Print Edition: March 8, 2015
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Programs are in place to help catechize children and young adults with developmental disabilities.
BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN
Mark and Kim Stagliano couldn’t have been happier.
Posing with their three young daughters right after 14-year-old Mia and
13-year-old Gianna, the two oldest, made their first holy Communion together
last year, they thanked God for the amazement of his grace.
that picture in our house of the girls in their white dresses,” says Kim, “is
visual proof they made their first holy Communion, and we’re able to walk
together as a family to Communion on Sunday.” All three daughters have autism.
the Staglianos became parishioners at St. Theresa Church in Trumbull, Conn.,
Kim attended her nephew’s first holy Communion in Ohio, and she remembers
thinking that Mia might not be able to make hers.
never occurred to me that a parish would instruct with only the bare
communication to receive the sacraments,” says Kim. “That weighed heavy on me.”
changed when they moved to Connecticut and registered at St. Theresa’s and
learned about special-education catechism classes held there. “We immediately
were made to feel welcome because the pastor welcomed our children,” says Kim.
in places like the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., are proving children and young
adults with autism, Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities or
special needs are certainly capable of receiving faith formation and the sacraments
see these children receive the holy Eucharist for the very first time always
brings tears to my eyes,” says diocesan special-education teacher June
Venditti. “It is beautiful to see the fruits of our labor in the eyes of these
children, who reflect the love that Our Lord has for them.”
St. Theresa’s, during the last 27 of her 30 years with the program, Venditti
has prepared more than 125 children. Some attend from other parishes.
the diocese has two other special-needs programs where children receive
one-on-one support from aides and parents, many children are placed in regular
religious programs if parents so choose.
“We accompany families,” says Michelle Grieco, director of the diocese’s
ministry for people with disabilities. “Parents are the
first teachers. They have great responsibilities.”
adds Grieco, “is to give parents the resources we have available so these
children can be what Pope John Paul II specifically said they are at the symposium on the dignity and rights of the
mentally disabled in 2004. He called them ‘living icons of the crucified Son.’”
John Paul: “It is said, justifiably so, that disabled people are humanity’s
privileged witnesses. They can teach everyone about the love that saves us;
they can become heralds of a new world … transfigured by the light of Christ.”
Building on Strengths
effective program, begun in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1967, has spread to
14 U.S. dioceses and several countries around the globe. Called Special
Religious Education Development (Spred), its co-founders Father James McCarthy
and Sister Mary Therese Harrington of the Society of
Helpers remain Spred’s directors. In the Chicago Archdiocese alone there are 150
Spred centers in 170 parishes. (Sometimes two or three parishes combine to form
form Spred (online at spred.org), the founders put the one-to-one relationships
together with the more contemplative French Vivre
model for catechesis. Today Spred usually pairs six people
with intellectual disability with six sponsors, most often with grouping
according to chronological age rather than intellectual abilities, according to
Sister Mary. Parents prefer these small, age-grouped
communities of faith.
gives a diocese a basic outline so local parishes can develop and tailor a
program to their particular needs.
written material is very schematic (because) there’s a wide range of
disabilities,” says Sister Mary, pointing out that life experiences are cited
as developing a sense of the sacred. The basis is friendship, building trust by
helping children relate to others, then encouraging a sense of sacredness and
respect. “They learn Jesus is with us,” says Sister Mary, “and he leads us to
the Father.” The sacraments of initiation follow.
the child has a sense of the sacred, a desire and a ‘twilight awareness,’” she
says, “we go with the sacrament and with the catechesis.”
finds the children end up doing more than anybody anticipated. “Unfortunately,”
she adds, “some people don’t give them credit for the competence they have.”
remembers being encouraged early on by a young girl who did not speak. Her
dying mother gave her as an infant to the good neighbors who raised her. Two
years into Sister Mary’s group, at the fellowship table one day, she joined in
singing the song.
fell over,” says Sister Mary. “We realized she had language. Within a warm,
emotional setting, she could say words if she sang them.” She ended up carrying
on a reasonable conversation.
“We build through their strengths,”
adds Grieco, pointing out that many children love music. She remembers while
practicing the “Amen” with a tambourine, the Staglianos’ 9-year-old daughter
Bella not only discovered she could shake her pigtails to the beat — she then
said “Amen,” her first two-syllable word.
Even challenges like modifying curricula
without compromising the teachings of the Church can be overcome. Venditti
teaches the children to make the connection between Jesus and the holy
Eucharist by showing a picture of Jesus alongside an unconsecrated host.
Venditti: “Pointing to the picture of Jesus, we say, ‘This is Jesus.’ We then
hold up the unconsecrated host and say, ‘This is Jesus.’ They begin to
recognize what the priest does at Mass, and also that Jesus comes to us at Mass
in a special form as bread, which nourishes us spiritually. On their Communion
day, they’re always very eager to receive the Blessed Sacrament.”
says children with special needs are blessed with a lack of guile. “They say,
‘That’s Jesus,’ and they love Jesus. They don’t question Christ’s love. For
them, receiving the sacrament is like receiving it each time for the first
time. They can teach us.”
Staglianos see their children display this understanding. At Mass Mia will say,
“Time for host,” and Gianna will say, “Time to turn the wine into blood.”
much joy and appreciation comes from teaching children with special needs that
there are bonuses for everyone. Greico says Venditti’s high school aides tell
her the children have taught them so much. Most return each year, like
the boy who now wants to be a special-education teacher because he sees the joy
of students, teachers and parents every time the children learn something new.
the same time, families grow stronger in the Catholic faith. As Kim Stagliano
witnesses, “Having the program brought our family back to the Church. When a
parish embraces your children, they get the whole family.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is
based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
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