|Christ the Good Shepherd by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, c. 1660|
When I made my first confession, I clutched an index card with sweaty palms. On one side, I'd copied the act of contrition, dutifully memorized — but what if I tripped up in the heat of the moment? On the reverse was a detailed list of my sins, anxiously scribbled lest I miss one.
Even at 10 years old, I was convinced God would judge me harshly if I forgot.
My strongest memory of the sacrament is that sweaty index card.
Fast-forward 30 years. My middle child is now 7 years old and ready for the sacrament of reconciliation. I watch him skip down the hallway to meet with our pastor, and I wait for him to return — which he does with a giant grin.
No anxiety, no fear, no sweaty palms. He hugs me around the neck and whispers, "That was great."
What made the difference? The Good Shepherd.
This child is the first of my kids to experience the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. This Montessori-based method of faith formation invites the youngest children (starting at ages 3-6) to fall in love with Jesus as the Good Shepherd through carefully prepared materials from Scripture and liturgy that offer them the deepest truths of our faith.
I have been using the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd with our younger children at home for the past several years — an oasis of peace and prayer during the pandemic. As I helped my son prepare for the sacrament of reconciliation this year, I watched with amazement at how different his experience was from my own traditional preparation in Catholic school.
He understood by instinct that reconciliation was rooted in God's love and care, so his first encounter with confession was free from anxiety or fear.
Sofia Cavalletti, co-founder of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, noted that when formal religious education does not start until age 7 or later, the child is at a developmental plane of moral formation that focuses on distinguishing right from wrong.
While the sacrament of reconciliation makes perfect sense for this traditional "age of reason," the dominant image of God that can imprint at this age is the divine judge — exactly why many children become fixated on a stern, even scornful, image of God.
The beauty of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is that the method first introduces the youngest child to the love of the Good Shepherd who cares for each sheep, goes off in search of the lost, and tends his flock with care, even giving them the rules they need to stay safe and follow in his way.
To watch a child realize that he is one of God's sheep, to see his eyes light up when he realizes that the Good Shepherd calls him by name, and to witness his growing trust in God who promises to provide for him always — all of this has been transformative for my parenting and my own faith.
I have come to know the Good Shepherd as an adult, delighting in my own discovery of how many names Scripture offers us for God. Whenever a new year dawns, I try to pray about what images of God might guide me through the coming months.
This year I am drawn to Jesus the divine physician, the prince of peace and the light of the world as I pray for healing, reconciliation and hope for all of us.
No matter what the next year brings, I am seeking the Good Shepherd, too, remembering how my own children have shown me what it means to follow the Good Shepherd in love.
When I made my first confession, I clutched an index card with sweaty palms.