The 2017 “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Person with Disabilities” say that “pastors are responsible to provide evangelization, catechetical formation and sacramental preparation for parishioners with disabilities.”
The National Directory of Catechesis gives a similar directive: “The whole community of faith needs to be aware of the presence of persons with (disabilities) within it and be involved in their catechesis.”
These words provide a clear indication of what each parish is called to do in regard to catechetical ministry and persons with disabilities.
As a catechist with years of experience engaging persons with disabilities, I have witnessed remarkable progress in this area and yet realize that great strides are still needed to make these goals a reality.
I continually meet individuals who relate to me stories regarding themselves or their children with disabilities who are welcomed, valued and have a strong sense of belonging within their local parish.
Their positive experience of religious education led to active participation, love for the Sunday liturgy, engagement in ministries such as altar server, greeter, cantor and a variety of other ways to be agents of evangelization as a person with a disability.
This for sure is good news. However, these experiences would be rare 25 years ago.
Even today pastors or directors of religious education contact my office to seek assistance to prepare young adults with intellectual developmental disabilities for the sacraments because when they were younger, they had no access to parish religious education.
And sadly, even now there are parents of children with disabilities who do not find ready access or effective parish religious education for their children with disabilities.
One story that attests to this is from St. Mary’s Parish in Rockville, Maryland, related to me by Mary O’Meara, the executive director the department of special needs in the Archdiocese of Washington:
“Abby is a 17-year-old young lady who is deaf, low vision and has developmental disabilities. Her parents tried several times to have Abby receive the sacraments, and were refused repeatedly. They were ready to walk away from the church.
“Until a teacher from St. Mary’s school asked Abby’s mom to try one more time. Abby’s mom asked again. Through the ‘yes’ of the DRE, and a warm welcome from the pastor, Abby began her formation with our coordinator of deaf ministries.
“This year, Abby came into full communion with the church to the overwhelming delight of her parents, family and the parish! Not only did Abby receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and confirmation, but her entire family was welcomed to St. Mary’s to worship as a family for the first time!”
This is so often the case. The accompaniment or failure to accompany one family member can have a profound effect on the entire family.
Many parents tell me they desire that their child with a disability have the same opportunities as their siblings regarding faith formation. Esther Garcia from the Diocese of Dallas relates it this way:
“As a parent of a child with the disabilities of autism and speech delay, it was important to me that my son would receive the same religious formation as his older brother and vital to us to participate in the parish community as a family of faith.
“Knowing about his autism, our parish faith formation program accepted my son. Eric had an option to attend the typical class on Sunday with support or attend a Wednesday small group class with one-to-one support if needed. We decided on the Wednesday small group class.
“Eric used a picture schedule for his class. Eric and his classmates participated in vacation Bible school with their peers with accommodations, a modified curriculum and catechist aide support during the activities. We, as a family, feel welcomed and loved in the parish.”
Mariana Rossi, director of religious education at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Southampton, Pennsylvania, related a story of how the whole community of faith needs to be involved in the catechesis of persons with disabilities. Brody, a youth with Down syndrome, participated in the parish class preparing for first Communion. After consultation with Brody’s mom, a high school student named Thomas became Brody’s catechetical aide in the classroom. He was a natural support for Brody at class, Mass and practices. The learning process went very positively. A few weeks before first Communion it became evident that Brody had an oral sensory aversion to the unconsecrated host. For him and his family, the anticipated goal of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist seemed daunting. His mother, aide, teachers and support staff all patiently assisted Brody in coming up with various strategies to assist him in becoming comfortable consuming a small piece of the host. The pastor, Father Robert Suskey, also participated in the plan. On the day of Brody’s first Communion it was truly a parish celebration when Brody received the Eucharist. Good and faithful catechesis accommodates the proclamation of the revealed word to encounter each person within the body of Christ that of course includes individuals with disabilities. Let us envision parish religious education programs that reflect this reality.
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(Sister Kathleen Schipani, who is a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is director of the office for persons with disabilities and the deaf apostolate of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Sister Schipani is the past chair of the board of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and the National Catholic Office for the Deaf.)