WEST HARTFORD – Introducing special needs children to the Mass is not impossible if you take those who love music to the first 15 minutes, or take those who love socializing to coffee hour and then work backward. It also helps to bring along a cheat sheet with icons or a customized booklet with photos of children participating in the liturgy to help them follow along during the Mass.
Those were just some of the helpful tips shared with more than 80 religious educators from parishes and schools throughout the archdiocese who met on Oct. 28 at St. Mark Parish Center, now part of St. Gianna Parish, for “Catechesis of Children with Special Needs,” a professional development conference.
Kelly Henderschedt, archdiocesan director of catechetical education, said her office organized the first-of-its-kind conference in the archdiocese at the request of religious educators. While some parishes are out in front on the issue, she said, many others could use some help.
“I’ve been out to deanery meetings and they said they need the resources, support and guidance,” Henderschedt said, “so we’re trying to offer that from an archdiocesan level.”
The conference included a keynote speech as well as a full complement of workshops. The workshops addressed specific disorders, such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); creating inclusive parish communities; taking children with special needs to Mass; and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) pastoral statements on people with disabilities.
Janice Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities (NCPD) in Washington, D.C., gave the keynote address. The NCPD was established in 1982 to ensure meaningful participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of the Catholic Church and society.
Benton had just returned from a trip to Rome, where her organization collaborated with the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization to host an international conference Oct. 20-22 titled “Catechesis and Persons with Disabilities: A Necessary Engagement in the Daily Pastoral Life of the Church.” Pope Francis specifically requested the international conference to share best practices for engaging and spreading the faith to all those living with disabilities.
“Pope Francis is bringing us to a new day,” Benton said. During the conference in Rome, he told an audience “the growth in the awareness of the dignity of every person, especially the weakest, has led to courageous positions” of greater inclusion. Pope Francis said the Mass in particular must welcome people with disabilities so that they can “encounter the Risen Lord.”
In Benton’s opinion, it’s long past time for Catholics to include people with specials needs or disabilities in Catholic schools, religious education programs and parish life.
“We’re still asking questions like, should we build a ramp? And can this child receive the sacraments or go to Catholic schools?” she said. “We need to get beyond that and just say ‘yes.’ The real question now is ‘how?’”
Benton encouraged catechists to approach disabilities “as the normal anticipated outcomes of the risks, stresses and strains of the living process.” She urged them to broaden their thinking about whom in their school or parish might need a little extra support or accommodation to feel more welcome and included.
A broad definition of disability might cover those with emotional or intellectual disabilities, she said, as well as those who have suffered physical disabilities from birth, from an accident at any stage of life, or simply as part of the aging process.
“If you start by believing that everybody belongs as part of the baptism process, then it’s not that much of a problem,” she said.
Throughout the conference, catechists were urged to talk to their pastors about this issue, to ask them to speak about it in their homilies and to put information in Sunday bulletins to foster greater acceptance by parishioners of children and adults with disabilities.
Henderschedt said the issue of serving children with disabilities in schools and parishes is especially timely: “This is a hot topic in the USCCB right now.”
In June 2017, the Catholic bishops ratified their revised guidelines for celebrating the sacraments for children with disabilities, updating guidelines that originally were established in 1995.
The guidelines state that the grace of the sacraments are essential to everyone’s growth in holiness; acknowledge that adults and children with disabilities as well as their families “desire full and meaningful participation in the sacramental life of the Church”; call for accessibility for those with mobility needs; and call for the availability of catechetical programs for “persons with intellectual, developmental, and other disabilities.”
The revised guidelines are available at http://www.usccb.org/about/divine-worship/policies/guidelines-sacraments-persons-with-disabilities.cfm.
When it comes to imparting the faith through religious education instruction, there are many different models for special needs children, Henderschedt said, and there is no one right approach. “Some promote a regional approach and segregating special needs students,” she explained, “and others favor the greatest inclusion possible and just adapting for individuals as needed.”
After consulting with numerous experts in the field, the Archdiocese of Hartford has opted for the inclusive approach as its policy, she said, with the understanding that some students may need to break out into smaller groups or receive one-on-one instruction, depending on their particular needs. “Some individuals may still need a separate group,” she said. “So it’s just figuring out where individuals fit and starting at the point of the greatest possible inclusion.”
The Diocese of Providence, for example, has opted for the regional approach, with 18 regional sites for its Special Religious Education (SPRED) program, Henderschedt said. In contrast, the Diocese of Bridgeport has a special needs director to support religious educators in the parishes as well as a special needs school, St. Catherine Academy. Both are located at St. Catherine Center for Special Needs in Fairfield.
In addition to choosing the inclusive approach for its parishes, the Archdiocese of Hartford has several parishes, such as St. Therese Parish in Granby and St. Catherine of Siena Church in West Simsbury, that offer regional programs.
Representatives from all three dioceses and the two parishes above conducted workshops at the conference.
Sister Mary Grace Walsh, a member of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, provost of the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Office of Education, Evangelization and Catechesis, sat in on the conference. She expressed her gratitude to the NCPD and the keynote speaker for bringing so many practical ideas to the archdiocese.
“I was struck by the statistics,” she added, referring to those presented by the keynote speaker. “Basically, one-third of the people in our parishes have disabilities. So we need to be diligent in providing for those families. They don’t just need to be included—they need to belong.”
Religious educators in attendance said they welcomed the conference and were grateful for the information and advice they received. Some already are working with special needs children in their communities and ministries, while others said they hope to welcome them in future.
Laurie Ciarello, director of religious education at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Waterbury, said her parish has three special needs children. One is an intellectually disabled girl who has been in religious education classes since the second grade but is now receiving one-on-one instruction to prepare for confirmation.
“It got too deep and she was a little anxious, so we modified it for her,” Ciarello said. “She’s in Special Olympics and helps with parish events, particularly with small children. I don’t think there’s any question that she’s part of the big parish family.”
According to Ciarello, St. Francis Xavier also has an adult parishioner with Down syndrome who serves as an usher and passes the collection basket. “So he’s a wonderful example for everybody in our parish,” she said.
Brenda Couture, a catechist at St. Francis Xavier, credited her parish priest, Father Paul J. Pace, for the inclusion of people with all types of disabilities into parish life. “The direction is all because of Father,” Couture said. Ciarello agreed: “Father Pace sets the tone.”
Sister Ann Marie Strileckis, a sister of the Congregation de Notre Dame and a pastoral associate at the Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish in Hartford, said she is preparing one young boy in her parish for first holy Communion. “So when I saw this,” she said at the start of the conference, “I knew I had to do it.”
Miriam Hidalgo, archdiocesan director of youth and young adult ministry, said she attended two workshops at the conference, one on understanding autism and another on emotional intelligence. “It’s all new to me and I learned so much,” she said. “This is an audience that’s missing in many of the youth programs. By understanding them, we can evangelize to them.”
Bess McGrath, a pre-school teacher at St. Rita School in Hamden, said she has been preparing a group of 33 4-year-olds to attend their first Mass at the school for the feast of All Saints. She has no special needs students right now, but anticipates some in the future.
“The archdiocese is making the decision to provide accessibility in their schools for kids with special needs,” she said. “So the first step is for us to gain education ourselves to make that happen. I hope I see it.”
Resources for sharing the Catholic faith with people with disabilities can be found at www.ncpd.org.