EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series on special-needs children in diocesan schools and faith-formation/sacramental-preparation programs.
Meghan Keyes was thrown a curve ball on July 12, the first day of summer-religious education camp at Greece’s St. Charles Borromeo Parish. The 11-year-old, who has nystagmus — a vision-impairing condition typified by involuntary eye movement — found that the type in the Bible she’d been provided was too small.
Within a couple of days Meghan was reading from a Bible with large print, thanks to the intercession of Margaret Gray, the parish’s Christian-formation administrator. In addition, she received handouts that had been photocopied in a larger font.
"Meghan came home and said, ‘I love St. Charles,’" said her mother, Kathy.
Meanwhile, at St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads, Matthew Kurniawan, 8, spent the past school year in a new religious-education program for special-needs students. According to his mom, Maria, it had been uncertain whether Matthew would demonstrate sufficient readiness to make his first Communion by spring. But with support from the program’s teacher, Robin Drury, the autistic boy joined in with all the parish’s other first communicants in May.
"When Robin asked him some questions he was able to answer them," Maria said. "I was so happy, and also my husband (Rudy) and Matthew were so excited that he could receive Communion."
Now Matthew looks forward to the sacrament each week.
"I like to go to church," he said, adding that he especially enjoys the Sunday 10:30 a.m. children’s liturgy and shaking hands with Father Christopher Linsler, pastor.
With impetus in recent decades from the United States’ bishops — and, in turn, diocesan officials — on extending catechesis to young Catholics such as Meghan and Matthew, more and more local parishes are finding ways to accommodate special-needs children for religious education and sacramental preparation.
The focus is on what can be done, rather than what can’t, according to Mary Dundas, diocesan coordinator of evangelization and sacramental catechesis, and Jonathan Schott, coordinator of adult, family and catechetical formation.
Schott acknowledged that challenges remain, such as finding qualified instructors and getting parish communities to accept special-needs people in their midst: "It’s difficult and it’s new," he said. But he added that this segment of the Catholic population has been wrongfully overlooked in the past, and history should not be allowed to repeat itself.
"They are always welcome," he stated.
Special-needs students may struggle to read from textbooks, stay focused, or openly discuss spirituality and emotions. Potential teaching strategies to offset these challenges include one-on-one support; using simple language and images; repetition of key words and phrases; and heavy use of pictures, signs and music.
"We go after things they can identify with, like relationships in family and connecting that to the church family," said Michelle Andrews-Smith, faith-formation coordinator at Church of the Resurrection in Fairport, which began using the Come to Me program for special-needs children this past year. Andrews-Smith said she also slows the pace of instruction for these students and makes sessions shorter than in her regular program.
At St. Mary Our Mother, Drury uses a picture of a dove to symbolize the Holy Spirit. "I needed something concrete to make the Holy Spirit understandable, as students with autism often think in very concrete terms," she explained. Drury added that she uses a balloon and pinwheel to explain how these two objects can be moved by wind, which is invisible, in the same way people are moved spiritually by the invisible Holy Spirit.
Both Resurrection and St. Mary Our Mother accommodate a handful of special-needs students and hope to expand their offerings. Andrews-Smith said Resurrection class members have such disabilities as visual impairment, significant autism and Down syndrome. Although St. Mary Our Mother only had autistic youths in its program this past year, "it is not restricted to that need," said Barbara Matterazzo, faith-formation administrator.
For resource material, St. Mary Our Mother uses a derivative of the popular Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy curriculum for students with developmental disabilities, and Resurrection employs a program developed by the University of Dayton. Dundas and Schott said the diocese doesn’t mandate specific curricula for special-needs children in faith formation, stating that circumstances vary from parish to parish.
"It’s not a cookie-cutter type of thing," Andrews-Smith agreed, although she and Gray expressed hope that the diocese can someday offer something closer to a one-size-fits-all curriculum.
Andrews-Smith said staffing is another unknown quantity, since not many religious-education administrators or catechists have experience in special education. She and Matterazzo said they couldn’t have launched their initiatives without special-education experts — Drury at St. Mary Our Mother and Tricia Polchowski at Resurrection — who help lead each program.
Whereas those two parishes are among the few in this diocese to offer specialized religious education, St. Charles Borromeo blends special-needs students into the regular curriculum thanks to the availability of catechists with special-education experience and enough assistants to provide extra support where needed.
"It’s worked out so beautifully here," Gray said.
Opportunities are for all
The need for greater care of special-needs children — as well as adults — is evident in several documents issued by the United States bishops since the 1970s. In their 1998 statement "Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities," for instance, the bishops urged inclusion by stating that "we are a single flock under the care of a single shepherd. There can be no separate Church for persons with disabilities." They added that liturgies and catechetical programs should be "open to their full, active and conscious participation, according to their capacity."
Dundas said she often fields calls from parishes asking how to best teach religious education to special-needs children, and that she encourages them to tap into every possible resource.
"The circle needs to be widened," Dundas said, stressing the value of involving pastoral leaders, parish staff, and parents as well as seeing "if there are people in the pews who can volunteer their time."
Gray observed that a vital responsibility for a parent is to inform her in advance about a child’s disability, noting that most parents do so at St. Charles "because they want it to be the best experience possible." Home study with support of the parish staff is another option — "the parents know their children better than I do," Gray remarked — but it’s not her first choice. Dundas and Schott, also, said this practice is generally discouraged.
"I think that’s isolating, and don’t want to convey that the church can’t help you," Andrews-Smith added. "I don’t want children to be isolated from the one place they should feel at home." Kathy Keyes added that it’s "critical" for her daughter to be among peers while learning about the faith, and Meghan said she’s happy "knowing that I can do the same work they do" despite her visual limitations.
Practicing inclusiveness will likely involve extra work and a certain level of discomfort and disruption. But for parishes leery of making such a commitment, Dundas and Schott said it might be worthwhile "to examine our attitudes at church toward those who are different in any way, shape or form," as Dundas put it.
Father Linsler at St. Mary Our Mother picked up on that point in his April 25, 2010, bulletin column highlighting the new religious-education program.
"More often than you might think … anyone who senses that they are a ‘little different’ will stay away from regular church attendance because they feel that they may not be welcomed," he wrote.
On the other hand, St. Mary Our Mother’s program for special-needs children "lets parents know that the church values them immensely," Drury said.
The readiness factor
As in mainstream catechesis, a major thrust of special-needs programming is readying participants for first Communion and reconciliation as well as confirmation. Diocesan standards for reception of sacraments by special-needs people are consistent with the U.S. bishops’ "Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities," released in 1995. These guidelines apply to adults as well as children.
With first Communion, the key qualifier is an ability to regard the consecrated host as the body of Christ, not mere food. This criterion "is the same for persons with developmental and mental disabilities as for all persons," according to the U.S. bishops. Confirmation is extended to baptized Catholics "who possess the use of reason," and the bishops also cite an ability to reason in determining capability of committing a serious sin. Yet the bishops observed that even those who cannot reason may still have a sense of guilt and sorrow, and would thus benefit from receiving the sacrament of reconciliation.
Diocesan guidelines stress readiness — rather than age — as the criterion for anybody receiving a sacrament. Gray said she doesn’t advocate cutting multiple corners for special-needs children, but neither would she feel good about applying too stringent a readiness requirement when young people exhibit a sincere desire.
"Do we really want to deny the children a sacrament?" Gray remarked, observing that even as a confirmed adult, "I’m still learning about the Holy Spirit."
Schott agreed that matters of the faith "are hard for anyone to grasp," and Andrews-Smith added that "faith is not about mastery."
Gray prefers to accentuate the success stories, such as the boy with severe autism at St. Charles who made his first Communion this summer although his mother didn’t know if he would ever be able. And Matterazzo added that a child from the special program at St. Mary Our Mother just made confirmation and first Communion over the summer.
Even when young people "just don’t have the vernacular that their peers do," Andrews-Smith said that she has been gratified by what she calls the "I got it" moments — when perhaps a nod or the repetition of a single word conveys understanding of a concept that’s "very, very highly spiritual."
"Just working with these children, what a gift. I tear up watching them, hearing them expressing their faith. It’s just overwhelming," she said. "Every class, I leave thinking this was the right thing to do."