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The Florida Catholic

St. Clare Parish expands catechesis program

NORTH PALM BEACH  |  Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the innovative religious formation method for children as young as 3 years old, began in February at St. Clare Parish in North Palm Beach. The learning environment, called an atrium, is set up in the former choir loft inside St. Clare Church.

Father Nick Zrallack, who has been St. Clare’s parish administrator since July 2023, said the church organ and choir moved to the front of the church long before he arrived. The space had been used for storage and overflow seating at Christmas and Easter. 

“The church itself is large,” he said. “You can seat lots of people, so the need for overflow space isn’t as great as a dedicated space for something like this.”

Level 1 of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (for ages 3 to 6), which offers hands-on instruction using methods developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, is being offered between Sunday morning Masses from 10:30 to 11:30. The certified instructor is Liliana Soto-Cabrera, diocesan coordinator of faith formation.

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd started in Rome in the 1950s with two Catholic laywomen — Sophia Cavalletti, a Scripture scholar, and Gianna Gobbi, a Montessori teacher — who formed a partnership to test how Montessori’s methods could be applied to the religious formation of children. Studies have shown that the program has been effective in giving children an enduring foundation in the Catholic faith.

Father Zrallack, who was ordained a priest in 2020, said he had done some independent study while in the seminary on religious education of children and liked what he discovered about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. He had been hoping for an opportunity to offer it in a parish. 

“They’ve been doing a lot of research to try to find which ones (teaching models) have shown any type of effectiveness that people tracked,” he said. “There aren’t many that have tracked effectiveness over time, but Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has. It’s one of the few that I could find that actually had some sort of data supporting it.”

One of the ways that makes Catechesis of the Good Shepherd stand out from other forms of faith formation for children are the small tools that model items in church, such as a tabernacle, altar, sacred vessels, an ambo (podium) and ambry (container for holy oils), along with child-size materials that teach about various Bible stories.

Bibi Mendoza, St. Clare’s director of religious education, who is training to become a Level 1 instructor, said the Montessori way “feels very peaceful” because it gives the children room to explore.

“They can see all the different parts of the liturgy of the Mass, the vestments of the priest, have their own prayer area, their own area where they can just sit down and be,” she said. “We present the materials to them, and then God pretty much talks to them in their own way, in his own way that they’re developing. Just to be able to see that, it’s very touching. It’s joyful for me.”

Father Zrallack added that the method lets children live out the faith in a way that is appropriate to them, developing their vocabulary and skills that adults often take for granted. When he brought a group of second-graders, who are too old for Level 1 of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, to see the atrium, they asked things like “Why do you have the little water jars over there?”

“I’m like, ‘Well, that way the kids can learn how to pour things, so they can become an altar server.’ Then I had three of the boys say, ‘I want to be an altar server.’ Praise God! It’s helping them encounter the faith in a way that they can grasp it and then live it out,” Father Zrallack said, adding that the second-graders were so enthralled with the atrium that it was difficult to get them to leave.

Even with no preparation for the atrium, he said, the second-graders wanted to interact with it. “I didn’t have to explain anything. They’re like, ‘This is the altar.’ They already knew. ‘Look, there’s a little host here.’ They were so excited. Exploration. They’re tapped and ready for that, where they just want to encounter it. It’s exciting to see.”

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, he said, also allows the children “to encounter the faith in a way that doesn’t feel like a classroom, where it doesn’t feel like they’re being taught, but they’re getting to still learn, which is appropriate. That’s how kids that age learn. They learn through their experience.”

A goal of Father Zrallack and Mendoza is to open the atrium to prekindergarten and kindergarten students from St. Clare School. “That one’s a little bit harder to kind of work around, just because of the number of students that can be in the group at a time (10 to 12),” he said. “It’s just making it a little bit harder to figure out how to work that into the school day. But I don’t think it’s beyond something that we can do.”

Another challenge is finding Catechesis of the Good Shepherd instructors who have completed the 90 hours of training required for certification, which is precisely why the program is effective, Father Zrallack said. During the training, by experiencing the atrium and viewing it with a child’s eye, the instructors learn how to speak to young children about the faith in a way that nurtures a relationship with God.

Mendoza said the hardest part is teaching instructors to get out of the way and let the children learn on their own. “As adults, you want to help, but they don’t need help,” she said.

Father Zrallack’s ultimate objective with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is the same for all faith formation endeavors, he said — for people to fall in love with God and desire to know and serve him their entire lives.

“Sometimes we think, ‘Oh, kids are too young.’ They’re not. They want to know him. So, giving them the opportunity, that’s my goal. I want them to have that desire, that relationship, with a long-range goal that they stay connected to their faith,” he said. 

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is also offered at St. Jude in Tequesta, Holy Spirit in Lantana and St. Lucie in Port St. Lucie. For more information on how to bring the program to a parish, contact Soto-Cabrera at 561-775-9549 or To join the group at St. Clare, call Mendoza at 561-622-7477, ext. 15, or email   

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