Special Catholics: Parishioners With Down Syndrome Bless the Church With Their Gifts
How positive people make a difference.
Whether Jimmy Alverado is running the sacristy, helping to train altar servers or having a say in other parish matters, he’s well-known at St. Francis of Assisi in East Palo Alto, California. Although the energetic young man with Down syndrome has limited verbal skills, the staff and other parishioners make him feel at home.
“He feels at ease because all the people have a good impression of him and pay attention to him,” said Jimmy’s mother, Soledad Lopez, of her 25-year-old son.
As a staff member, Alverado plays a special role in the life of St. Francis of Assisi parish, which has found ways to welcome and support all its members with intellectual disabilities.
Parishes are finding ways to help members with Down syndrome prepare to receive sacraments, encouraging them to participate in ministries, such as altar serving and the choir, and, overall, recognizing and affirming them in their faith — and their personhood. Other institutions, including schools and religious communities, are making it possible for persons with Down syndrome to learn with non-disabled students and respond to a religious vocation, too.
Welcoming such special Catholics is indeed a gift, as the Holy Father has reminded the faithful.
In a Jan. 26 World Youth Day address in Panama City, Panama, Pope Francis identified a couple whose daughter has Down syndrome. “Before her birth, when faced with all the issues and problems that came up, you made a decision and said, like Mary, ‘Let it be done’; you decided to love her,” Pope Francis said to Erika and Rogelio. “Presented with the life of your frail, helpless and needy daughter, your answer was ‘Yes,’ and so we have Inés.”
The U.S. bishops instructed in their 1978 “Pastoral Statement on Persons With Disabilities” that the Church must welcome those with disabilities seeking to participate in the ecclesial community. All of the faithful in the Church need to educate themselves to appreciate the full contribution persons with disabilities can make to the Church’s spiritual life.
Parish, School, Convent
Stephanie Winter saw that appreciation this February when she brought her 11-year-old daughter, Faith, to choir practice at their parish, St. Benedict in Duluth, Minnesota. A parishioner told Winter that Faith had been in adoration.
“I learned that she was standing at the altar having a conversation, looking at the monstrance, talking to Jesus,” Winter said. “The people that were in adoration all welcomed it. They felt like it was something that touched them.”
The young girl who loves babies and baptisms made her first Communion two years ago after receiving adapted instruction at home, Winter said. The family is assessing whether she will have the understanding to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.
About six years ago, leaders at St. Matthias in Crown Point, Indiana, decided to ensure that all persons with disabilities, including those with Down syndrome, would be welcomed into the parish and have a chance to participate in a nontraditional religious education program with one-on-one assistance, said Jackie Gentry, a pastoral associate.
Though recruiting enough volunteers for personal instruction can be challenging, she said, “we have found that simply spending the time to learn about the young person we’re working with and what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are helps us to prepare what they need on a weekly basis.”
Immaculata Classical Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, also assesses the abilities of each of its students with special needs, including Down syndrome, while integrating these students into all their pre-K-through-12 classrooms. The school’s flexible curriculum is designed so that, according to their needs, students can change grade levels by subject at each class period.
And a religious institute in the Diocese of Bourges, France, called the Little Sisters, Disciples of the Lamb, welcomes women with Down syndrome who feel they have a religious calling. Founded in 1985 by Mother Prioress Line with the help of Dr. Jerome Lejeune, the Catholic scientist who discovered the chromosomal abnormality causing Down syndrome and is recognized as a “Servant of God” in the Church, the community of both disabled and non-disabled sisters follows St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Little Way,” living a contemplative life of prayer, work, poverty and sacrifice.
Back in California, for the past six years as sacristan, Alverado has helped with two weekday Masses and often can be found at the parish on weekends.
“He’s very protective of the sacristy,” said pastor Father Lawrence Goode.
Alverado also has served as usher and plays guitar and tambourine in a prayer group. “The priests have helped him a lot because he hardly speaks but understands both” Spanish and English, his mother said. “The priests are patient and teach him, and, little by little, he gets it.”
In January Alverado took charge of signing parishioners up to attend the Walk for Life West Coast in San Francisco. “The people really responded,” Father Goode said. “People who never go out for the Walk for Life came.”
Alverado also has influenced several other parishioners with Down syndrome.
“They admire Jimmy, and the moms all love him because they see what Jimmy has done,” Father Goode said. “It sends a message out, I think, to others that they can get involved.”
Other young people with Down syndrome have also been making an impact in their parishes. Jacob Meyer, 25, has been an altar server at Duluth’s St. Benedict since a parishioner trained him seven years ago. He also ushers, belongs to the Knights of Columbus, plays on the parish softball team and uses the parish library regularly, said his mother, Mary Meyer.
Jacob said he likes being Catholic and spending time at church because it helps him grow in faith, hope and love. He also opposes abortion: “We should forgive [people who have abortions] and pray hard for them,” he said. “It’s not good to have abortion because of the violence of it.”
Jacob has had an impact especially on his younger brother, who is his godson, and on a friend with Down syndrome who recently started attending Mass again because of Jacob’s influence.
“People just observe his faith, and he evangelizes that way,” his mother said. “He just likes to be involved and learn about his faith.”
Likewise, even as Faith Winter strives to learn her faith, her mother said that Faith is also having a positive affect on her fellow parishioners, who make an effort to interact with Faith and recognize her in the choir. “She fits right in, and sometimes her voice kind of cuts through, but everyone comments about how they love that,” she said. “They love being able to pick out her voice.”
However Catholics with Down syndrome participate in Church life — receiving sacraments for the first time or using their unique gifts in parishes or other institutions — they bring blessings to the Church.
“The joy and the reception that [children and young adults with special needs] receive from the parish in general is in abundance,” Stephanie Winter said. “We learn through their gifts.”
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.