Over the last 35 years or so, there has been much discussion on Orthodox catechesis, ranging from the question of what constitutes Orthodox catechesis, to talks on the methodology, to the recent adaptation and use of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd within the Orthodox Christian tradition.
In 1975, Sophie Koulomzin published the seminal work Our Church and Our Children, in which she shared a lifetime of experience in both working with children and educating adults who desire to work with children in the field of religious education. During her lifetime, she helped establish the first forms of Orthodox catechesis in this country, admittedly basing them on the Protestant Sunday School model. Yet, Orthodox worship and praxis has needed a method broader than the largely academic Protestant model. Acknowledging this, Koulomzin nearly implores her readers to first deepen their own life of prayer and knowledge of the Faith, rather than rely almost solely on paper handouts; to take advantage of the understandings of prominent developmental psychologists in their efforts to engage children; and to glean from her decades of experience in order to improve our future efforts to bring the Faith to our young people.
In 1986, the Department of Religious Education for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America compiled and published an extensive outline of what might constitute an Orthodox catechesis: "The purpose of Orthodox Christian Education (catechesis) is to help build up the Church, the Body of Christ, by nurturing every person in the life of personal communion with the Holy Trinity (theosis).... [This purpose] is properly realized when the objective content of Orthodox faith (orthodoxia), and the Orthodox faith as life in Christ (orthopraxia) are dynamically integrated." Source
They, like Koulomzin, acknowledge that this process is "achieved by the grace of God in a synergistic process of personal divine-human relations," namely, that educators offer a limited role in the event known as catechesis, and that it is God Who touches the heart of any person, moving him/her closer into communion with Him, the Church, and other individuals. Yet, the act of catechizing is an important service to the Church, and when undertaken as ministry, has the beneficial affect of bringing both the learner and the educator into a deeper relationship with God, hence their mutual edification toward theosis.
Then in 1989, Dr. John Boojamra offered his provocative book, Foundations for Christian Education, which seeks to renovate the preconceptions, attitudes, and approaches to Orthodox catechesis using a whole-parish model of socialization. He resonates with both Koulomzin (his predecessor) and the GOA outline when he states: "Ultimately there is a mutual interaction between nurturance and catechesis: those who are efficiently catechized are those who will probably nurture well; those who are nurtured well are usually those who catechize well...[yet] faith is a gift of God and calls for a response that is unique to each person, and each person must be converted to his own relationship with Jesus Christ" (pp 54-55). Drawing on an immense knowledge of human development and a history of religious education offerings, he strongly argues for an Orthodox catechesis that will radically reinvigorate the zeal of individuals and whole communities, and calls us to shepherd our newest members of the Body with great care and attention.
We offer these preliminary thoughts as an introduction to the intersection of Orthodoxy and the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, because they point to exactly what many parents and educators today are feeling: we want a method that respects the mystery of Orthodoxy, something that allows room for God to be active in the educational event—so much so that the line between education and prayer becomes permeable or even non-existent. We are also looking for a method that embraces the different ways in which children learn. From the many emails I have received and conversations I’ve had at conferences and gatherings, I hear a yearning in the hearts of those charged with young souls. How can we engage this process meaningfully with our kids, yet feed our own souls as well? So often curricula leave parents and teachers exhausted, frustrated, and deflated. Enter the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
As we have attempted to share through our website, we feel we have found in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd a vehicle to truly integrate worship, praxis, and knowledge in a way that embraces the God-designed development of children, while simultaneously supporting the adult’s journey toward theosis. The catechist formation courses that have been offered around the world have provided so many tools to catechists, parents, and clergy for their own growing relationship with God and for their interactions with children in the religious education process. Orthodox Christians have begun to investigate the Catechesis and apply it to our tradition, and the results have been fruitful and satisfying. For example, in our parish, we have seen a positive effect in our children’s understanding of and participation in the liturgy; a deepened understanding and experience of confession; a more integrated knowledge of Old and New Testament; and a genuine sense of God’s sovereignty paired with humanity’s freedom of choice as a collaborative relationship toward the parousia. And there have been some fringe benefits of behavioral improvement within the nave, as noted by parishioners.
If this sounds like something you would like to explore, you might consider the following suggestions:
1. Read The Religious Potential of the Child, by Sofia Cavalletti. This is the sourcebook for understanding how the Catechesis came to be, and the principles behind the work. You may like to parallel this reading with the works listed above to see the correlations.
2. Consider enrolling in a catechists’ formation course. Courses are offered all over the country by Formation Leaders who have undergone a lengthy educational process, which includes a measured amount of work with children in the Catechesis program. In order to receive the gift of the Catechesis intact, be sure that the people leading your course are recognized formation leaders, and that the course is approved by the National Association of the Catechesis. All official courses in the Catechesis are listed on the Association’s website: www.cgsusa.org.
3. Visit an existing atrium, even if it is in another denomination. You can locate the atrium nearest you at www.cgsusa.org, under the "Atriums" tab.
4. As of Summer 2016 there are two active (and awesome!) Orthodox formation leaders: Anne Marie McCollum (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Shelley Finkler (email@example.com). Feel free to contact them directly with your questions.
We hope you enjoy learning more about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and that this work can be a valuable addition to the continuing discussion on Orthodox catechesis.
Copyright 2009, Seraphima Sierra Butler/Updated September 2013 by St. Athanasius Church CGS Team