The Unexpected Blessings of Serving Those With Special Needs During the Pandemic

The rise of virtual participation in worship and fellowship opened doors to previously underserved members of the disability community.

L to R: Gabe San Nicolas, an 18-year-old with autism and an autoimmune disease, recently received the sacrament of confirmation. Dan Maier is a 30-year-old with Down syndrome from Philadelphia who enjoys volunteering at Mass and participating in Special Olympics.
L to R: Gabe San Nicolas, an 18-year-old with autism and an autoimmune disease, recently received the sacrament of confirmation. Dan Maier is a 30-year-old with Down syndrome from Philadelphia who enjoys volunteering at Mass and participating in Special Olympics. (photo: Courtesy of subjects’ families)

For the Catholic ministries that serve the disabled, the COVID-19 pandemic called them to adapt their approaches. 

“I kind of smiled when this all started, because in the disability community, ‘adapt’ is our middle name,” said Charleen Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. 

The disability community isn’t a monolith. As parents and diocesan leaders had to rethink how to provide catechesis, fellowship and access to the sacraments, their efforts had as many outcomes as the people they serve. In some regards, the isolation from the lockdowns took a greater toll on people with developmental disabilities, while the new virtual landscape opened new doors of outreach to people who for too long have been missing from the pews. 

“I think a blessing in disguise has come out of it because it is more acceptable to use virtual platforms,” Katra said. “We can reach more people now, especially the disability community, because they’ve always been more isolated and disadvantaged.” 

As the executive director of the Department of Special Needs Ministries for the Archdiocese of Washington, Mary O’Meara saw firsthand the good that came from virtual access. Her department has led a Rosary and Mass for nearly 20 years. 

“We used to have four or five participants per session, but during this time of COVID, we were having 16, 18, even 20 people,” O’Meara said. “We just began meeting together again [in person] in June, and we had 10 people come in person and six people online.” 

Figuring out how to respond to COVID-19 in a way that accounted for all the different needs wasn’t something they figured out overnight, O’Meara said. For example, she had to find a platform that generated closed captioning for people with hearing impairments and find a way to virtually engage people with mental handicaps. But at the same time, worship was opened to whole new groups of people. 

“It empowered disabled persons living with chronic illnesses, or physical disabilities that didn’t allow for them to enter the space of their parish, maybe because of physical barriers or their own chronic illness that they could not be exposed to crowds — all of a sudden, for them, the floodgates opened,” O’Meara said. “This virtual access meant they could participate, too. So for some people, this was a hallelujah moment of being able to take part in the life of their parish, because everybody had a virtual portal to participate. Finding ways to strive to retain all of those positive things we uncovered is something we shouldn’t lose as we move forward.”  

Judy Barr is one of the group’s founding members. As someone living with mental illness, the monthly Rosaries and Masses have provided her a community full of “love and care.” 

“It was very interesting because we were able to almost double our size, and there have been people who have come to our Mass that had known about it but hadn’t come to it before,” Barr said. “So it has worked out really nice for us.” 

In the Diocese of Baton Rouge in Louisiana, the pandemic allowed the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis to implement a new special-needs ministry sooner than expected. Director Dina Dow said disability outreach had been “a gap in the ministry for a long time.”  

“Parents came to me because their teenagers were of confirmation age, but there were no parishes that were offering the opportunity for some type of special formation process so that they could have sacramental preparation,” Dow said. “There was such an outcry for it.”  

After a successful 2017 pilot program in which a small class received adapted confirmation catechesis, Dow received the green light to develop a diocese-wide program. 

“During the pandemic, we weren’t going out into the field very much because of the restrictions,” Dow said. “I decided this was just the best time for us to start adopting a diocesan approach to support the parishes to be places where people with adaptive needs can come.” 

With a team of “unbelievable” special-needs experts, she developed a program for providing religious education to children with disabilities that will be implemented in the coming months — sooner than if the pandemic hadn’t happened. 

Though the pandemic opened up these new ways of ministering to persons with disabilities, the community as a whole disproportionately suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a June 14 document by the Pontifical Academy for Life.  

“While this pandemic starkly exposes lived experiences of uncertainty, limitation, and frailty, persons with disabilities and their caregivers need and deserve special attention and supports because the pandemic has disproportionately impacted their lives in negative ways,” the document said. 

The utilitarian approach that most societies took toward promoting “the greatest good” did not prioritize the mental and physical health of people with disabilities in implementing pandemic policies, the document continued. 

For those who thrive on socializing, or need in-person direction, the lockdowns were especially hard. Dan Maier is a 30-year-old with Down syndrome from Philadelphia, and before the pandemic, he was kept busy by his full-time job, volunteering at Mass, and participating in Special Olympics events several days a week. But since all that disappeared, his mother, Suann Maier, has noticed a decline in his speech and cognitive functions. 

Suann Maier, who with her husband, Fran, received awards from the Pope Francis for their work in pro-life and special-needs advocacy, said that her son’s decline is so severe that she is having him tested for early-onset Alzheimer’s. The Maiers could see through their family Rosary that he had lost the ability to make certain sounds. 

“Everyone has noticed a tremendous flattening of his affect, and we’re concerned that he has lost speech,” his mother said. “He has always led the fifth decade of our family Rosary, and he has lost the ‘sh’ sound, and the ‘f’ sound, and also the ‘h’ sound at the beginning of the Hail Mary. We sit next to each other, and I say ‘hail’ and then he finishes up ‘Mary.’” 

In addition to losing some speech capabilities, Dan hasn’t been engaging in his interests like he used to.  

“There has been tremendous isolation,” Maier said. “He’s very happy to be back in church, and he gets very dressed up to do his job at 11:30 Mass. He’s very proud of it, but he doesn’t talk about it like he used to. He used to talk about it all the time, but now he doesn’t really talk about it at all. He doesn’t really interact with anybody, even his father.” 

Though stories like Dan Maier’s are common, so are stories like that of Gabe San Nicolas, an 18-year-old with autism and an autoimmune disease that usually prevents him from participating in in-person activities. His father, Ron San Nicolas, a deacon in the Archdiocese of Seattle, said that due to Zoom confirmation classes, his son was recently able to receive the sacrament and return to church for the first time since the pandemic began. 

“His words in church were ‘I am so happy to be back in Mass,’ and it was on the occasion of his confirmation,” Deacon San Nicolas said. “And if it were not for COVID, he would not have been able to participate. That was the way it had to be. And so, even in that adversity, God blessed him with receiving the sacrament.” 

Feedback from those who have benefited from the adapted approaches during COVID have helped confirm for those in ministry that the pandemic helped propel new means of outreach that need to continue going forward.   

“Finding ways to strive to retain all of those positive things we uncovered is something we shouldn’t lose,” emphasized Mary O’Meara, who led the virtual Rosary group in the Washington Archdiocese.   

Kelsey Bell, who coordinates the Office of People With Disabilities in the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, agrees. She said that people involved in her ministry should continue some of the outreach methods they relied on throughout the pandemic, like livestreamed Masses and online support groups. 

“Being aware of these different elements as we reenter is really important,” Bell said. “‘Disability’ has a very wide definition, and each person is going to respond in their own way, and it’s going to be really hard for certain individuals to go back to a new normal. We should have patience and recognize that having the flexibility to accommodate different needs is going to be a really big asset to the ministry going forward.”