A powerful sign: The catechesis of children with disabilities
The letter found me, although many years and miles had passed. I still remembered "Gloria," a student with Down syndrome, who as a child had witnessed her father's death in a tragic accident. Gloria was unable to speak after that day, despite various therapies. Eventually, our team at the Catholic school Gloria attended decided to teach her sign language.
As I recall, the letter from my former colleague read as follows:
"I am writing to tell you that Gloria's mother died unexpectedly. She is moving to live with her brother. When I saw Gloria at the wake, we reminisced about her mom. I said I was very sorry to learn that her mother had died. 'Is she in heaven?' Gloria wanted to know.
"When I responded, 'Oh yes!'" Gloria wondered if her mother was with her father. I reassured her that they were together again. At this, Gloria gave me a big hug and seemed to be more peaceful.
"I hear her move to her new home has gone well. Never dreamed my most profound experience of the certainty of eternal life would occur via a conversation in sign language. Love, Mary."
Why offer catechesis to children with disabilities? There are many reasons, but here are three:
-- Children with disabilities wonder about the meaning of life just like all of us: Why am I here? How shall I live? What happens when we die?
-- The "Great Commission" (Mt 28:19-20) compels us to go forth and teach all nations. As those involved with disability advocacy like to say, "All means all."
-- Children with disabilities are members of the body of Christ. As such, God is calling them to share their unique gifts with the entire community. Offering catechesis for them in childhood will help to ensure that they are vibrant members of our parishes as adults.
In my experience, some catechists feel ill-prepared to teach children with disabilities. It is good to remember that most parents have no special training either, and must trust that God will lead them on their way. The next step is to find resources. The National Catholic Partnership on Disability, ncpd.org, is a good place to start.
A few considerations:
-- As much as possible (and one hopes this is most of the time) children with disabilities should be with their peers. This is critical for friendships to form, and for all of us to remember that catechesis is more than just memorizing a list of rules or prayers.
We sometimes focus only on the initial description of catechesis, as defined by the U.S. Catholic bishops at usccb.org, rather than continuing to the second sentence below:
"Catechesis is the act of handing on the word of God intended to inform the faith community and candidates for initiation into the church about the teachings of Christ, transmitted by the apostles to the church. Catechesis also involves the lifelong effort of forming people into witnesses to Christ and opening their hearts to the spiritual transformation given by the Holy Spirit."
-- Sometimes special materials or methods are needed, but it is also true that goodwill and careful listening will go a long way toward success.
-- Catechists should familiarize themselves with "Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities," available at usccb.org. It was a joy for me to experience Gloria's confirmation, and the baptisms, first reconciliations, first Communions and marriages of other children that I have had the privilege of teaching either in Catholic school or in parish catechetical programs.
We began as the educators (from the Latin "educere," "to lead") when we were struggling to find a way to help Gloria heal from the loss of her dad. As I recall reading somewhere, "A little child shall lead them," turned out to be true for us; it can be true at your parish or school as well.
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(Doreen Engel has enjoyed educating children with disabilities in a variety of Catholic schools for over 30 years as a teacher, principal and director of special education. She currently works as an adjunct faculty member for the Andrew M. Greeley Center at Loyola University Chicago.)