in the satisfaction of a deep and vital need.

How does this program differ from traditional faith formation for Catholic children?

Unlike traditional faith formation that looks at pouring information into their brain, it's a matter of knowing that they already have the capacity, that relationship with Jesus, in them.

Why the name "Catechesis of the Good Shepherd"?

We see this deep relationship with Jesus when he says he calls them by name; they figure out who the "Good Shepherd" is. We sometimes think of God as a huge entity, but they learn that Jesus "knows my name."

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We live in a nation of iPods, texting and Twitter. How can children explore this relationship?

Rather than hyper-reality, they can take the focus off and slow it down, so they can focus here and realize that all they really need is God. … How many of us as adults have that hunger that isn't satisfied? So what do we do? We buy a new car or something. By facilitating that spiritual hunger, anyone can find that what they're searching for is God.

The children are given options at prayer time about how they would like to pray. It's unbelievable how often they choose silence.

Are the children learning about Catholic liturgy?

The program leads the children to a fuller participation in the Mass and Eucharist — the more familiar you are with them, the more you can participate in Communion.

So during a Mass, you might have a 4-year-old who isn't looking at a coloring book or climbing under the pew, but is paying attention to what's happening up front.

How have parents reacted to "Catechesis of the Good Shepherd"?

Some parents are amazed that we go for an hour and a half. They think the children will get bored. We say, "No, actually, they don't want to leave." They like coming. It's not drudgery for them.

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Parents start to ask, "What is it that has deepened that relationship, and how can I have that for myself?"

What will keep children going in their faith?

The "awe and wonder" is a huge piece to me. We don't want to squash that.

How have you benefited from teaching the program?

It has been a huge conversion for my faith. It has changed my life dramatically.

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