Catholic Education: Atmosphere Pedagogy

The pedagogy of Father Joseph Kentenich, founder of the Schoenstatt’s movement. How it all began.
by Yvonne Barzil | Source: Schoenstatt Press Office

One of Fr. Kentenich’s most fascinating – and yet-to-be-fully-unpacked concepts was what he called “atmosphere pedagogy.” The first time I heard those words, (being a child of the “Star Wars” generation) they conjured thoughts of outer space & other planets. And indeed perhaps there is some relevance.  We all grow up in a particular atmosphere – a blend of many ‘atmospheres’ - in our homes and schools, in our countries, even within ourselves.  The atmosphere at home may be warm & loving, accepting and comfortable, or for some it is filled with anger & tension, fear or insecurity.

I am remembering one day in summer, I had picked up a teenage mother to take her to her work place.  Coming from the apartment at back, I heard a barrage of foul language and shouting.  As I stepped outside, there stood a mother with two young girls.  They were obviously going swimming as the girls had donned swimsuits & brightly colored floaties.  As the children were getting into the car, the mother continued cursing at them vociferously all the while, and saying the most hateful things about how stupid they were, etc.  I was so taken aback and distressed for the children and for the mother.  How in the world could they go have a joyful, relaxed time at the beach when this barrage of filth was poured over their heads and into their hearts.  Evidently the stream of foul language and shouting was the norm for their everyday life. I wanted to cry and cry, cry for the children and cry for the mother. How would those children learn to bless others and feel deep within themselves that they were God’s beloved children?  How would they learn to take in the beauty of God’s creation and swim in awe and wonder? How be merciful with others’ weaknesses and shortcomings?

There are endless examples recounting the same phenomena.  Some, so powerful and unforgettable because of the human impact, illustrate poignantly what Fr. Kentenich meant by atmosphere pedagogy. I will never forget listening to an interview on NPR (National Public Radio) on my way home from work.  I sat in the driveway in my car long after I had arrived at home, engrossed by what I was hearing.  The interview was with Nathan McCall, a journalist for the “Washington Post.”  He was describing his experiences growing up in a neighborhood where drug trafficking, gang rape and violence were the norm of the day.  He spent 3 years in prison where he experienced a conversion, but then had to struggle to turn his life around from the accustomed patterns of anger and violence. His book, “Makes Me Wanna Holler,” is almost too painful to read.  I reflected for a long time afterward – not only on systems of sin that keep people imprisoned in nightmarish conditions, but also on what Fr. Kentenich desired and what Our Lord desires for a redeemed people.  What would it take, what does it take to create a culture where goodness and love reign? How can we work with families in such a way that the atmosphere is pregnant with God’s presence, and they see God’s providence and loving care at every turn?

In the United States, as a reaction (or response – as the case may be) to an oversexualized, overbrutalized, media driven culture, there has arisen a tremendous movement to homeschool one’s children.  Untold parents have decided that the atmosphere in the public school system and (often, sadly enough, in the Catholic school system as well) is toxic to the healthy development of the child, let alone a full development of his spiritual life.  Hence, the move to educating the children in an atmosphere where faith and love and grace and organic growth prevail experiences sizeable expansion.  Parents want to create a culture of goodness, purity, wholeness and holiness for their children, a culture where God is the center and life giving force.

Questions for Meditation:

  1. What was the atmosphere in my home like?
  2. What do I want to do differently in my own home? What maintain?
  3. What is it like in my home now? Is it relaxed and harmonious, forgiving and flexible? Or tense and angry?
  4. What atmosphere do I have at work?
  5. What atmosphere do my children live in? 
  6. What is the atmosphere inside me like?

Practical Application: Try to become keenly aware of the atmosphere that I live and move in and what atmosphere exudes from me.  Take time in prayer to simply present to our Lord & his Mother my situation as it is in its truth and hold myself present to them in my reality. (See the truth of my atmosphere as is it is.)

Resources for further reading/research where interested: – Nathan McCall (raises profound sociological questions for the development of a race and a nation)

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