Catechesis and faith formation are among the most important functions of the local Church, and many parishes have finally begun to arrive at a point where they can consistently offer these ministries to Catholics with disabilities.
Not every parishioner with disabilities travels so widely as Kara Jackson, the young woman with Down syndrome on a quest to serve Mass in 50 states.
But in almost half of U.S. parishes, Catholics with disabilities participate in ministries as altar servers, lectors, singers or greeters or are involved in other ministries, according to a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.
Nobody reaches these parish ministries, however, without someone to teach them the faith. Janice Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, told the Register that catechesis for Catholics with disabilities has vastly improved over what the Church had even 10 years ago, with online webinars and Catholic publishers and conferences around the country offering training and resources to catechists.
“It’s now becoming more common knowledge throughout the dioceses and in the parishes,” she said.
However, thinking that every child will fit into a single catechesis program geared toward those with disabilities would be a mistake, explained Benton. Any program must accommodate the child, rather than the other way around.
“The way to begin is to focus on the individual needs of the child and the wishes of the family,” she said. “It has to be very varied and child-centered.”
According to the CARA study, many parishes and pastors need information on addressing the needs of Catholics with disabilities, rather than financial assistance to put programs in place. Benton told the Register that education “is the big hold back, not cost.”
“Anything can be done if you bring the right spirit to the ministry.”
Benton said that addressing the needs of Catholics with disabilities should not be seen as including an excluded group. For parishes, it’s ultimately “not about having a program, but having an ethos that recognizes that every person belongs to the parish, by virtue of their baptism, and so doing what we need to do to make sure they can meaningfully participate.”
“You want to make sure that people can participate to the extent that they can and to contribute their gifts to the community,” she said. “The way to approach faith formation is to appreciate the individuality of the person.”
When Joann Koble was working at St. Joseph’s Church in Moorhead, Minnesota, parents of children with disabilities began approaching her in 2001 about how to bring their whole family to church, since they had concerns about their children lasting through the whole Mass.
But Koble told the Register that parents also “felt that people were looking at them, like: Why can’t you control your children? Why are you here?” Many of these children weren’t coming to religion class for many of the same reasons.
Koble and others at the parish formed a committee to address their needs and investigate how the parish could respond. They met with the parents and asked a simple question: “What is it that you hope for your child in religious education?”
Parents wanted sacramental preparation for their children, the committee learned. Many of their children hadn’t been confirmed, and Koble said, “Some people just wanted their kids to be able to attend Mass without people looking at them funny.”
So the parish devised a way for each child to receive an individual plan for religious education.
People generously stepped forward to help the students, including an American Sign Language translator who volunteered her time to help one student every Sunday.
Through the assistance of aides, Koble said, all children of the parish attended the same classes “as much as possible.”
Another part of their outreach involved asking parishioners to understand some of the difficulties parents of children with disabilities face, especially at Mass, and to welcome them as fellow parishioners.
For Koble, the goal was to reshape the classroom so that everyone could learn within it. Some of that work had to be done with the children, but even the adult catechists needed some in-service training.
Encouraging and supporting catechists is essential, she said.
“They’re volunteers, not necessarily trained teachers, so just giving them the help they need goes a long way.”
One of Koble’s most joyful moments involved a child named Emily, who has Down syndrome.
“When Emily made her first reconciliation,” Koble said, she was very nervous, but as soon as she got out, she said, “I did it! I did it!”
“It was like a Rocky moment — she had her arms raised in the air.”
At St. Patrick’s Church in Grass Valley, California, faith formation for adults with developmental disabilities has been going on every year since 1985.
Helen Albano, the longtime catechist for the group, told the Register that the ministry, named “Opening Doors,” runs September through May on Sunday mornings. It prepares its students for sacramental instruction as well as continuing study of the faith.
After a song to open the lesson, Albano said, they gather in prayer.
“They each have a stone with their name on it, and they usually say a prayer for someone in their family or something going on in the world, and then they drop the stone into a cross-shaped box and pass that to the next person.”
Albano begins her lessons by talking about an experience participants might have had in their lives that connects to the scriptural reading they will be going over.
Afterward, the students do something creative or play a game. If enough time is left over, the students write in their prayer journals.
“You get out of it more than you put into it. It’s just so rewarding, and you’re always learning. I learn more from them than they learn from me,” she said.
Individuals who attend the classes have a spectrum of needs, she said, and the catechists do their best to meet those needs.
Albano added that it’s important to the success of the program to keep in constant communication with the parents of her students.
She remembers many of her students fondly. One former student has become active in the church as a greeter, a Knight of Columbus and an altar server.
Another woman, Rebecca, used to arrive with her arms full of books about the saints.
“She loved the saints,” said Albano, especially St. Anne, whom she took as her confirmation patron.
She would sometimes sign her name “Anne.”
Albano continues to believe that God has called her to this ministry.
“He’s always shown me this is what I need to do right now, so I’ll do it as long as I live.”
Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Rochester, New York.