Responding to Disabilities – Year of Mercy
All God’s Children
We recently heard this comment from an inactive Catholic, “My entire family left the Catholic Church when I was about 11 years old because the priest would not allow my mildly retarded (an acceptable term in the 70’s) sister to take Confirmation classes. It was not an issue of behavior or disability, as she had been doing well in public school. It seemed more of an issue of a lack of knowledge from the priest and the Church. I don’t believe much has changed in the past 40 years. There still seems to be very limited accommodations, if any, for ‘special needs’ children in church or religious education.” This same frustration for parents with special needs children is still prevalent today because many parishes are unwilling or unable to provide accommodations for them. There are, however, some parishes that have seen the need to make something wonderful and welcoming for all people.
St. Jude’s Catholic Church in Lakewood, CO
“Special Education” is a class that started over 40 years ago at St. Jude’s. It was designed to prepare children with special needs for their sacraments. The class currently has 13 students ranging from 6 to 54 years of age. This is a one-on-one class that meets every week. They work with the students who go at their own pace. The students celebrate their sacraments together unless there is a need to do a private session. During a private Confirmation, one student showed his joy with a thumbs up and a “Yes! I did it!” Over the years it has gone beyond just sacramental preparation because there is such a need among both young and old. Many of the people with special needs live in group homes, some in independent living and some with their parents. There is a struggle sometimes for attendance because one of the biggest problems the teachers face is trying to get transportation to and from the parish, along with getting permission for them to return after-hours. The teachers do the best they can and the students just shine for their efforts. As the students continue learning about their faith, they begin to thrive. There is also a marked decrease in violence. Some have become Eucharistic Ministers or ushers, and most attend Mass regularly.
Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago, IL
In this parish, during the school year there is a special needs Mass one Sunday a month at 12:30 pm. This started because a mom of a special needs student wrote to the pastor about having a place to meet and celebrating a Mass for this group. The pastor, the mom and a volunteer started the Mass five years ago. They have it in the cafeteria. It starts off with a craft project before Mass and a reception afterwards. About 50 or more people attend this Mass, coming from five different zip codes. It is a safe place for them where they are allowed to be who they are. One boy would always come and barricade himself underneath a table for the entire Mass. During one of the sessions everyone was given a Beta fish; this child took care of the fish and slowly started opening up more. Now he sits with the rest of the congregation and brings his fish with him to every Mass. They are all encouraged to participate; some are doing the readings, others bring up the gifts and one person in a wheel chair enjoys taking up the collection. They even have an interpreter for sign language.
Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington, DC
“Did you know?” is the name of a section in the bulletin. It contains information about the activities of the Young Catholics Disabilities Group, such as an upcoming dance or exercise classes led by DDA certified trainers. The blurb also includes helpful information for those with disabilities, such as special easy-access shoes being created by Nike or bills being introduced in Congress.
These parishes are only a few of those making special efforts to include all the People of God in the worship and activities of the parish community.
Maria Gabriela Garcia, Debora Elkins, Tom Sweetser, SJ