Suzanne Lewis vividly remembers the day a dozen years ago when Tina Lillig led a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) training session. "When she began to lead us in the training, she spoke so slowly and calmly. I still have the image in my mind of her lighting the candle and singing, "Come in to God's Presence, Alleluia."
In the days following the death of the national director of CGS, family and friends recalled her as a mentor who guided others in realizing the importance of children in God's eyes. Ms. Lillig, 64, died December 13 at Loyola University Hospital, Maywood, after suffering a stroke in the CGS office December 11. Soon after she was brought to the hospital until she died, her family was at her side, praying and singing. CGS friends dropped by with remembrances, her husband John said. "Many people who talked around the hospital bed said how their lives were changed by Tina. They said they had a different way of looking at children."
From the time Ms. Lillig enrolled in her first CGS training course in 1977, she was captured by the Montessori-based religious-education method founded by Sofia Cavaletti and Gianna Gobbi. "It met what was deepest in Tina in terms of her soul, in terms of her gift as a mother," said Margaret Brennan, who took CGS training courses in the Chicago area about the same time. "It was a meeting of her soul and the soul of the catechesis," Brennan added.
Tina, who soon became a leader among the Chicago-area catechists, taught the method around the country and in Europe. When the association of CGS catechists became large enough to warrant a full-time director, Tina was named to the position. She edited Catechesis of the Good Shepherd: Essential Realities, Journals of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and wrote The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd in the Parish Setting, all published by Liturgy Training Publications. However, she never gave up teaching children. "When I spoke to her," said Rebekah Rojcewicz, "she would want to tell what a child said in the atrium."
Rojcewicz recalled her friend of 26 years as a businesswoman who always was available to others. "I have rarely, if ever, met anyone who had such a combination of a gift for organization and a talent for pastoral work," she said. "Everyone loved Tina because she was so present in that pastoral way."
Tina's sense of wonder and her simplicity and joy embodied the essence of the childlike characteristics that Jesus called people to in the Gospel. "She was a child in the best sense of the word as Jesus called us to be," Rojcewicz said. "There were never power struggles. For Tina, it was a true falling in love with the kingdom of God as the child falls in love."
John Lillig said that his wife devoted her life to CGS because "she fell in love with the Good Shepherd." Both Lilligs credited Tina's CGS work to providence. When Tina enrolled in the three-week training course in the summer of 1977, she was concerned that she would not be able to make each day's session. The family could not afford a babysitter for their three young sons, and John, a schoolteacher who drove a bus during the summer, had an erratic work schedule. During those three weeks, though, he was scheduled for the night shift. "That was the only time something like that happened," John said.
Tina was born Valentina Varias on May 28, 1945, in Hyde Park, Illinois. The lifelong Chicago area resident earned a theology degree from Loyola University Chicago and a master's degree in pastoral studies from Catholic Theological Union. It was during her undergraduate travel to Rome that she learned Italian. That language, her son John said, "aided her in later graduate studies and in her professional and personal correspondence with Italian theologians and religious educators. She would sometimes resort to Italian expressions to counsel her sons or to explain ideas that she felt English could not adequately express."
Undoubtedly, she may have planned for those Italian expressions to be used with the six grandchildren with whom she spent much time. Tina's life was a well-balanced one, with time for work and family, Rojcewicz said. "We all knew how important, how special, how sacred her marriage, her children, her grandchildren were," Rojcewicz explained.
Besides her husband John, Tina is survived by her three sons John (Anna Lee), Matt, (Laura Salvarini), and Tom (Cindy Ivanac-Lillig), six grandchildren, Eun Hae, Tae Won, Juan, Mariana, Meche, and Coleman, her brother Angelo (Denise Fedewa) Varias, and her mother Frances Fiscella Varias. Her father Gonzalo Varias and sister Graziella Figi preceded her in death.
Visitation will be from 3:00 to 9:00 p. m. December 18 at Drechsler Brown & Williams Funeral Home, 203 South Marion Street, Oak Park, Illinois. The funeral will be at 10:00 a. m. December 19 at Ascension Church, 808 East Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois.
Surely, on the minds of many will be the song, "Come in to God's Presence Singing Alleluia."