National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

So Much To Offer, So Far To Go

Faith and formation for mentally challenged children


March 26-April 1, 2006 Issue | Posted 3/27/06 at 10:00 AM


More than 14 million Catholics in the United States are impaired from by some form of disability, according to statistics from the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. Four percent of these individuals are classified as mentally retarded or cognitively disabled and 5% are mentally ill.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has addressed this segment of its flock, affirming, in documents released in 1978 and 1995, the special care due the disabled and the Church’s duty to include them in its life.

“Our defense of life and rejection of the culture of death requires that we acknowledge the dignity and positive contributions of our brothers and sisters with disabilities,” they wrote in a 1998 statement. “We unequivocally oppose negative attitudes toward disability which often lead to abortion, medical rationing, and euthanasia.”

“Often families are not prepared for the birth of a child with a disability or the development of impairments,” the statement continues. “Our pastoral response is to become informed about disabilities and to offer ongoing support to the family and welcome to the child.”

Of course, the Church can’t be everywhere and do everything. And, frankly, life being what it is, firm principles and high ideals are sometimes at variance with practical realities “on the street.”

This may be especially true for families with mentally and emotionally disabled children.

When Patricia Hershwitky’s son was diagnosed with a variety of psychological disorders, she went searching for Church-connected information and support. She came up empty-handed — and understandably embittered.

“Mental illness is very isolating for families,” Hershwitky told the Register. “There is no tolerance for children who don’t know how to behave quietly.” She says her son was asked to leave his Catholic school in first grade.

“It’s a natural course of things that there aren’t enough programs,” she adds, “but it is critical that the children understand they are loved and welcomed.”

In his 2000 address at a Jubilee of the Disabled, Pope John Paul II noted that the “integration of disabled persons has made progress, even though there is still a long way to go.”

So what does the Church do to help families with mentally and emotionally challenged children?

Spreading Support

Resources vary widely, depending on locale. Some dioceses have instituted inclusion Masses and implemented programs designed to help catechize children with developmental disabilities like Down syndrome.

The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Special Religious Education Division (Spred) is one such example. Started in the 1960s, the program has spun off similarly modeled programs in 16 dioceses internationally as well as 11 U.S. dioceses.

Sister Mary Therese Harrington, assistant director of Spred in Chicago, explains that the organization’s goal is to draw mentally disabled young people into the faith by making the faith less intellectual and more conceptual.

“Instead of using a textbook, the challenge was to create the right ambiance and environment, taking out the desks and blackboards and creating an atmosphere of the sacred,” she says.

Individual parishes (approximately 200 in the Chicago area) agree to host a particular age group (6-10, 11-16, 17-21 or 22+). The faith communities are small so that each child or adult can be paired with a volunteer or “friend,” and form a one-to-one relationship.

One catechist prepares a room with soft lights, music and materials for art, sensorial and everyday life activities, such as ironing. The friends spend quiet time participating in these activities to prepare themselves to experience God’s presence.

The actual “lesson” is very intuitive, symbolic and sensorial, Sister Mary Therese says. It is followed by a shared meal called the agape. “The whole element of eating together is very important to building a community of faith,” she says.

Nearly all Spred participants make it through from first Communion to confirmation to regular reception of the sacraments. This progression helps keep parents involved as well.

“When your children are accepted, you tend to relax,” Sister Mary Therese notes.

Hershwitky calls Spred’s work a “hopeful sign” and urges that more be done to help catechize children with mental illnesses — including increasing support for parents of the mentally disabled.

In the meantime, she has started her own initiative:, designed to form an online support community of Catholic mothers with mentally or emotionally ill children.

Her vision is to make this site a place for gathering information and talking with individuals in similar situations. A chat room should be online by this summer.

“[Knowing] someone else who understands can help you over troubled waters,” Hershwitky says, adding that her mission is to keep the site both “authentically Catholic and pragmatically helpful.”

Catholic and Qualifed

Having “butted heads” with non-Catholic therapists over issues such as sex education, Hershwitky knows how hard it can be to navigate the moral minefield that secular mental healthcare can be.

For this reason, she steers parents to, which provides referrals to mental-health professionals faithful to the magisterium of the Catholic Church.

Nor is Hershwitky alone in her struggles to find a therapist who is both highly qualified and joyfully Catholic. Religiously committed Catholics are the least satisfied group when it comes to mental-health services, according to Gregory Popcak, director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute (

 There used to be an active Catholic presence in the field of mental health, he explains, but over the last 30 years the resources have withered. (The American Catholic Psychologist Association disbanded in the early 1970s.)

The Institute for the Psychological Sciences ( and are two outstanding organizations that have appeared recently to fill the void.

Yet, depending on where you live, there is no guarantee of finding a local Catholic therapist.

Popcak and his associates provide telephone counseling for Catholics worldwide. “[This] is useful for parents who have a number of children and can’t get away or for families that don’t have resources in their local area,” he says. “I want to find ways to bring the person to a better understanding of how to live their faith. I want to connect the person back to the parish and the sacraments.”

Within the parish, practical help is one of the greatest gifts the Church can give a family with a special-needs child, says Melissa Wiley, a blogger ( and author of historical fiction for young readers.

Wiley’s experience has been much different than that of Hershwitky. Wiley’s 2-year-old son has a variety of developmental difficulties and is hearing impaired. When he was born, her parish reading group took turns bringing meals for her family.

“When you are so busy trying to cope with medical details and the emotional stuff,” she says, “having someone show up at your door with a pan of lasagna is an immense gift.”

Stated another way: Mental and emotional disabilities are formidable speed bumps for many Catholic families. The Church can’t smooth them all. Have you reached out to the parents of a disabled child lately?

Monta Monica Hernon

writes from

La Grange Park, Illinois.