Bishop Burbidge: ‘Inclusion Is Not Optional’ for Children With Down Syndrome

Marking Down Syndrome Awareness Day, the shepherd of Arlington on spearheading initatives that are changing lives, hearts, and minds.

Options students from St. Paul VI Catholic High School visit the Arlington chancery and strike a pose with Bishop Michael Burbidge.
Options students from St. Paul VI Catholic High School visit the Arlington chancery and strike a pose with Bishop Michael Burbidge. (photo: Courtesy photo / Diocese of Arlington )

In 2019, with the help of Vatican News, the world learned all about the first religious community of women with Down syndrome. The Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb located in central France is the first and only religious institute with a rule of life adapted for people with Down syndrome.

Finding a vocation in life is typically a long journey for some, but the seeds are planted early — something Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, takes to heart, especially with the mission he is carrying out to make all those with special needs feel included and find purpose. 

Speaking to the Register in anticipation of March 21, Down Syndrome Awareness Day, Bishop Burbidge said this work is inherent to us because “all of us are children of God. And so for Catholics, because of that reality, inclusion is not optional. We must make sure we welcome all people, all people without exception, because every human person needs to feel included and connected.”

Bishop Burbidge has hosted several listening sessions over the last few years, drilling into the deep needs of the community, reaching out to the peripheries, and developing catechetical programs designed for children with Down syndrome and other special needs. And it extends even further: welcoming students with special needs into the classroom as well as opportunities for employment. “And that’s part of the dignity that is ours as a child of God,” Bishop Burbidge elaborated. 

“So when we make sure that this is part of our ministry, we’re just living the Gospel and the example of Jesus, who embraced all children and all people without exception.” It is a sense of purpose that is so important in building a culture of life, making us “fully alive as human persons,” Bishop Burbidge emphasized.

Sadly, with the scourge of abortion and prenatal testing, many babies with Down syndrome are extinghished before given a chance at life. Iceland touts the fact that Down syndrome has been eradicated, considering children with special needs to be a burden. “It’s a horrific train [of exclusion] that were seeing around the world — and reality: that a person’s worth is decided on their intellectual or emotional, physical abilities,” Bishop Burbidge said. 

“That’s not where a person’s worth and value, the treasure, the gift that they are,” comes from, he underscored. “No, that comes from being a child of God. That’s God’s child. And for us to dare to say a person is worthy to survive, or whose life should be celebrated based on other factors? It’s a complete disregard for the Creator.”


Inclusion

The witness of those with special needs is a balm for a busy world; and with the loss of life, comes a greater loss of understanding and compassion. Research shows how siblings who have a brother or sister with special needs are more empathetic and caring. Bishop Burbidge said this is evident in the daily life at campuses throughout the Arlington Diocese.

“We also see that in our schools, because all four of our high schools welcome children with intellectual abilities in inclusion programs where they are; they’re not just an extension of the building; they’re immersed into daily life and opportunities that every student gets. And they have their mentors, working with them, accompanying them. We see in our schools what you just said: how the other students are now brought to a new level of reflecting compassion and love, and it brings out the best; it breeds the best in other students. And they’re the first to tell you that. You see it, and the whole atmosphere of a family in a school environment. It’s beautiful.”

Bishop Michael Burbidge
Bishop Michael Burbidge celebrates a back-to-school Mass in the Fall 2023. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

Bishop Burbidge’s one-of-a-kind approach to inclusion also extends to employment within Catholic schools, and this is part of what he calls “transitioning planning,” helping those with special needs navigate the bridge between school and adulthood, and this starts in his own office. “We have three positions with persons with disabilities who are doing very essential work, work that’s needed, with the accountability, the supervision, that every employee has. And the joy that they have brought to our office, it has been a gift for us, and that’s what we always find in our schools, in our parishes: When persons with disabilities come with their unique personalities and unique gifts, they lift up all of us.”

And this work “is dignified,” the shepherd of Arlington explained. “It’s not just creating a position for someone; it’s to offer work that is dignified and allow persons with disabilities to take part.”


Faith Formation

The Diocese of Arlington has invested time and resources into programs to help those with special needs grasp the faith clearly and wholeheartedly by identifying the optimal ways to communicate tenets of the Catholic faith. The Special Religious Development (SPRED) Program serves children and young adults with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism, as well as learning disabilities. The program is not textbook-based, so reading is not a necessity. Instead, participants engage in joyful activities and catechesis “designed to lead them closer to their best friend, Jesus.”  

“We are committed that we are doing everything where every child is given that religious education or that opportunity, and then we’ll find a way to do it. And with God’s grace, that’s what’s happened in an increasing number here in our local Church.”

Bishop Michael Burbidge celebrates a Mass for those with special needs within the Diocese of Arlington.
Bishop Michael Burbidge celebrates a back-to-school Mass in the Fall 2023.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

This Easter, the diocese is welcoming numerous individuals with special needs fully into the Church. An example is All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, which will welcome one child with special needs fully into the Church, and two others are having their first Communion and first confession. And with God’s grace truly at work within the diocese, perhaps one day some will be called to a vocation, a beautiful fruit of this ministry, as Bishop Burbidge said: 

“It’s all a blessing to be treasured and cherished and welcomed. That’s throughout life. And so when it comes to the workplace, employment, dignified work and, now, with vocation, if God is calling that child  to the priesthood, to consecrated life, then we see now how those paths are being opened. So it’s a continuation of what we believe in the gospel of life, the value of each child of God, and God's plan for that person that he’s created. He has a plan for each one. We as a Church must cooperate with God’s plan, God’s grace, whatever that plan is for that individual.”

Pope Francis blesses a child with Down syndrome May 18, 2013, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.

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