Leading special needs children to the sacraments
You’ve received a lot of great feedback in the last couple of weeks about the Catholic Schools Office promoting an initiative over the next two years to serve more special needs children in Catholic education. What about special needs kids being prepared to receive the sacraments?
I’m very pleased to say that our awareness of the needs of children with developmental challenges has expanded over the last few years. We start every conversation about children with special needs with this in mind: We, as church, must be accepting and accompany them. We must recognize the innate dignity of every person. We must be inclusive. And, we must be compassionate. Our outreach to people who have special needs is not limited simply to making churches “wheelchair accessible.” We must promote accessibility at all levels – both in mind and heart – so that persons with disabilities may be welcomed at the Eucharist and also welcomed to serve as full members of the body of Christ. People with special needs and their families need our support and deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion. They should feel welcome, accepted and included in the church. Because each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, everyone is equal in God’s eyes.
What have the U.S. bishops said about ministering to people with special needs?
The bishops wrote a pastoral statement in 1978 that called for broader integration of persons with disabilities into the full life of the church. In 1995, the bishops followed up with “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities,” which presented a very simple, clear road map for how this is to happen with each of the sacraments. No person is ever to be denied or deprived of the Eucharist because of an archaic notion of that person’s lack of understanding.
What kind of sacramental preparation for children with special needs is offered in the archdiocese?
A handful of parishes have wonderful, segregated programs in which the students use materials that are designed to teach them about God’s love through pictures or other resources. Our Office of Religious Education works closely with those parishes in suggesting the best resources. There’s amazing material from Loyola Press that helps with sacramental preparation. That material was originally designed for students on the autism spectrum, but it can be used by anyone who has a difficult time learning. One of the biggest questions people ask about receiving the Eucharist is whether or not the child can distinguish between the Eucharist and ordinary food. The sacramental preparation helps the child understand that concept. The Eucharist might look like bread and taste like bread, but it is truly Christ. The child can show the proper reverence due to our Lord through a simple gesture or reverential silence. It does not have to be a spoken response. Confirmation completes the sacraments of initiation, which began in baptism and includes the Eucharist. If mom or dad presents the child for confirmation, the child should receive that sacrament because it completes the rite of initiation and the Holy Spirit is given in a unique way.
Are you finding more parishes including special needs children into their CCD classes?
Yes. We don’t really have a census on how many children we are dealing with, but the Office of Religious Education tells me that the numbers are increasing. The number of autistic and Down syndrome children seems to be growing. Many of these children attend public schools because of the availability of special education resources, and they are coming to the parish to prepare for the reception of the sacraments. We must be there for them and walk with them in faith.
What can a parent who has a special needs child do regarding sacramental preparation?
The best place to start is with the pastor and the parish director of religious education. The Office of Religious Education also has great resources, and Barb McAtee is the person responsible for answering specific questions about the special needs guidelines for sacramental preparation. We have a place for every child.
Why is this such an important life issue to you?
“Right to life” applies not only to unborn children but to all of God’s children who have been born, regardless of their abilities. Each of us is disabled in one way or another. We have to do everything we can so that all forms of the liturgy will be completely accessible to persons with disabilities. These sacraments bind a Christian community together. To exclude members of a parish from these celebrations of life harms the community and makes it less than what it should be. Including these special children in the life of a parish honors Jesus’ mandate: “Let the children come to me.”
For those who are not aware, there is a monthly Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Metairie for “God’s Special Children.” I have appreciated celebrating this Mass. I remain grateful to Joy and Jay Zainey for their leadership and pastoral care of our children. The children are special not only to God but also to us, the church, the people of God.