A New Jersey parish has made headlines in recent weeks, after an eight-year-old boy with autism was reportedly denied Holy Communion. The parish said there had been a misunderstanding, and was working to ensure the boy could receive the Eucharist.
Misunderstandings, whatever the cause, happen in parish life, and can lead to feelings of frustration and disappointment among parishioners and parish leaders.
When parish issues arise pertaining to disabilities, one organization tries to help: the National Catholic Partnership on Disability. While not commenting on the situation of the New Jersey parish, Charleen Katra, the organization’s executive director, talked with CNA about how parishes can be welcoming to people with disabilities, and form them in the Catholic faith.
People with severe disabilities deserve Catholic catechesis and sacramental preparation, and parishes can serve them from a young age with open doors, open hearts, and dialogue with them, their loved ones, and even other parishioners, Katra told CNA.
“It’s a ministry of hospitality and evangelization,” Katra added.
The parishes most successful at this ministry don’t necessarily begin with training, she said. Rather, they begin with “a heart of hospitality.”
Katra’s organization helps to serve people who live with physical, intellectual, sensory, mental or emotional disabilities. The group provides resources for parish staff and leads training on meaningful participation in the sacraments, accessible parishes, and catechetical best practices.
“A lot of what I do is lowering everybody’s frustration levels,” Katra said.
“Don’t make it harder than it is,” she said.
“Jesus the Master Catechist has shown us what to do. And what to do is full inclusion. If God puts people in front of you, you serve them, to the best of your ability.”
“Open your doors. Open your hearts. Seek out training if you need it,” she said. “It’s about accompaniment, being with someone, being with them, being with their family, being what they need.”
The National Catholic Partnership on Disability was established in 1982 to help implement the U.S. bishops’ guidance on people with disabilities. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville now serves as the partnership’s episcopal moderator.
The U.S. bishops continue to provide guidance to address some concerns of persons with disabilities, their families and advocates, and clergy and others in pastoral ministry.
“Parish ministers and all Catholics should respond to the severely disabled and their families with tremendous love and generosity, and with a readiness to support and assist them,” Father Andrew Menke, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Divine Worship, told CNA.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops publishes Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities. The document, last updated in June 2017, runs to 16 pages.
People with disabilities, too, need growth in holiness. Their participation in the grace of the sacraments is “essential” to this, the guidelines explain. The liturgy must be “completely accessible” to persons with disabilities, because liturgical forms are “the essence of the spiritual tie that binds the Christian community together.”
“Accessibility involves far more than physical alterations to parish buildings,” the bishops said. “Realistic provision must be made for Catholics with disabilities to participate fully in the Eucharist and other liturgical celebrations.”
Catechesis for people with disabilities, for instance, “must be adapted in content and method to their particular situations,” the bishops continued.
The bishops' guidance encourages the inclusion of people with disabilities in typical catechesis classes, “unless their disabilities make it impossible for them to participate in the basic catechetical program.”
Even then, participation in parish life is “encouraged in all ways possible.”
Katra’s organization works with publishers to provide resources for catechists and leaders who are working directly in faith formation. It helps provide resources for those who have diverse learning styles.
Any work with parishioners with disabilities needs to be tailored to the individual, Katra said. Parishes “need to learn about the individual as well as his or her disability,” she said, adding that clergy should be consulted and advised about an individualized process and individual needs.
“Patience, compassion and empathy are necessary for success,” Katra said.
Parents are experts on this subject and always are a key resource, she added.
“They are with this person 24/7,” she said. “They know what causes them to get more anxious. They also know typically what will help them calm down and come back to a more balanced emotional state.”
Katra recommends that parishes provide to parents or guardians an information form that asks many specific questions about their loved one. Good questions seek out details about sensory needs, learning style and communication style, she explained.
She suggests parish leaders take a proactive approach to foresee needs before they arise.
Still, Katra acknowledged that there can be parish situations where a parish staffer responds “we don’t have anything” or “we aren’t trained to do this.” While there is likely no intent to hurt or offend in such situations, parishioners with disabilities and their families might find these situations to be hurtful and to fail to affirm their Catholic identity.
In such cases, Katra encouraged simply apologizing.
“We’re a Church. We’re about mercy, we’re about forgiveness,” Katra said as an example. “Start from a place of ‘I’m sorry, we’re sorry, if in any way we hurt or offended you’.”
“We want to serve you. We want you here. It pains us that we sent the wrong message. What can we do to make it right?” she added. “We’ll do some adaptations or we’ll get some training so that we can better serve not only you, but many other families that have the same or similar needs.”
“Move forward in a healthy way, in a relationship, because that’s what we are as a Church,” Katra advised.
In catechesis, sometimes instructors should provide more time or require less work. Some parishioners benefit from a “multi-sensory approach,” that is hands-on, visual and auditory. Parishioners could need “sensory-friendly” items like fidgets or squeeze balls, noise cancelling headphones, and weighted lap pads to aid their participation.
There are also communication styles and adaptations for people with difficulties communicating. For instance, someone who is non-verbal uses “prayer hands” to indicate the words “Amen.”
Parish catechetical leaders and volunteer catechists should be offered training and resources, like professional growth days, conferences and newsletters.
While some parishes might fear they lack the resources and volunteers to serve parishioners with disabilities and their families, Katra offered hope.
“We just have to use our resources wisely. Seek out those people who are already there in front of you. Don’t think you don’t have them, you do,” she said.
You can’t respond to a call you don’t hear,” she added, saying church and parish leaders “have an opportunity to call forth people from the parish.”
In Katra’s view, candidates for confirmation, most often in their early teens, are at an ideal age and level of formation to be asked to be involved in parish ministry and to help them find where their gifts fit.
Parishes should ask young men and women to be a “buddy” for a parishioner and to help include them in systematic catechesis, retreats, Masses and other activities. The goal is to have someone to offer help as needed, but “not to do for someone what they can do for themselves.”
Young people who respond to serve often show compassion, empathy and patience and can go on to careers in social work, special education, pediatrics, or physical and occupational therapy.
“At the same time, every parish has those kinds of professionals in their community,” Katra said. She suggested inviting parishioners or others who are health care professionals to provide workshops.
If a parish announces that it is forming a ministry for people with severe disabilities or that it is looking for someone to help train catechists, Katra predicted, “many people would be happy to do it.”
“A special ed [teacher] could do that in their sleep, almost,” she said.
Accessibility to parish community events and meetings might include sign language interpreters and large print materials.
Some parishes are remiss in not providing ramps, assistive listening devices, or other assistance “because a need has not been presented.”
Parishes sometimes don’t provide training or resources to support catechists or educators teaching persons with disabilities or they don’t anticipate the need, Katra added.
Even when parishes make plans for persons with disabilities, they can neglect to make plans in consultation with them.
Katra warned not to use outdated or derogatory language, but also not to “exceptionalize” people with disabilities, like describing them as “angels” or “using them as a means of sanctification” rather than “realizing they are agents of evangelization in their own right.”
Every Catholic has the right to be educated in the faith, to be prepared for the sacraments and to receive the sacraments, and to “respond to God’s call,” she said. “All persons have gifts to share and all persons are capable of growth in holiness.”
From a Trinitarian perspective, God invites every person to be in communion, she added.
“We are all broken and our path to wholeness always includes community,” said Katra, who added that anyone could become a person with a disability, either through accident or age.
“We’re all one car accident away from rolling in a wheelchair,” said Katra. “We have no guarantee that our abilities will be with us in any given moment. Sometimes you’re born with something, sometimes you acquire it later in life. Some are temporary, some are permanent. Some are visible, some are invisible.”
“We all have strengths, we all have weaknesses. Hopefully we focus, as a Church, on our gifts and our abilities than other things,” she said.