Catholic Ministries Focus on Greater Inclusivity for Those With Disabilities

The U.S. bishops’ conference in 2017 revised its 1995 “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities” to reflect the latest technological advances.

Above, Grace serves parishioners at her home parish of Notre Dame in Caldwell, New Jersey.
Above, Grace serves parishioners at her home parish of Notre Dame in Caldwell, New Jersey. (photo: Anne Masters/Archdiocese of Newark)

Just over 40 years ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote in a statement on the pastoral care of people with disabilities that “the Church must continue to expand its healing ministry to these persons, helping them when necessary, working with them, and raising its voice with them and with all members of society who are their advocates.”

Today, the Church in the U.S. has continued to evolve in this area as diocesan ministries, new programs and international organizations have pooled resources to improve the participation of disabled individuals in the sacraments and parish life.

The USCCB revised its 1995 “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities” in 2017 to reflect the latest technological advances and a better awareness of the many ways such individuals can learn.

“The Church seeks to support all in their growth in holiness, and to encourage all in their vocations. Participating in, and being nourished by, the grace of the sacraments is essential to this growth in holiness,” the bishops wrote. “Catholic adults and children with disabilities, and their families, earnestly desire full and meaningful participation in the sacramental life of the Church.”

Janice Benton, the executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD), applauded the revisions. She told the Register about recent efforts to expand sacramental accessibility in parishes throughout the United States.

The NCPD was established in August 1982 in response to the bishops’ Pastoral Statement on People with Disabilities and guides the USCCB on these issues. The organization develops resources, trainings, consultations, and national conferences all with the idea of “supporting people and making sure that the dioceses have the tools and the parishes have the tools they need to really do the outreach.”


A Relationship-Based Approach

Benton praised a change in both tone and approach that the Church is taking toward this sort of outreach to people with disabilities.

“Some of what has changed is in the past it was more separate programs,” she noted, “but now it’s more about relationships and connecting and meeting people one-on-one and meeting those needs one-on-one [rather] than thinking about just setting up a program that won’t necessarily meet the needs of everybody in the parish.”

She said the focus now includes “having resources available and a catechist trained so when they meet [children with disabilities] and they learn about how they best learn and what gifts they’re bringing to the community then you can really kind of tailor it.”

Benton pointed to a portion of the revised sacramental guidelines where the bishops emphasize that for catechetical programs “as much as possible, persons with disabilities should be integrated into the ordinary programs. They should not be segregated for specialized catechesis unless their disabilities make it impossible for them to participate in the basic catechetical program. Even in those cases, participation in parish life is encouraged in all ways possible.” 

Benton argued that this sort of inclusion in the community is significant and even more so when it comes to the sacraments.

She praised the bishops’ revisions to their guidelines on the issue for addressing “people who are nonverbal and even the use of technology for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for example, that was one of the issues that especially precipitated the revision.”

NCPD has been working on a smartphone app recently for people with autism and other intellectual disabilities that will assist with sacramental preparation and Mass attendance.

Sometimes innovative means of helping those with disabilities come from within their own families.

Benton gave the example of David and Mercedes Rizzo whose son Brendan is a Boy Scout. For his Eagle Scout project he made a kit to help his sister Danielle, who has autism, prepare for the sacraments. The family ended up creating “a little kit that was interactional for her and it was so cool that it was brought to Loyola Press and they ended up utilizing it,” she said.

Benton’s organization helps bring resources like these to diocesan offices across the U.S., something that Mary O’Meara, the Executive Director of the Department of Special Needs Ministries for the Archdiocese of Washington, appreciates in her work. .  

“We are very active with NCPD and so we are able thankfully to partner with and learn from other diocese that might have expertise in an area that is not our own,” she said.


An Evolving Ministry

O’Meara told the Register some of the unique ways that their ministry has grown and evolved to meet the needs of people with disabilities in the archdiocese.

She said that because of the proximity of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a private university chartered to serve those with hearing disabilities, the Archdiocese of Washington has a longstanding and robust ministry to the deaf, including 14 satellite ministries with sign language interpreters. Additionally, their diocesan outreach to those with intellectual disabilities, which began about 40 years ago, is continuing to grow.

“What we’ve been trying to do over the past 10 years or so is really to fill in some of those gaps around needs that have come up since that time,” she explained. “For example, there wasn’t such a great burning need for materials for persons living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because it wasn’t diagnosed so much 20 years ago. But now that we have a better understanding of what ASD is and how we can accommodate those children and adults living with ASD, then that was an opportunity to build up all kinds of webinars and create materials and resources.”

In an effort to help families of those with disabilities even in the very beginning of their journey, the archdiocese partners with a group called Isaiah’s Promise which offers information, support, and hope to families after an unexpected prenatal diagnosis of a disability or a lethal condition.

O’Meara added that her ministry also “drafted a prenatal and postnatal pastoral care resource packet for our priests.”

She said that for the archdiocesan ministry, unique needs within a parish “are an opportunity to kind of create some resources around supporting what that parish has asked for and then of course we’re able to use them again and again as we find more situations like that.”


Attending Mass

Anne Masters, the director of the Pastoral Ministry With Persons With Disabilities for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, has found a distinct way to address an unmet need within her diocese. She told the Register about how the high incidence of autism in New Jersey and a lack of resources led to an innovative pilot program called “Attends Mass.”

Her office partnered with Caldwell University Center for Autism and Applied Behavioral Analysis in Caldwell, New Jersey, to develop the program in 2008.

Masters described behavioral analysis as “tapping into someone’s motivation and getting to know him or her as a person, what they’re interested in and also affirming the basic presumption that someone is able to learn when properly supported.” For this program, behavior analysts each worked with an individual child at a home parish to teach them how to attend Mass.

“What we find to be the most effective is starting at the end of Mass — it’s something called ‘backward chaining,’” she explained. “Basically what you do is you break down any task and however many steps there are.”

The program presents each student with a picture schedule of the Mass with each of its parts broken down into a number of steps, Masters said, adding, “You start at the end of Mass, figuring if someone can tolerate being in Mass for 15 minutes. Then without having any issues or challenges, let’s start at the last 10 minutes or five minutes.”

She explained that the program uses “reinforcers,” such as a handful of M&Ms or time on an iPod, for positive behavior that can vary according to the individual. According to Masters, the need for that reinforcement diminishes over time. The program takes 6-9 months typically for children with autism and its cost for one individual is about $5,000-$7,000.

As a pilot program, “Attends Mass” was able to utilize donated and discounted time and resources from students in the graduate program of Caldwell’s Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis center and others in their network. However, Masters was unable to recruit groups of students and experts able consistently to donate that amount of time and realized that the program required more permanent funding sources.

The Sequeira family attends Mass; son Neil was confirmed that day.

Today, with the donated help of the Seton Hall University Graduate School of Public Management, Masters has been conducting surveys to help give Church leadership an idea of the extent of the need and identifying funding sources seeking to restart and expand the program although some resources developed from it are available on the program’s website.

Masters said that a crucial part of any ministry to persons with disabilities is educating the parish community to be truly inclusive. She pointed out that “we learn best when we’re in community with all kinds of people and that’s where we form our relationships.”

“Pope Francis has even said that we still struggle as a Church for individuals with disabilities participating in parish life to be considered an ordinary part of pastoral ministry,” she noted.

On a diocesan level, other Catholic ministries have increasingly risen to meet the needs of those with disabilities in the Church.


‘He’s Here and He’s Participating in His Way’

Jim Rigby, the grand knight of a Knights of Columbus Council 9409 in Biloxi, Mississippi, talked to the Register about some of the ways the Knights have expanded their programs for people with disabilities. He also discussed his membership in the Order of Alhambra, a Catholic group whose primary mission is to help improve the quality of life for those with disabilities.

He said the Knights of Columbus, who have always raised funds for those with disabilities, recently had a “major shift and change in programming and now they’re encouraging local councils to go ahead and help sponsor Masses, a Mass for special needs.”

In Mississippi, Alhambra has been working hand in hand with the Knights on this effort as they had already been conducting a monthly Mass for those with disabilities. He said that over the past couple of years he’s seen five people baptized after coming to these special Masses.

Rigby is also working with priests in the diocese on a program to help those with disabilities prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“For quite a while many of them have been disenfranchised and people have said they really don’t need this, they can’t commit a sin or whatever excuse was being used,” he emphasized. “We want to make them feel welcome, we want to make them feel included. The Church is their Church; just like it is my Church, it’s their Church as well.”

This inclusion extends to his own council where one of the Knights has a son, BJ, who is living with disabilities. He joined the council despite being nonverbal and was given a role with the special title, Flag Carrier, something that Rigby says gives him “a sense of belonging.”

He said another young man, Jason, who had disabilities, was initially nonverbal and appeared very distant, but ended up being baptized after engaging with the Mass.

“At one of our Masses, we noticed that when we were singing during the Mass Jason was making the sounds,” Rigby said. “When we stopped singing, he stopped. … I went to his sister and said, ‘Look, he’s participating in the Mass.’”

“A couple months goes by and we find out Jason can speak. Nobody thought he could speak, so no one made him speak and in our association [with him] he’s able to muster up a few words, not a lot but he’s able to now,” Rigby said of the interactions with Jason at events like the special Mass. “He’s here and he’s participating in his way.”   

Recent Data

Over the summer, the Knights of Columbus have been conducting a survey on the state of ministries for those with disabilities across the U.S. According to that data, provided to the Register, 54% of those surveyed had a diocesan ministry or office dedicated to those with disabilities. That data reflects the responses of 76% of U.S. Catholic dioceses who have responded to the survey.

Likewise, a 2016 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University found that 93% of parishes in the U.S. offer accommodations to allow those with disabilities to participate in parish social events and 63% of parishes adapt their current resources for students with disabilities.

While significant steps are being taken to promote greater inclusion by the USCCB and the Knights among others, these efforts start at a parish level. O’Meara pointed out that “every parish has someone with disabilities” and the point of being attentive to even simple accommodations like large print bulletins is to let every Catholic know that “they are not only welcomed but valued.”

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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